“None of the agencies are working to share the information,” Phillip in his guise as Clark tells Martha in last night’s episode of The Americans. “Each one wants to be the hero.” His weary description of bureaucratic breakdown and self-interest is a perfect framework for the episode. Interagency communications troubles have created the problem that Elizabeth and Phillip have to solve tonight, stopping a KGB agent who isn’t available to have his orders countermanded. Stan and Nina’s relationship is first enabled by the needs of one bureaucracy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and then complicated by the workings of another, the Rezedentia. And Elizabeth and Phillip, after a thawing in their marital Cold War, are forced to reckon with the extent to which their relationship is a bureaucratic arrangement rather than an organic, living thing—and to confront the possibility that they may need to engage the legal bureaucracy to dissolve their union.
“We have to stop an assassin,” Elizabeth says when she explains their assignment. “They need to straighten things out at the Center. Ordering hits, then countermanding them?” Phillip asks her in the understatement of the year. Part of his reaction is to the Center’s apparent incompetence—how do you hire an assassin and not retain the ability to stay in touch with that person? And part of it is that the organization is acting emotionally rather than rationally, making one decision and then changing its mind. It’s hard to devote your life to fulfilling the missions you’re given if they can alter at a moment’s notice, forcing you to be as dedicated to one goal at one moment as you were to its antithesis a moment before.
And the KGB’s display of incompetence is juxtaposed with the FBI’s reaction after three of its agents are murdered by the explosives expert Phillip and Elizabeth could shoot, but not neutralize, given his penchant for time bombs. Stan and his colleagues are personally shattered by the news, and how could they not be? Working for a large bureaucracy doesn’t actually strip the component employees of that organization of their humanity or capacity to react. But they don’t allow their feelings to dramatically shift their mission or operational playbook. You don’t go to war over the loss of three men, however badly you might feel about their deaths in your personal capacity as a functional human. If the Soviet Union and the United States are locked together by the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction, a concept that’s more promise than threat, the United States just demonstrated a command and control that could help it avoid self-destruction.
The prospect of mutual annihiliation is much closer for both of the couples in tonight’s episode. After the FBI gives Stan the keys to an apartment and tells him to start meeting Nina in a safe house, Nina talks to Stan about his understanding of his job, and implicitly, of their affair, in a conversation that’s The Americans‘ equivalent of Ellis Carver’s interpretation of the War on Drugs in The Wire. “FBI, you’re cops. Policemen in your hearts. Yes?” Nina asks Stan. “Mmm. Sometimes I wonder if you understand spies.” She could be asking him if he gets her potential to turn against her, but instead, I think she’s explaining to him the open-ended nature of their arrangement, that he not only won’t be able to exfiltrate her, and like a cop, close the book on a tidy investigation and prosecution, but that he could remain emotionally tangled up with her for a very long time. “What do you want with us?” Nina asks him of the staff of the Rezedentia. “Do you want to put them in jail? That’s how a policeman thinks, not how spies think. We want everyone to stay right where they are and bleed everything we know out of them. Forever.”
Carver may have believed that the War on Drugs couldn’t have been properly called a war because “Wars end.” Nina knew, twenty years before him, that it’s police work that ends. Wars, precisely becuse they can run hot and cold, can go on forever, depending on what position you hold in your country’s bureaucracies of conflict.
And back at their home in Falls Church, the Jennings are confronting the fact that they may have been a more temporary structure. “This isn’t an easy life we’ve chosen, but there’s no way to get through it without the truth,” Claudia tells Elizabeth. “In New York, Phillip was with the woman we assigned him to…If you start to think of your marriage as real, it doesn’t work. The men don’t think of them that way. it was an arrangement. Do you understand that? Better to live in reality, Elizabeth. Better for you. Better for us, too. Even after this, I trust you. I know you’d throw yourself on a fire for the motherland.” Elizabeth may be right that there are five different resons Claudia would want to poison her marriage, but in this case, she’s telling her agent the truth.
And it doesn’t occur to Elizabeth that it might be more important to try to figure out which of those five reasons Claudia has at the moment than to suggest that having reasons taints Claudia’s motivations. Understanding why the KGB wants to drive a wedge between Elizabeth and Phillip if, in fact, that’s what the organization wants, could help Elizabeth predict what they might do to her and her entire family next. It’s not only things with Phillip that could go bad if the KGB’s decided its in the Center’s interests to have Elizabeth working as a lone agent with nothing to lose. Paige and Henry, the part of Elizabeth’s life that she thinks is still good, could be at risk, too.
But instead, Elizabeth’s focusing on the fact that her marriage was arranged, and focusing her anger over it at Phillip. “We can do our jobs. we can fulfill our mission, the reason we were sent to America. But we cannot do this. We will never do this,” Elizabeth tells him when he begs for another chance. “We have to stop this. We were never married. We had an arrangement and it worked.” It’s a myopic, and potentially dangerous way for her to be thinking, and if Claudia wanted to redirect Elizabeth’s rage away from her and away from the KGB, she succeeded brilliantly in reestablishing Elizabeth’s committment and loyalty, and making it harder for her young agent to look at the organization that she’s given her life to. Mutually assured destruction might serve the KGB’s interests far better than the Jennings’ feelings.
“It’s a very modern country,” Phillip tells Elizabeth, emotionally exhausted. “People get separated all the time. You don’t want to be married to me? I don’t think the Center would even care.” But I think the Center seems to care very much. And Elizabeth and Phillip might do well to look at the larger organization they’ve given their lives to, and to try to figure out why.