The Americans: “Operation Chronicle”
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Owen Campbell, Keri Russell (FX)
Owen Campbell, Keri Russell (FX)

The Americans: “Operation Chronicle”

The sun peeks in like a killer through the curtain

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The Americans

“Operation Chronicle”

Season 2, Episode 12

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Genevieve: This season of The Americans has repeatedly tested Philip and Elizabeth’s commitment to protecting their children, both physically and ideologically. The latter has played out wonderfully through Paige’s newfound commitment to Jesus, but the former has been somewhat on the back burner since “Cardinal,” the second episode of the season, when Elizabeth wouldn’t let Paige and Henry out of her sight following Emmet and Leanne’s murders, except when she had to to go on an emergency mission to save Lucia. That conflict between Elizabeth’s duty to her children and her mission resurfaces tonight, and this time there’s a Larrick-shaped face on that shadowy figure threatening her children—and the child she abandons them to help.

It’s still not entirely clear to me why Larrick is after Jared when his more immediate beef seems to be with the Jenningses, but there’s no doubt at this point that he’s obsessed with getting to the last living link to Emmet and Leanne, planting a tracker in the kid’s backpack and watching him creepily from inside a house he’s (presumably) broken into. Elizabeth is barely one step ahead of him, scooping up Jared with the secret code Kate gave him and making him change his clothes, and ditch the backpack she doesn’t know contains a tracking device, before putting him on a train to the same upstate-New York cabin she recuperated at after getting shot. Larrick watched Jared get into the car with Elizabeth (whom he presumably recognized despite her wig and glasses, given that he seems to be semi-omnipotent when it comes to tracking spies), and found out from the station agent that he continued on without her, yet he went after Jared, not the woman on whom he vowed revenge for killing his friends. Why? There has to be a bigger endgame in play here—cold-blooded as he is, it’s hard to imagine Larrick wanting to kill an innocent—but it’s not yet apparent, to us or to Elizabeth, what it could be.

But Elizabeth has to put complete faith in that vague directive to “get Jared out,” despite not knowing who is after him or why or what will happen to him when he’s out; she has to do it, and she has to leave her children to do it. Granted, Philip stays behind with them, risking contacting the Centre from their home. (“What are the odds the FBI is signal-chasing in Falls Church right now?” Elizabeth asks him, ominously.) But it’s Elizabeth who Paige specifically needs in that moment, to help her pack for her protest-rally trip—something Philip apparently can’t do because blah-blah heteronormative gender roles, whatever. Something about Elizabeth breaking a promise to her daughter, not being home to say goodbye to her before she leaves, and Philip and Henry joking about Paige getting arrested feels awfully fraught, especially when it’s amplified by the very real danger Jared is facing in that moment. Paige isn’t in any immediate danger that we, or Elizabeth, can see, but it certainly feels like she is, which makes Elizabeth’s choice to go help Jared instead seem especially significant.

And that choice takes it toll on Elizabeth, who is not blind to the similarities between Jared’s situation and her greatest fears for her own children. She’s unusually skeptical about this mission, questioning everything—Why would the Centre tell Jared about his parents? Why didn’t Kate wear a disguise? Where is the Centre going to send him?—until she arrives at her real problem with all of this: What would happen to Paige and Henry in the same situation? Philip’s reassurances—Paige is smart, Henry is… well, give him a few years—aren’t particularly helpful or inspiring, especially when they’re followed by this episode’s ominous closing shot: Larrick outside the train station in New York, getting a lead on the truck that picked Jared up from the station, driving him off to a presumed safe haven. Even when Elizabeth has risked everything to get Jared to safety, he’s still not out of danger. (And, not for nothing, it’s not entirely clear if the greater danger is Larrick or the Centre, whose motives and intentions are even less apparent.)

But again, why is Jared in danger? The specific narrative machinations still need shaking out, but it boils down to a simple, heartbreaking answer: his parents. Like Paige and Henry (minus that whole breaking-and-entering episode), Jared is an innocent, and he’s lost literally everything—his family, his identity, the damn clothes off of his back—because of his parents’ actions, actions he’s just become aware of. And that awareness might, in fact, be the reason he’s in danger. No matter what Elizabeth does to protect her children, she’s put them at risk simply by being their parent. That’s a hell of a catch-22.

