This post discusses plot points from the April 3 episode of The Americans.
The Americans has been with us long enough, and debuted as a confident enough show that by its ninth episode, it has clear and distinct preoccupations and approaches. And it’s also in a place where it can pull all of them together as it did in “Safe House,” an extremely impressive episode of television that burnished Noah Emmerich’s chances for an Emmy.
There’s something fitting about the fact that this episode begins and ends with staples of American cuisine that are also examples of American excess. The Americans has made a habit of using Paige’s shopping habit, her trips to the mall, her Girl’s World magazines small ways to get at the allure and the danger of American consumerism, so it makes sense that the show would move on to the more visceral sense of taste and smell. “Can I have another piece of fried chicken, please?” Paige asks at the dinner where Phillip and Elizabeth tell their children that they’re separating. She and Henry spin off into a fantasy of fried chicken every day—or at least twice a week—a dream of delicious, deep-fried plenty, before being blindsided by another particularly American phenomenon: the prospect of their parents’ divorce. At the Beeman’s party, Elizabeth asks “Paige, do you want a hamburger?” Her daughter’s shrugged rejection is a refusal to participate not just in the meal, but in the allusion that everyone is all right. And when Stan tells Vlad “Nothing beats American fast food. It’s probably full of all kinds of nasty shit that will kill you, but it sure tastes good,” before shooting him in the head, he does so with a certain amount of pride in American lethality and American toughness, the ability to down a thousand hamburgers and still be fast enough to carry out an execution.
It’s also characteristic of the show, which has been an exercise in using geopolitics to illuminate intimate politics, to have a war between spies grow out of jealousy between men. Phillip is indulging himself, taking the affection that he can’t get from Elizabeth from Martha instead. “Clark, I’m in love with you. I’ve waited my whole life for you. And I would do anything for you,” Martha tells him. “Anything. All you have to do is ask.” All she wants, then, is for him to “stay with me. Please? Just this once?” And in giving her the comfort of him sleeping in her bed, Phillip runs smack into Chris Amador.
It’s possible that Chris is keeping an eye on Martha because her reaction to him interrupting her at the file cabinet made him suspicious. But it seems more likely that he’s jealous of her high-heeled shoes, her sense of renewed vitality, the sense that it’s the result of some guy other than him. “You’re just a guy who spent a night with a girl,” Chris spits at Phillip, when he tries to imply that he’s no one, rather than going for the spy angle. And after Phillip stabs him in self-defense, the misunderstandings escalate in precise accordance with the anxieties of the people who make the mistakes. Stan, terrified after his experiences underground, gets rough with Nina, asking her “Who put the finger on Amador? My partner.” Amador assumes that Arkady has been taken because he can’t believe that the FBI would step wrong, though as it turns out, and in keeping with the episode’s fast-food frame, Arkady’s been injured in a freak accident that keeps him from his regular run in the park. “Burnt it on a potato,” he tells Vlad. “It exploded in the microwave. They want to graft my skin. American technology.” Elizabeth, the paranoid interrogator of American culture, assumes that Amador is working them, rather than grasping for one triumph after death. “He fingers the head of Directorate S to protect a first tour officer?” she asks Phillip, certain there must be some bigger plan at work.
And what elevates the episode is not just that these misunderstandings illustrate the way terrible things can grow from small misperceptions, The Americans‘ own version of “99 Red Balloons,” but the specific damage these misperceptions do to Stan. He begins the episode bowing out the plan to get Arkady, telling his boss “I’m sorry, if this is extrajudicial, I would rather stay away,” which is probably the only time the term “extrajudicial” has been spoken on an anti-hero drama. But he’s changed by Amador’s disappearance, and I do wish The Americans, which thus far has been reluctant to explore Stan’s time under cover with white supremacists, had situated his reaction not just in Stan’s memories of his friendships with Amador, but in his own experiences with violent, implacable, ideological enemies of the United States. The lecture he gives Vlad in the safe house sounds like the kind of thing he might have picked up underground. “Do you hunt?” Stan asks him. “Hunt. Shoot. Kill things. Animals…When you shoot a bird, duck, or pheasant, say, your bird, your retriever, picks it up with his mouth. Soft mouth. That’s key…Your dog brings it to you and lays it at your feet. But sometimes when you shoot the bird, it’s not dead, just wounded…The bird goes limp like a rag. It doesn’t move. It acts like it’s dead. Doesn’t struggle or scream. It just goes limp. Don’t you think that’s strange?” Stan “You know what I think it is? Fear.”
And finally, it’s in line with The Americans philosophy of violence that Chris’ death hits everyone so deeply. “I wouldn’t let a dog suffer like this, would you?” Phillip asks Elizabeth. Both of them have killed before, but neither of them seem to be unaffected by the deaths even as they pile up. “How did he die?” Stan asks his boss of his dead partner, who tells Stan “Slowly. He was stabbed.” A murder doesn’t end with the death of the person who’s killed. It lingers.