At the center of “Cardinal” are two conversations, one between Phillip to Fred (John Caroll Lynch, whose performance in Zodiac is perfection, and a terrific precursor to this), who thinks Phillip is an American intelligence officer and intends to kill him, the other between Elizabeth and a young Sandanista agent (Aimee Carrero), who has overdosed with her mark, a Congressional aide. The two sequences are nice little showcases for the actors, but they also get at what makes this husband-and-wife team excellent agents in their own ways. Phillip has a remarkable ability to appeal to his marks’ emotions, something we saw him do in a much uglier way with the black family he terrorized last season. And Elizabeth’s steel restores people to themselves–she’s a human finger down the throat.
Phillip starts from a position of enormous disadvantage with Fred: Fred doesn’t recognize him from Old Town, and he’s found Phillip, electrocuted, trying to tear his identity down to the studs. By the time Phillip comes around, he’s got bad burns and he’s trussed up. But one of Phillip’s strengths as an agent is that he’s curious about other people. He’s seen Fred’s glass chess set, his copies of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People–which was about to be produced as a mini-series–Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which is in keeping with this season’s theme of 1980s self-help culture. He’s seen Fred’s secrets, the models in the closet for the boy he’s not supposed to care about, and the Bo Derek Playboy secreted away safely in a drawer.
And so Phillip can talk to Fred, assessing him as a person as a means to nudge him into position as the chess piece that he is. “You’re doing great,” Phillip tells Fred, flattering his skills as an asset, establishing that they’re on the same team. “Those model kits, those model kits you have in his closet, they were gifts for his son, weren’t they?” Phillip asks, remembering Fred that he’s the kind of person who buys toys for a boy he’s seen only from afar, not the sort of man who shoots an intruder. “We don’t usually tell people about our kids, so you must have meant a lot to him.” And finally, Phillip gets Fred talking, forgetting the gun in his grief.
“Most people live their lives, punch their clock, but they never do anything, accomplish anything,” Fred tells Phillip. “His wife, and his daughter. God. That poor son left all alone. All that money, I want to give it to him.” It’s one of the best insights we’ve seen in The Americans thus far about why people choose to spy for the Soviet Union. Both Fred and the walk-in, who tells Arkady, “I want to do something really important for the cause,” are small, grey, bureaucratic men who happen to have come into access to important truths, who recognize that it’s the parts that make the whole. As Gad tells Stan, “Last guy who walked into the Soviet Embassy gave them the trigger designs they use on all their nukes.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other incentives, too. Poor Sanford got himself killed last week because he was so desperate for his $500,000. And Fred clearly wants to get the money that’s making him feel guilty off his hands, to give a boy whose family he inadvertently helped kill money instead of a model AT-AT walker from Empire Strikes Back. These motivations can coexist in single individuals, and often do. Phillip, by helping Fred focus on his higher motivations, knows that he’s focusing on the stronger bond to the cause.
Elizabeth reaches a similar point by a different route in her interaction in the alleyway with the young Sandanista, who’s in trouble after smoking cocaine and chasing it with pills of unknown origin. At first, she’s sharp with the younger woman, forcing her to get their pass-phrases correct instead of giving her credit for effort. And she’s direct and practical: her first job is to save this young idiot’s life, and she figures out what he took, forces him to vomit so he’ll recover, and then issues clear instructions. But Elizabeth is also conscious of the need not to drive the young girl away, and so she mixes her directives with reassurance that’s more bracing for being short and sharp.
“You’re doing fine. Things can go wrong, they usually do. It’s a part of the job. But we get through it. We’ll get through this,” she explains. “I want you to sit here, I want you to watch him. Can you do that?” When Elizabeth returns with something the girl can put in her stomach, she has more directions once her charge is ready to take them.
“When he wakes up, tell him you saved his life. And when he wakes up, tell him you saved his future. He probably wants to be a Senator, right?…Don’t party with him anymore. Be his girlfriend.”
This is sensible advice, but it’s self-protective, too: not partying means not overdosing, and acting like someone’s girlfriend rather than someone’s good time means fewer upsetting, scary moments, tenderness as a bonus for the work. It’s emotionally difficult, too, as we see when Nina types up her report of her latest encounter with Stan, explaining to Arkady “I serviced the subject orally before allowing him to penetrate me,” even as we see the expression on Stan’s face during their tryst, writing: “As instructed, I promised to try harder to obtain further details. I have reason to believe his feelings for me are continuing to grow deeper.” There is always a cost.
And that’s why, as she’s turning to leave, Elizabeth tells her new charge “Your revolution is beautiful, a foothold for us in Central America. we’re here to help you. Call any time.” Elizabeth has always been more of an ideologue than Phillip, and she can lapse into stiff party-speak when she encounters ideas that make her uncomfortable. But in moments like these, when she feels competent and confident, Elizabeth sometimes shines with belief, with her faith that revolutions are born and flicker into flame in dark alleys. We’ve seen a great deal of why Elizabeth might have cause to hate the Soviet Union: her rape in training, the difficulties of her marriage to Phillip, the deception Claudia perpetrated against her. In this dirty back street, after blowing up what was supposed to be “family time” with Paige and Henry, we can see why Elizabeth persists in a cause that gives her scope for her talents and her wild hopes.