Frankly, Elizabeth’s storyline this week is so emotionally rich, it’s overshadowed the rest of this exemplary episode in my mind, as evidenced by the fact that I can’t stop writing about it. But the themes of protection and trust play out again in the Stan-Nina-Oleg storyline, though there are most assuredly no innocent victims in that triad. Todd, I’d like to get your read on Nina’s two knights in not-so-shining armor, but first, a question: I think the three things a person should focus on every day are health, growth, and community, don’t you?

Todd: I feel like screaming, “YOU’RE NOT MY SOCIAL WORKER!” in the vein of Cheryl on Archer, but first, let me dig into the adventures of Stan, Oleg, and Nina. I mentioned last week the way that this story has been isolated and backburnered from everything else, but I think that starts to pay dividends in this episode, as all three participants in the triangle make moves that are at once unforgivable and enormously unsympathetic. For me, this whole storyline—maybe even for the season—locked into place in the scene where Sandy tells Stan that she thinks maybe she’ll move in with her new boyfriend, rather than making Stan move out. The two don’t have a huge fight or screaming match. There would have to be enough passion left in their marriage for that. Instead, they have what almost amounts to an amicable business discussion about how all of this will play out. This is a marriage that’s lasted over a decade and produced a child, but it’s simply dissolving, because neither partner really wants to be in it anymore. If there’s a better example of The Americans’ chilly but emotional heart, then I don’t know what it is.

Yet this also underlines one of the season’s most important themes: The weapons of espionage are rarely weapons; instead, they’re usually people, turned into something deadly by circumstance and manipulation. (It’s for this reason that I’m paying attention to the return of Jared as a going concern with great interest. I think the KGB was using him for very particular ends.) Yes, Nina and Oleg have kept giving Stan shoves in the direction they prefer, hoping that he’ll turn on his country, but none of this would work if Stan had anything to hang onto. His relationship with Gaad has deteriorated to the point where his boss won’t even look at him when they’re having a quick conversation, and his marriage is completely gone. The only thing Stan has in his life is Nina, and that’s something the Soviets can use to slowly reel him in. I’ll admit to having occasional impatience with this storyline this season, but this episode put all of the cards on the table, and it revealed how strong the show’s hand was in this particular area.

In particular, look at that scene when Stan returns to the safehouse to find two Soviet goons standing over a beaten Nina, Arkady sitting smugly at the desk. In the back of my head, I knew that this was part of the Soviets’ ultimate play to get Stan to do what they wanted. But it didn’t change the fact that the bruises were real, that the hurt on Nina’s face was obvious. And for as much as she agreed to be beaten to keep up the ruse, the whole thing has introduced enough of a rift between Oleg (who was surely in on this from early on) and Nina that even he seems aware there’s no way back from it happening. When he presents her the big envelope full of money, it’s to get her out of Washington and into the heartland somewhere, where she can hide out until the Soviets forget about her, the kind of dumb hope that can only exist when you truly love someone. But it also seems like a quick parallel to the Sandy and Stan scene: Oleg is trying to dissolve this partnership as kindly as he can think of, because he knows that there’s no way to back away slowly from what happened. Nina will always look at him and see someone who had two men beat her—even if it was for a cause they both believed in.

When this season began, I had trouble imagining Stan ever betraying his country. Now, as we head into the finale, I have trouble imagining him not doing so. The Americans is a slow burn—almost defiantly so in a TV culture that increasingly favors plot burn and big twists above all else—but that’s what makes its big moments so monumental to me. I suspect that Stan won’t betray the government—the FBI vs. Soviets setup is too valuable to the show, and rupturing that dichotomy even a little bit could really harm it—but less because he’s that good of a guy and more because of something physically keeping him from doing so. (I have some speculation about this, based on a throwaway line from the computer tech, in the strays.) Yet just the decision, just contemplating that possibility, is a major change from the Stan we saw in the pilot. This kind of organic character growth isn’t as in vogue right now as it used to be (much more popular is the slow revelation of back-story motivation, which Game Of Thrones and Walking Dead have popularized), but when done well, it’s still one of my favorite things.

