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Doubt (and something itchier) creeps in on The Americans

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Keri Russell (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)
Keri Russell (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)
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The Americans

“Pests”

Season 5 , Episode 2

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It’s the look that Elizabeth gives that gets me. As the camera pulls back through the green stalks, tiny black specks dot her face, and she stares through the cloud of insects in disbelief. Even a hardened warrior like Elizabeth Jennings has to figure that the enemy has their limits. But every successive season of The Americans has redefined that limit. We’re way beyond stealth technology now. Here, in a greenhouse in St. Clair County, Illinois, is proof of something Elizabeth and Philip would not believe at the top of “Pests”: That the United States would sink so low as to tamper with the Soviet food supply.

Even war has its rules. But as the deputy attorney general demonstrates to Stan Beeman tonight, neither combatant in the Cold War believes the other plays by the rules. (Gabriel, in unknowing retort: “They used to have a Lincoln. Now they have a Reagan.”) Delicate forms of faith and trust are being undermined in the aptly named “Pests.” It’s an hour that’s heavy on negotiation and light on the espionage whizzbang, and for those reasons drags in certain spots. But it still pulls out a set-piece or two, like Elizabeth’s infiltration of the greenhouse and the latest exercises in Paige’s training regimen. Or that Eckert-Morozov family dinner at Bennigan’s, a garish display of American prosperity that even manages to pierce Tuan’s defenses. There are full essays to be written about these big scenes: The utter X-Files-ness of Elizabeth in the greenhouse (with a compare/contrast on the shows’ views of the FBI, relative to the eras in which they were produced); the symbolic choice of Bennigan’s (franchised casual dining masquerading as an authentic fern bar/Irish pub hybrid) and the ingenious set and production design in the scene (all that food, the positioning of the pitcher in front of Alexei).

Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)

But what really holds “Pests” together is a mood shared by the main characters. In different ways, Elizabeth, Philip, and Stan are beginning to doubt their missions. This comes through most clearly for Agent Beeman, who has the wheel for most of the episode. It’s a strong outing for Noah Emmerich, who has the camera all up in his face when he’s confronting his boss, the CIA agent, and the deputy AG about the next steps in the Burov case. Everybody else wants to put more pressure on Oleg, hoping to turn the trickle of information that led to William’s apprehension into a steady stream. But Stan feels a loyalty to Oleg (and, though it goes unspoken, Nina), and wants to keep his promise that this would only be a one-time thing. It’s noble, but not the type of thing he should do if, as he says to Philip while blowing off steam, he wants to be in charge of the whole FBI.

The Americans will need to have more Stan-centric episodes as these final two seasons play out, what with the circle of main and supporting characters having constricted so severely in season four. He still misses a lot of stuff, but “Pests” does a good job of playing him up as both semi-protagonist and threat to the Jennings. When he tells Philip that “everything’s not all right in Paige Land,” it leads to a tense exchange in the master suite across the street, Philip and Elizabeth now worried that Stan could discover their secret identities through no extra effort of his own. It’s an indication of what The Americans and Emmerich have been able to do with the character, taking a dope who merely got in the way of the Philip-Elizabeth action in the early parts of the series and giving him a depth that goes beyond the dissolution of his marriage standing in contrast to the strengthening of the Jennings’.

That increased profile aside, missions carry on in spite of Stan’s actions or desires: Oleg is contacted by the CIA in Moscow; the information he gave Stan led to William, but it didn’t prevent the KGB from securing a lassa sample. The sacrifices made to secure that sample weigh heavy on Philip and Elizabeth as they deliver the cooler to Gabriel in the cold open, taking long pauses and hanging their heads. Philip can’t even finish his sentence while describing what happened, saying Hans cut himself but failing to say on what. They look defeated in that moment—or maybe they’re just tired from all the digging.

Or maybe the Jennings’ appear less invested in the cause these days because Tuan is so invested in it. In only two episodes, the writers and Ivan Mok have painted a complex portrait of the fake Eckerts’ fake son, a figure of deep conviction who’s also way too eager to get at those Bennigan’s leftovers. (Unless those leftovers were a Monte Cristo, in which case his enthusiasm is fully justified.) He seems to me to be a greater danger to the Jennings than Paige at this point. He’s hotheaded, stuffed full of rhetoric, and much too convincing when he tries on his cover in front of Philip: “I’m like one of them. Do you know what the communists did to my country?” Compare that with the Hans we hear about in “Pests,” who went years without contact from his parents, who was due to see his sister soon. Hans might’ve had some chips on his shoulder, but nothing as potentially volatile as what Tuan’s carrying around.

Holly Taylor (left), Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys (Photo: Patrick Harbron)

In Paige’s “Pest” predicament, and the treatment Philip and Elizabeth prescribe, there’s one last link to that sense of doubt. She too is operating within a set of rules, and when she’s on the couch with Matthew, she stretches the limits of those rules. But the method for controlling emotions her parents teach her is designed to help her find her center, to return her to her roots, to make her think of mom and dad and the things she believes in the most, the things that are truest to her. As the skies grow darker, more of their allies die in senseless manners for greater causes, and the enemy goes to extreme lengths to weaken their people, this should prove to be a helpful exercise. It all comes back to the family. And the family must be protected from any little thing (or big swarms of them) that would do it harm.

Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season 5, Week 2: C. An average week that could’ve been improved if Elizabeth broke into that greenhouse looking like this:
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 5, Week 2: Inconclusive. There’s a song playing at Bennigan’s, but I couldn’t make it out. And it didn’t sound anything like this:
  • Was there any Mail Robot? We can only presume that Mail Robot has pursued its own escape from the everyday.
  • What are the odds that Stan’s new ladyfriend is also a spy?
  • I failed to report on my favorite piece of wardrobe last week: Tuan’s Garfield T-shirt. I think he’s repping The Dark Crystal shirt this week, based on the lettering I could see on the shirt he’s wearing at Bennigan’s. In the world of the show, the release of The Muppets Take Manhattan is six months away. He’ll make a big fuss about not wanting to see it, but I bet he’s secretly psyched for the movie.