‘The Americans’ Open Thread: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been

This post discusses plot elements from the March 6 episode of The Americans.

Since its very first episode, The Americans has used its baroque scenario, which takes two KGB spies in an arranged marriage that serves as their cover as an ordinary American couple and plants them across the street from an FBI agent coming out of deep cover with white supremacists, as a way to blow out the biggest issues that face even ordinary marriages. This week’s episode took the idea that your spouse knows you better than anyone else—or as Curtis Sittenfeld would put it, ““Was this what marriage was, the slow process of getting to know another individual far better than was advisable?”—and reframed it a different way: what does it do to people to share profound secrets? What does it mean to betray them? And what happens if you share those secrets, as Elizabeth does with Gregory and Stan now does with Nina, with someone other than the person you’re married to?

Stan may have been drawn to Nina from the beginning because she’s an attractive woman who is apparently more independent than her fellow Soviets in Washington. But increasingly, the two of them are pulled together because Nina, unlike Stan’s wife, though in a situation of Stan’s own making, understands what he went through when he was undercover with the white supremacist groups he was investigating in a way Stan’s wife does not. “Listen to me, Nina,” he told her when they met in the museum. “I’ve been where you are. I’ve lived it. I know what it is to feel fear in every fiber of your being and not be able to show it. I can get you out. But you have to stay with me, okay?” When he tries to quell her fears about being caught, shot, put on a plain to the Soviet Union and being found inevitably guilty, Stan tells her “You won’t be. You can do this, Nina. We can do this,” with a conviction that’s born out of doing it himself. When Stan and Nina pull off the caper that plants the diamonds in Vasili’s tea and the camera with pictures of documents on it in his radio, Stan is simultaneously proving to himself that, despite his boss’s belief that he’s not a good liar, he still has the wit and skills to protect himself should he need to, demonstrating to Nina that he can protect her, and freeing her from having to sleep with Vasili—which potentially makes her sexually available to him. As awful a thing as it’s been for Stan to put Nina under this kind of pressure, The Americans has done a subtle, careful job of demonstrating how tied up Stan is in the idea that she can survive. Giving her a new life is a proxy for returning to his own: the success of each enterprise seems to depend on the other, and if Nina were to be caught or killed, I can imagine Stan withdrawing deep into himself.

That’s a risky equation for the health of Stan’s marriage. And the impact on his wife of not knowing about his life undercover and his work at present is clear, even though she’d likely be even more wounded if she knew how much he was sharing with Nina. “I get that you can’t tell me things, the secrets and stuff. But there has to be something you can share with me from work. Your boss gets on your nerves, your partner thinks he’s funny,” Stan’s wife asks him a little wistfully. And in return, he relaxes a little, but only enough to tell her the safe version of the story. “Sometimes what I do get scary. Not for me,” he says, avoiding revealing the emotional connection between himself and Nina. “You don’t have to worry about that anymore. But I have to worry about people. And today, it got pretty scary. But it worked out. It was a tough day, but it was a good day.” Stan may be in bed with his wife, but the relationship he’s putting work and emotional investment into is the one with Nina.

Elizabeth and Phillip, by contrast, find themselves torn from their homes by forces who first appear to be American agents, because while Phillip thought he and Elizabeth were functioning like a real couple, she was doing her duty and reporting her doubts about him to their superiors. “You told them. You told them I considered defecting. That’s why this is happening,” Phillip realizes, horrified, after finding out that Elizabeth wasn’t tortured, simply pressured with pictures of Paige and Henry, while Phillip, by contrast, was beaten and waterboarded. Elizabeth tries to convince him otherwise, but given what we’ve seen that Phillip hasn’t, we know she’s being partially untruthful when she insists “If I said anything that made them think, if I said anything, it would have been so long ago….I told them that you liked it here too much.” Elizabeth may have convinced herself that she wasn’t indicting Phillip by acknowledging that she had had doubts about him. But in reality, telling their superiors that she was no longer experiencing doubts about Phillip’s loyalties likely made Soviet higher-ups more suspicious of her than secure of him.

And where Elizabeth initially saw herself protecting their relationship, for Phillip, the revelation that she broke what he saw as real marital confidences is shattering. “I fit in. I fit in like I was supposed to,” he tells her. “And yes I liked it. So what? I was supposed to be able to trust you, and I did. And I never should have.” Later, Elizabeth tries to defend herself, explaining that her loyalty to the KGB actually makes the betrayal she experienced worse. “You’re not the only one who got hurt today, okay?” she tells Phillip. “I was ripped from my house, I was attacked by the people I believe in, that I trusted my whole life.” “Yeah, I think that says it all,” Phillip tells her bitterly. It’s an exchange that gets at the heart of the division between them, one that’s been at issue since Phillip discovered Elizabeth had been raped in training. He believes she deserves better, that she shouldn’t be loyal to an organization—and perhaps a country—that used her so cruelly, that she shouldn’t be asked to “do impossible things.” Elizabeth tends to believe that refusing to let a sexual assault break her, and proving her loyalty in spite of that obstacle should have made her immune. And in the moment she’s recognizing that, the moment in which she’s attacking Claudia, spitting “Tell whoever approved this that your face is a present from me to them,” the balance of power between them shifts. Elizabeth wants Phillip to trust and forgive her in a way that she hadn’t wanted previously—it’s been Gregory who kept her secrets, and whose secrets she kept before—just as he’s realizing he’s been betrayed and may not be capable of showing her that kind of commitment. It’s a brilliant and painful pivot by the show.

And it’s happening precisely at the moment when Paige and Henry are discovering the power of complicity themselves. After they’re stranded at the mall when, unbeknownst to them, their parents are detained, and calling home produces no results—Henry’s “Yeah, but you owe me,” when Paige asks for change is a lovely bit of character work—Paige decides they’ll hitchhike, and ends up in a situation with a striking resemblance to Joyce Carol Oates’ short short “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The man who picks them up may not have malign intentions, but he’s clearly something of a mess, at minimum giving Henry and Paige advice in a way that makes them uncomfortable. “You know, you’re definitely going to be a knockout in a couple of years. I’m not hitting on you or anything, but you’re definitely going to break some hearts. You know how dangerous it is to hitchhike? You’re lucky you ran into me and not some lunatic,” he tells Paige. “See, the thing is, I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff in my life. Things people should have talked me out of before I missed up.” In between the beer he offers Paige, the hints of “stupid stuff,” and the way he’s isolated them, Henry and Paige are right to be afraid. And if Paige is right to feel guilty over suggesting they hitchhike, Henry later feels bad for taking action to protect his sister, cracking the driver over the head with a bottle and buying them time to take off.
“What if he wasn’t going to do anything bad to us?” Henry asks. “He was a creep, Henry. What you did today took courage,” his sister tells him, before shifting back into appropriate big sister mode and helping him clean himself up.

Just as their parents have smoothly raised Paige and Henry in a lie without them knowing it, Paige and Henry work together seamlessly to preserve their secret, both out of a sense that their parents would worry, and because the experience belongs to them. “Shelly’s mom drove us home,” Henry tells their parents, who are too wrapped up in their own terrible day to doubt the story. If the person you love is the person whose secrets you keep, Paige and Henry have just taken their first step towards real independence from their parents, just as the secret circle that bound Elizabeth and Henry together has been shattered at at moment when it might have shone.