The Americans: Secrets and Safety

 Posted by on March 13, 2014 at 5:37 pm  The Americans
Mar 132014

13AMERICANS-tmagArticleHas there ever been a good family secret?

Secrets are always a part of war, but they sure don’t do much for their holders. This is especially true for Elizabeth and Peter Jennings, a couple invested with secrets of all sizes. These secrets are gaining weight as time passes, adding to the siege mentality of The Americans.

The show’s growing darkness feels both specific to the Jennings family and dead-on for the era. The big-shouldered national pride of the Cold War era was a burden for many, but heaviest on those actually keeping the secrets. In this sense, Philip and Elizabeth have always been on the front lines.

Always. In a flashback to 1966, Elizabeth and Leanne talk about children. Leanne also gifts Elizabeth with a secret: she and Emmett have written their young son a letter, explaining who they really are and what they’re doing. This is apparently the kind of thing the Spy Manual says not to do, but Elizabeth is a vault. That secret is safe with her.

And keep it she does. As Elizabeth later reacts to the bloodshed in Vietnam, she also seems to decide it’s time to consummate her years-old marriage to Philip. “You’ll be a good father,” she tells her exhausted husband. Neither husband nor wife seems thrilled by the prospect. Hey, work is work, right?

More than a decade later, the now present-tense spy couple is still working. This week it’s an overnight assignment: the Navy-propeller thing. Everybody’s working, actually, in one way or another.

It’s not fun, Stan. It’s work. On myself. – Sandy Beeman

Sandy’s taking an overnight trip of her own, to absorb the stuff we’ll later recognize, around the turn of the century, as “Scientology,” from Werner Erhard himself. (Erhard’s version was ‘est’: your parents can tell you how much fun THAT was.)

This is fine with Stan, who’s spent a night watching Bruce the Soviet Embassy Walk-In do his laundry. He’ll spend the next day looking into Laundry Man’s background, while Creepy Paige Jennings does some background work of her own: looking for the woman behind the one extended-family detail in the Jennings home.

That’s a lot of recon for one episode, but it moves quickly. Stan’s investigation into Bruce leads him to the roof of a downtown hotel, where his target crouches among the clotheslines with a rifle, waiting. The former Vietnam vet is not to be deterred from his pursuit of “the real enemy,” his colleagues at the World Bank.

Ronald Reagan doesn’t care! – Bruce’s last words (?)

Stan, a damn good shot himself, takes care of this particular threat. He’s rewarded with a medal and a celebratory meeting with Nina. “If it weren’t for you, he’d have killed a lot of people,” Stan purrs to the Beautiful Human Tape Recorder — and hands her an even bigger strategic reward.

I love you. – Stan to Nina


Over at the munitions warehouse, Elizabeth and Philip are rocking some fake names (and seriously bad wigs) in pursuit of that damn propeller. As “Jackie,” Elizabeth runs into hapless Derek, a warehouse worker who discovers quickly that this woman is more bad news than he’s ever seen in one place in his life.

Do you operate the machine I’m looking for, Derek? – “Jackie”

Even when Philip arrives to signal their departure, “Jackie” can’t decide what to do with her frightened prey. She decides to let him go, with insurance: one of his sons’ photos, and the boy’s name. “Danny, right?”

Frightening as Elizabeth is, she’s got nothing on what Paige finds at the end of her bus ride. The kid literally walks into the home of a woman who appears to have dementia. “I’m glad you’re home, Shelly,” the woman says warmly, neither surprised nor rattled by the arrival of a creepy teenager inside her home. Nice lady!

Don’t be fooled.

Good evening, Philip. It’s Aunt Helen. Paige came to visit today. – Helen

This is not dementia. This is the split-second thinking of the coolest customer we’ve seen yet on this show, and she’s not working on the American side.

While Paige gets an earful from her Dad about lying (“This is the most irresponsible thing you’ve ever done,”) Elizabeth is comforting Jared, Leanne’s son, at the home of the family who took him in. “None of this is your fault,” she tells the boy softly, as he crumples into her arms.

Children need to feel safe, she’d told Jared’s foster mother. In that regard, Elizabeth does what she can: she finds her friends’ letter, and burns it. As we watch her face in the firelight — still impassive, despite her tears — it’s hard not to notice the high cost of keeping children, and secrets, safe.

A few last thoughts on this week’s episode:

Here Comes The Flood was the closing song, and I still know every word by heart. (Hear the 1990 cover here.) I haven’t thought about this song in years, in the way that we tend not to return to the symbols of our fear after the fear is gone. Still, I remember the years when songs like this said a lot about the weight of our wartime lives.

Is there anything scarier than being alone with a crowbar-wielding Elizabeth? In the generally creepy universe of this show, she is the darkest corner. Poor Derek.

Henry Jennings is a pretty great kid. I loved the subplot of the youngest Jennings wanting to “find the North Star,” known for its steadiness in the night sky. Of course that’s what he wants; how else does a happy kid begin to feel the instability at the center of his own life?

Paige, on the other hand. This girl is the least teenagery teenager I’ve seen, in fiction or otherwise; her defense for lying to her father pissed me off more than anything else, stupid bus ride included. “She’s the only living relative we have!” Ugh, the moral righteousness of youth. Spare me.

Philip is a pretty good representative of Greatest-Generation parenting, though. “I lost my father when I was six. SIX.” All that lecture needed was a bar of soap. Bravo.

Oleg hitting on Nina in the office is a cute recurring plotline. This week he presented her with a pair of hockey tickets, telling her to sell them if she didn’t want them.

Scalp them! It’s a capitalist term. – Oleg

Nina is a brilliant spy. Only a natural would know her mark’s defenses are lower when he’s enjoying a moment of triumph. Great job, Nina; watch your back, Stan.

Welcome, Aunt Helen. The real “family” member with fake dementia is clearly operating at a level even Claudia may not be able to touch.

Speaking of … where are you, Granny? Has anyone seen a middle-aged woman of generous build, maybe in an arcade somewhere? She’ll be playing Ms. Pac-Man. Approach with caution.


  3 Responses to “The Americans: Secrets and Safety”

  1. Excellent episode of a show that just keeps getting better…

    But am I the only one who thinks that Paige’s new friend from the bus is the operative that the Center sent to keep watch on the kids while Phillip and Elizabeth were out working?!? (One of them mentioned something to that effect when they were going out.) I think it’s pretty obvious that she is, but this show’s misdirection is so good that maybe it’s just a red herring!

    • I never even considered that. Great catch — and entirely plausible.

    • Wow. Nice.

      Granny’s right around the corner. Personally I think she’s cold-blooded enough to have killed the other couple, then use it to manipulate Phillip and Elizabeth. But of course I could be wrong.

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