‘The Americans’ Recap: “Covert War”

This post discusses plot points from the April 17 episode of The Americans.

“They kill us. We kill them. It’s the world we live in,” Stan’s boss says to kick off this episode, in an apt description of both the not-so-cold war between the FBI and the KGB and the approach The Americans is taking to its first season. One of the things I appreciate about The Americans is how lean and clean the show is—it’s the shark of television dramas. But “Covert War” left me with my first significant concern about the show: that it’s burning through characters and plot lines a little bit too fast.

One of the best things about “Covert War” was how much material it seeded for the future by reaching into the characters’ pasts. “He was the first guy I slept with. Of two,” Sandra told Elizabeth about Stan over Harvey Wallbangers—the orange juice in that cocktail repeats in Phillip’s dismal hotel room—when the two of them went out to drink, dance, and blow off some steam about the state of their respective marriages. It’s a revelation that clarifies how devastating it is that Sandra is coming to believe that her her husband is cheating on her, given his late nights, and the discrepancy between where he says he’s spending them and his office knows about where he is. And it also underlines the gap between Sandra’s more global innocence and Stan’s broader experience, something he’s tried to shield her from at the expense of their marriage.

The expansion of the relationship between Zhukov and Elizabeth was a nice touch, too. His lecture to her on the meaning of love was simultaneously a striking and adult definition of the emotion, and a good bit of spycraft training in how to play the long game. “Malish has taught me what it means to love,” he told her in Moscow. “Do you know what love is, Elizabeth?” “It’s a feeling,” she advances cautiously. “The most profound feeling,” Zhukov encourages her. “He isn’t particularly smart, he isn’t pretty, but I love him. You know why? Because I take care of him, every day, and in his own way, he takes care of me. If you take care of something, one day you will discover that you love this creature and your life would be empty without him.” And Zhukov also helps Elizabeth understand life in both the United States and Russia better. “She’s in a play group,” Elizabeth tells him of Paige at three. “There are no demands on children in America, no chores. All we do, all day long, is watch them play.” “Play is serious. It’s how we learn to read one another, and the world,” Zhukov tells her gently. “I don’t remember much of that as a child,” Elizabeth insists to him. But he tells her “Because of the war you never had the pleasure of playing,” reminding her that for all Elizabeth’s zeal, her rigid absolutism isn’t necessarily the Soviet ideal the two of them are fighting for.

Perhaps most intriguing, though handled least deftly, is our first hint into the details of Claudia’s past. We’ve known that she’s fought hard to be recognized given the gender bias of the KGB, and that she’s extraordinarily tough, given her ability to absorb a beating from the much younger and fitter Elizabeth. But when she tells Elizabeth “You’re not the only one who loved Zhukov,” it’s the first concrete thing we learn about her life, and she offers up a definition of love that matches Zhukov’s, in its own way. “Don’t look so surprised. We were a good match. When you’re a loner, there’s nothing as satisfying as finding another loner to be alone with.” Elizabeth doubts her story, and it’s not clear whether we should, too. Clearly, Claudia’s shown enormous capacity to manipulate and lie to Phillip and Elizabeth. But it also seems that maybe we’re supposed to heed Zhukov’s warning to her more than Elizabeth ever could. “Loyalty, intelligence, skills. But most of all you were chosen because of your fear,” Zhukov tells Elizabeth of why she was chosen for her mission. “Of surrender. Surrender for you would be an act of suicide. But not everyone is your enemy. These buds don’t look like much now, but in a week or two the garden will be bursting with color. Nature’s genius and easy to overlook. I have no more stories to tell you, Elizabeth. I lost my way a long time ago. I have lived for my work. For the party. Now I miss what I never had.”

The problem with all of this information is that we don’t have any time to sit with it. We’ve seen Elizabeth speak to Zhukov in the past and we understand that he has a particular trust in her, especially when it comes to Phillip. But our understanding of their relationship unfolds after he’s dead. We don’t have time to invest in him, in his vision of a good life, and of the KGB’s mission, so that we feel his loss in some of the same way that Elizabeth does. Similarly, we didn’t have much time to get to know Chris Amador before his unfortunate encounter with Phillip lead to his death by stabbing, and had some of his connection to Stan was filled in with flashbacks after he was dead. I don’t object to flashbacks in principal—I’ve actually really enjoyed visiting young Phillip and Elizabeth in the past. I actually think The Americans would benefit from using flashbacks or other methods to fill in Stan’s time undercover in a way it’s largely avoided doing so far. But I think it’s a problem when flashbacks are used as a way of generating emotional oomph and connection after an event, rather than The Americans taking more time to build to pivotal events so that we feel the impact of a death the moment bullet enders Zhukov’s brain in Moscow, rather than learning that we ought to feel something about his death over the 40 minutes that follow.