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‘The Americans’ Open Thread: Vanilla Cream Donut

By Alyssa Rosenberg on February 28, 2013 at 9:04 am

"‘The Americans’ Open Thread: Vanilla Cream Donut"

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This post discusses plot points from the February 27 episode of The Americans.

It’s not new for The Americans to discuss marriage, but this is the episode in which the show’s main theme ran most strongly through all three of the main storylines in play. When Elizabeth visits Udacha, she uses his widower status to make him emotionally vulnerable. “I’m very sorry about your wife. It was 35 years, right?” Elizabeth asks. “And eight months,” the man reminds her. She may be playing him, but when Elizabeth remarks “That’s really something,” you sense that she means it.

But what that “something” means, she isn’t exactly sure. After the defense contractor she’s seducing beats her badly with a belt under the cover of adding a little BDSM to their encounter—”It’s supposed to hurt,” he tells her—Phillip, newly enlightened to Elizabeth’s experiences with sexual trauma, refuses to accept that what’s happened to her is simply one of the consequences of her job she has to accept. But just because Phillip found out with Elizabeth in training doesn’t mean she’s ready to accept his protection. When he tells her “I’m going to deal with it,” Elizabeth is dismissive. “You’re going to deal with it? If I wanted to deal with him, you don’t think he’d be dealt with? I wanted the intel and I got it,” she tells him. “I don’t need you to fight my battles for me. It’s over.” But he isn’t willing to accept her independence in this matter. “Somebody beat the shit out of my wife,” he insists. “I’m not your daddy. I’m your husband, Elizabeth. What do you think husbands do?” “I wouldn’t know,” she spits back at him. And she’s still skeptical when, after their caper with the car (the best action sequence the show’s filmed so far), Phillip comes after her instead of leaving her to extract herself. “You didn’t have to pick me up,” she tells him. “I didn’t have to bring you coffee, either,” he explains. “Or a vanilla cream donut.” Left unsaid is that husbands, at least in Phillip’s conception, do the little things as well as the big ones. And when Elizabeth asks Phillip to “Show me another way” to live her life, she’s telling him that she’s willing to listen to what he thinks marriage means, and to accept some of his desire to be good to her.

And down the block, Phillip’s raquetball partner is having trouble living up to his own standards for what it means to be a good husband. When Stan’s wife comes downstairs in a new nightie, she tries to tear him away from his study of Cyrillic—meaningfully, given his mix-up in tone with Nina from earlier in the episode, he appears to be taking them from a robot—with memories of what their relationship used to be. “You know, a few years ago, before your long stint undercover, we used to go line dancing, you and I,” she tells him. “And we used to drink Chianti at the bar at the old Spaghetti Factory, and host bridge nights once a month. And we used to have those family double bubble blowing contests. And you knew your son’s three best friends’ names. Life was pretty frickin’ great, wasn’t it? Remember?” Stan has ideas about what it means to be a good husband, telling Chris that he should try to be nicer to Martha if he wants to win her back, and later snapping at him “What you don’t know about marriage, and family, and responsibility, and obligation, and answering to people on a one-on-one personal level for 23 years? I could fill a goddamn warehouse, Chris.” What’s harder for him is that he knows who he wants to be, and he’s failing to be it. Part of him got lost out there with the white supremacists, and he still hasn’t managed to recover it.

Just as all three storylines deal with marriage, they also touch on its inverse: sexual harassment and sexual assault. Stan may start out chiding Chris for his treatment of Martha, thinking of himself who wouldn’t follow up a repudiation of sexual harassment with an epic eye-roll, as his boss does after Martha complains about Chris’s remarks on what her new heels do to her legs. But in his warning to Nina, he ends up telling her to do more than he intended. “How did you get him to talk?” Stan asks in admiration after she reports back about the jittery agent. “I sucked his cock, just like you told me to,” Nina tells him, smoking cigarettes after the tea she brewed for her boss wasn’t enough to get the taste of him out of her mouth. Stan is genuinely horrified. “I never said that. I never said that. Nina, Jesus. I, I wouldn’t,” he stutters, in a scene that should go in Noah Emmerich Emmy reel. “One day you’ll be living a different life, alright? You’ll choose a new name for yourself. I want you to choose carefully, Nina, the name of someone who sleeps very, very well at night. Exfiltration is coming soon, but we’re not there yet. And in the meantime we have to just keep working for the good of all concerned.” In five episodes, I’ve learned enough about Stan to believe that he doesn’t see himself as someone who would prostitute out an agent. But his conception of himself as a nice guy is exactly what means that he can be rather blithe about the menace he poses, or that his transactions are profoundly unequal, and not just because he’s an FBI agent. Nina is a person with very little to trade, and when Stan told her she was low on time to prove herself, she traded it.

Elizabeth believes herself to have more autonomy in trading on her sexuality, and exposing herself not simply to a beating at the hands of a man she’s seducing, but what appears to be a lot of unprotected sex. But The Americans is staging an ongoing debate between Elizabeth’s steely insistence that she’s tough enough to handle sexual violence, and Phillip’s belief that she shouldn’t have to—and in doing so is turning into a running, and exceptionally powerful debate about feminism. “Is everything okay? I’ve been in this business a long time,” Claudia asked Elizabeth as they walked her dog in the park, articulating the core of Elizabeth’s position. “I won’t say this job is twice as hard for women but it’s something close to that…Have you been following the sad progress of this country’s Equal Rights Amendment? It makes me chuckle. These women here need to learn what you and I have known for years. You can’t wait for the laws to give you your rights. You have to claim them, every second of every day of every year.” Phillip believes that Elizabeth should be protected, not because she’s weak, but because he believes that she deserves better, just as he believes the KGB shouldn’t have asked them to risk themselves to get the clock into Caspar Weinberger’s study. “You know, we have to do all sorts of things for our work,” Elizabeth tells him. “And it requires being a certain way…You know what I wish, as I fall asleep every night? That I’ll wake up and not be worried.” “You can’t live like that,” Phillip tells her. And by the end of the episode, he’s trying to show her what that other way might look like. But a question remains: if doing their jobs requires them to be “a certain way,” can Phillip and Elizabeth both improve their relationship and keep doing what they have to do to serve Claudia’s demands. Phillip may have had an excuse to pull back from Martha, but he might not be able to avoid sleeping with her forever, whether he wants to make his marriage to Elizabeth real or not.

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