This post discusses plot points from the April 10 episode of The Americans.
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.”