And between the two of us, we haven’t even touched on the Clark and Martha stuff, which was also harrowing and terrific. For instance, did you know Martha has apparently known all along that her husband wears a toupee? Well, she has, and she says she doesn’t mind. She’s also procured for him a bunch of top-secret files—files that he almost seems a little too interested in flipping through in front of her. (For a second, I thought he was being set up, but I’m not sure the show would entrap us like that.) But Clark draws the line at having kids, and the answer devastates Martha. The more this season comes back to the idea of having children and of not being able to protect them, ultimately, from your own sins, the more potent it becomes, and I love the way everything is tying back to that very thought in the end.

So, Genevieve, is it just as hard having parents as it is to be a parent?

Genevieve: I don’t know, all I know is, I don’t believe a word that comes out of Paige’s parents’ mouths. And neither should she. It’s interesting—and a great example of this show’s skill with the slow-burn storytelling—that last season ended with Paige snooping around in her parents’ laundry-room lair, which has played out this season in her growing skepticism toward her parents’ various explanations and excuses. (“Did a plane full of your clients crash?”) Philip seems legitimately spooked when he hears Paige trying to listen in on his phone conversation with Elizabeth, and rightly so—she is onto them, even if at this point her biggest fears seem to be that one of them is having an affair. Again, her growing awareness links her with Jared, and makes her as much a danger to herself as to her parents.

Of course, this is a pretty spy-specific parent-child situation, so though it’s almost certainly informing Philip’s refusal to have children with Martha (that and, you know, it being a terrible idea for everyone involved), it’s nothing he can share with her to ease her pain about his position—a position, it must be said, Martha probably should have asked about before marrying Clark. Martha’s naiveté about her relationship with Clark can be, and often is, heartbreaking, but it’s especially tragic when it’s highlighted by the fact that she isn’t an idiot, and can be very shrewd about some things. And I’m not just talking about Clark’s “toupee”—though Philip’s reaction to finding out Martha isn’t as fooled by his disguise as he assumed is amazing. No, Martha’s greatest bit of observation—one she also shares with Stan—is that the FBI’s secure files are anything but, often left unattended to scoot around the office on top of the mail robot or left on the floor outside the records room, where she says “anyone could take them.” Anyone like, say, a deep-cover KGB spy. That’s quite the carrot to dangle in front of Philip; even with the files she brought him in hand, there’s surely more information that’s valuable to the KGB lying around the FBI office. We’ve been predicting her demise for about a season and a half now, but Martha’s held on all this time because she’s a valuable, if unknowing, weapon in the Directorate S arsenal—a weapon that might prove very destructive as we head into the finale.

Genevieve’s grade: A
Todd’s grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Henry is very excited for a movie that’s coming out in the summer, and I almost wish the writers hadn’t eventually identified it as Wrath Of Khan. But his excitement for it is charming. [TV]
  • “Another day, another no-dollar.” Good to see Henry’s inherited Philip “April Fools” Jennings’ sense of humor. [GK]
  • Fun choices in set design: When Stan is trying to purchase a car in a fashion that skirts legality, he’s framed by red, white, and blue bunting in the background. [TV]
  • I know that the show was filmed right in the center of polar vortex season, and that accounts for all of the snow that’s been everywhere this season. Ostensibly, this episode takes place in April, but some scenes appear to be set in the Arctic. However, this accident of the weather has been a surprise benefit for the season, which gains something from the chill. [TV]
  • My guess: Echo is something that can’t so easily be removed, another thematic parallel in the spy story to the children of KGB agents living and working in the U.S. [TV]
  • Todd, your comment about how Gaad won’t even look at Stan anymore, combined with Gaad’s invocation of Amador last week, reminded me how important Stan’s former partner was to his character last season. Sure, Amador was kind of a goof, but his absence is felt this season in Stan’s spiral. Maybe what Stan needs more than anything right now is a friend (one who isn’t also a secret KGB spy). [GK]
  • I see the Jennings kids are enjoying that classic breakfast cereal, Cap’n Munch. I hear it stays munchy, even in milk! [GK]
  • This week I’m taking the “poor” we usually affix to Martha’s name and giving it to Jared. Poor, poor Jared. [GK]
  • Next week: Fred wears special shoes to collect top-secret paint samples! Apparently! [GK]
  • What if the mail robot turned out to be this season’s real Big Bad? [GK]
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