This post discusses plot points from the March 13 episode of The Americans.
Last week, I posited that on The Americans, the working definition of marriage is that “the person you love is the person whose secrets you keep.” The show seemed to double down on that theme this week, showing what happens to marriages, the real one between Sandra and Stan, and the one between Elizabeth and Phillip, which Elizabeth wants to become real, when one partner in each relationship carries a secret he can’t share with his wife.
The possibility of Irina has been there since the early episodes of The Americans, when we watched Phillip crumple up a photograph of her and commit with a bright-eyed enthusiasm meant to transmute grief into joy to getting to know Elizabeth. I’m torn on the idea that the KGB would have taken the risk of pairing the two of them for the assignment, unless either the organization doesn’t know about their romance, which seems unlikely, or it needs to use it. If much of The Americans has been concerned with Phillip’s reaction to the news that his wife is a survivor of sexual violence and his difficulty dealing with the fact that he can’t protect her from it happening again, this episode reversed that dynamic. Phillip may be the only person Irina could handle doing something tremendously ugly but necessary to her, beating her face and then having sex with her to leave evidence that would make it plausible that she’d been raped after she was unable to seduce the Polish dissident who was their target. Trusting someone to hurt you without going so far as to render the pain, emotional or physical, unbearable, is the flip side of trusting someone to protect you.
And the assignment leaves Phillip with two secrets. First, he’s had sex with Irina again, though I think it’s an open question whether or not the context of it means Phillip is telling Elizabeth the truth when he insisted that “Nothing happened.” And second, Irina has raised the possibility that she and Phillip have a son. I’m not sure whether I believe it’s true that they have a child. Irina’s decision to go off the grid would have terrible consequences for her son, if only likely forestalling his military career, once her KGB handlers realize that she’s given them the slip. And when Phillip asks if it’s true they have a child, Irina’s bitter response that “Only duty and honor are real, isn’t that what we were told?” is ambiguous. Maybe she means the boy doesn’t exist. Maybe she means that while Phillip got her pregnant, she can’t really think of her son as his child. Maybe the idea of him is a test for Phillip, to see if he’s still loyal to Elizabeth after their shared ideal. But in any case, he’s an unresolved question, and it’s difficult for me to imagine Phillip exorcising the possibility of another child of his from his mind, much in the same way he never really forgot Irina. What consequences that shard of an idea has for his ability to commit to Elizabeth remains to be seen.
Elizabeth doesn’t know about Phillip’s newly-acquired secrets, but back in Washington, as she, Henry, and Paige join the Beemans for dinner, Sandra Beeman confesses that knowing Stan has secrets is eating at their marriage. “I miss talking,” she confides in Elizabeth. “I mean, I understand. The crazy hours. National security, it’s not like you can turn it on and off.” When Elizabeth commiserates in the understatement of the year that “Marriage is hard,” Sandra lays out her philosophy of building a family: “Well, it’s not for sissies. That’s for sure. But at the end of the day, you just choose to keep going or you don’t…we’ve been married for 20 years. That’s a lifetime. It has to count for something.”But if Sandra can commit to Stan despite her fears and doubts, it’s easier for her because she doesn’t have secrets of her own that are pulling her away from their little home in Falls Church. Stan, by contrast, does. Dragged from his desk by Chris Amador (whose dubious dating advice deserves a Tumblr of its own) despite his insistence that “I’m not a bar guy…The kind of guy who goes home when the bar is closed,” Stan finds himself feeling lost somewhere between the reality of his married life and the free-floating landscape where Chris feels at home. Stan isn’t as crude as Chris, who tells Stan “You say ‘Hi, can I buy you a drink.’ She’s thinking ‘I wonder if he’ll go down on me even if I don’t take a shower.’” But the fact that Chris has gotten him to go out at all makes Stan realize the tenuous connection he feels to his married state.
And so he calls the person who shares his secret, who is functioning as his wife even though she’ll never wear his ring. “Are you drunk?” Nina asks him. “Maybe,” Stan tells her. “A little. Enough.” After they sleep together, Nina tells him tenderly that she’s reaffirming the very thing that brought them together in the first place, the magic circle that keeps their confidences safe. “You don’t have to worry. What happened, happened. I wanted you. It never has to happen again,” she explains. “I’m not going to hurt you or use it against you. smile. It’s okay. You Americans think everything is white and black. For us, everything is gray.”
But afterwards, Stan realizes there’s more to defining love than keeping secrets: you have to be able to protect the people you love, too. “What is the right time to exfiltrate a source?” he asks his boss, only to get a jaunty negatory: “Never. There’s no gold watch in this business.” Stan views his promises to Nina as a matter of his word, but he’s emotionally entangled, too. “She’s not an ingenue, Stan. She’s a spy,” his boss warns him. “She could eat us both for breakfast. Has she eaten you for breakfast?” Maybe, and maybe not. Nina learned from Stan, after all. But the point isn’t really whether or not she might betray him. It’s that Stan’s divided himself between a wife he can protect from the terrible knowledge of what he does, and what danger he believes the world is in, and Nina, who can share his understanding of what a frightening place the world has become, but whose ability to share Stan’s view of the world is directly dependent on his continuing to put her in danger. Even if he exfiltrates Nina, she’ll never really be safe, as has been clear from the pilot of The Americans. And even if Nina’s safe, how can Stan be with her without revealing himself as compromised — and without ruining the thrill of stealing time with her?
In seven episodes, The Americans has not just reversed the polarity between Elizabeth and Phillip, putting her in a position of asking him to love her and being frightened that he’ll say no, but between the Beemans and the Jennings. The former started out as a family happily reunited after the terrible fear of Stan’s time undercover, and has become riven by secrets and lies. The latter started out fatally divided by their untruths, and they’re still broken. But even if Phillip isn’t sure if he can love Elizabeth, and even if he’s still lying to her, they’re having conversations that the Beemans aren’t — in part because Stan’s never home. “I would try,” Elizabeth tells Phillip after he returns to New York. “Will you try?” “Yes,” tells her.