I’ve been rewatching all of Mad Men in recent weeks, and one of the things that’s struck me about the show on a second go-round is precisely how broad it is, from its limb-removal via lawnmower, to the bluntness and bigotry of Mrs. Blankenship, to its frequent use of vomit. The show’s silliness and sometimes obviousness are a counterpoint to the often opaque natures of its characters’ motivations and the slow burns of its plot arcs. I mention this to begin a consideration of this week’s The Americans because of how austere the show is shaping up to be, and how clear its lines are. I don’t think these are faults, or that they make the show boring—The Americans can do an action sequence or a domestic scene and make each hit like very few other shows on television, and do them equally well—but because there’s something fitting about the show’s clarity and nakedness given its exploration of absolutists on both sides of the Cold War.
This week’s episode divided into three very well-defined tracks: the escalation of the FBI from an investigative agency to a body on a war footing, the impact of that kind of escalation on the people who practice it, and the limits of the actual appeal of Phillip and Elizabeth’s Communist ideals. It was an elegant and painful triptych.
After Amador’s death, the FBI mobilized to respond, and Stan and Chris’s boss rallied his team with rhetoric that served as a sly reminder that the militarization of law enforcement dates back further than the War on Terror. “So, um, I knew Chris when he started here at CI. He’s— he was a good agent, a good friend, just…a good man. I’m sure you all have your stories about him. I was a little hard on him sometimes. But he did a lot of his department and his country,” he explained. “And now here’s what wer’e going to do for him. we’re going to take every resource we have, every ounce of energy and focus, and we are going to hunt…And we are not going to rest until they are behind bars, or better, until we zip them up in a body bag.” In that moment, he’s just a step away from Mark Strong in Zero Dark Thirty demanding lists of people to be killed. And later, he told Stan “It may be a secret war, but it’s a war. We have to fight like soldiers now, and your’e one of our best…In a war, blood gets spilled. That’s how it goes.”
But one of the strengths of The Americans is that it reveals the hollowness of that pep talk, in this case in a pair of scenes in which Stan and Phillip are each confronted with the impact of what they’ve done in killing Chris and Vlad. There’s something incredibly sad about Stan seeking out Phillip in the hotel room where he’s living out his separation, telling him “No offense, Phil, but this place is kind of depressing,” and then unloading about his friend’s death to his neighbor, who is the author of his misery. “He was stabbed,” Stan explains, and Phillip, for reasons of both friendship and self-preservation, asks “Who did it?” “Bad guys,” Stan tells him decisively, unaware that his confidant is the author of his misery, and that Phillip stabbed Chris in self-defense in a fight motivated by jealousy rather than international intrigue. “We’re going to find them.”
And Stan himself has to face the kind of responsibility that Phillip does when he meets with a distraught Nina. “Vlad is my friend. My friend!” Nina tells him. “I’m sorry you lost your partner. I am. I lost my friend. It’s a really bad day, yes?…Vlad was just getting his guts up to tell him next year he was joining medical school. He wanted to be doctor. That’s all he wanted to do with his life…If you can, I want you to find out what happened to Vlad, how this happened. I want to be able to tell his family something.” Stan is stalwart with her, but he breaks down with Sandra later, agonized both by his guilt and his sense that he can’t be fully honest with her. “You know most agents never have to pull the trigger, but that hasn’t been my destiny,” Stan says. “If you want ot have a family, if you want to be in a family, that’s what you do…The world that we live in is a little darker and a little uglier than I think you know.” He may have gone to Phillip’s hotel room at first, but that he can return to and confide even that much in his wife suggests there might be more hope for his marriage than we expected.
And while the men are off wrestling with their guilt about murder, Elizabeth, normally much more stalwart in the face of America’s charms than Phillip is, finds herself forced to confront her desire for flexibility and choices when Gregory’s crew becomes the target of the FBI investigation into Amador’s death. At the beginning of the episode, she’s her old self, snapping at Paige “You get to dress how you want, use the phone, watch TV. You do not get to speak to me like that. Are we clear? ” her Soviet childhood coming into conflict with the freedom Paige has grown to expect. When Claudia explains that Gregory needs to be sent away, she warns “Moscow can be a frightening prospect for someone who hasn’t seen the world.” Elizabeth wants to believe, insisting that “He’s devoted to the cause. I think he’ll like it there.” But as they spend their last evening together, it’s clear both that he has no real interest in going so far away, whether it’s from her, or from America. He wanted to change his own country, not to flee to a bastion of the ideology he wanted to use to change it*. “They got Chinese in Moscow? See, that’s one problem,” Gregory teases her over their last dinner.
His love for her, his declaration that “That’s why I fell for you…Because you’re committed, uncompromising, and stubborn…Don’t take him back. Find somebody else. He’s going to soften you up. Find somebody that will love you for being so strong,” ultimately convinces Elizabeth to defy Claudia’s orders to take him by force. And she frees him to die a particularly American death that’s also an act of loyalty to both cause and Elizabeth, a suicide by cop set to the tune of “To Love Somebody.” More than most people, there’s a certain kind of light that never shines on spies.
*A note: I thought it was smart for The Americans to acknowledge what had seemed like a historical slip, the suggestion that Soviet recruiting among Civil Rights movement activists was successful when it largely was not. By setting up Gregory as an exception, the show gave him specificity as a character while clarifying the record.