Genevieve: From the very first scene, sexual favors have played a big role in The Americans, both suggested and explicit. (Okay, usually explicit.) And until now, the show’s treated it pretty much as a given, a cost-of-doing-business element of spywork that’s thus far been regarded more as a narrative device and an emotional catalyst than as a moral quandary. “Comint” goes a long way toward changing that (and just in time, I’d say), lacing its cat-and-mouse surveillance plot with questions of female equality, objectification, and degradation, making for one of the ethically stickiest—and best—episodes of the show to date. (It’s also the first episode of The Americans credited to a female writer, newcomer Melissa James Gibson.)
While it’s by no means just the female characters using the suggestion of sex to get what they want—we’ve seen Phillip do it before and again tonight, and even Stan feints toward it in his conversations with Nina in this episode—“Comint” is very explicit about the different connotation and effects such things have for women, particularly in this time period. Claudia telling Elizabeth, “I won’t say this job is twice as hard for women, but it’s something close to that” right before bringing up the Equal Rights Amendment could be read as heavy-handed if it weren’t for the fact that Elizabeth not only just endured something horrible in the name of her work, but also had to deal with the well-meaning but ultimately patronizing reaction of her husband.
That scene between Phillip and Elizabeth calls back up the events of the pilot, where Phillip taking revenge on Elizabeth’s rapist was both a little too neat and sort of sold Elizabeth short. We know now that Elizabeth getting beaten by the source she’s pumping for intel about the FBI’s encryption technology isn’t the first time she’s experienced sexual violence in the name of her cause—making that rape seem less like an arbitrary conflict-generator in retrospect—and we also see now that Phillip has some pretty serious white-knight tendencies. Phillip taking revenge on the creep who ogled his daughter in a mall is one thing, but when Elizabeth asks him, “If I wanted to deal with him, you don’t think he’d be dealt with?,” it speaks volumes.
Which isn’t to say Phillip’s reaction is somehow sexist or unjustified; it’s not at all, but it is a little wrinkly when combined with Elizabeth’s assertion that “We have to do all sorts of things for our work, and it requires being a certain way.” Phillip is Elizabeth’s husband, yes, but he’s also her partner, and he’s constantly blurring the lines between the two. Elizabeth is much more pragmatic when it comes to the division—notice she leaves out the sordid details when telling Phillip her plan to juice the encryption guy—and while that often leaves her in the position of being the bad guy in their marriage, it’s born of the very different position she’s in as a female spy.
Make no mistake, this is all as dark and sticky as molasses, and “Comint” offers no easy takeaway on the subject, though it does bring Phillip and Elizabeth to an uneasy truce by the end—just in time for Elizabeth to once again be put in the position of doing something awful and demoralizing. The stuff between her and Phillip, not to mention this episode’s recurring theme of loyalty, serves to engender some sympathy for her before the somewhat shocking ending, when Elizabeth puts a bullet through the forehead of Udacha, a Department Of Defense contractor who’s spent 23 years funneling the KGB intel—including those antiballistic defense system blueprints—and is now seriously wavering in his conviction. Once again, Claudia serves as somewhat of a Greek chorus when she foreshadows this early in the episode, as she tells Elizabeth about a West German agent she once befriended: “We didn’t need him anymore, but he needed us.”
As I said, the theme of loyalty runs strong throughout this episode, specifically the boundaries thereof. Elizabeth’s loyalty to her cause has put her in some horrible situations—including killing Udacha—but are they as horrible as the alternative if she doesn’t follow orders? And Phillip’s loyalty to his marriage often runs counter to their cause, an instinct that could very well put them both in danger. Claudia decries the CIA for the lack of loyalty they shows their informants, but it’s nowhere near that cut-and-dried; as we see in this episode, people have all sorts of loyalties—to their work, to their marriages, to themselves—that often conflict with each other. And there’s no guarantee that that loyalty will be reciprocated, as evidenced in the increasingly complex web of informants and moles that’s driving the show’s main spy narrative.
This is all by way of turning the conversation toward Nina, who is asked point-blank by Vasili, her boss at the Soviet Embassy/ KGB Rezidentura, if she knows what loyalty is, and is told by Stan to “trust me,” as if she has no choice in the matter. (Stan’s difficulty picking up the language makes for some interesting moments this episode.) Nina and Elizabeth’s stories run parallel in this episode, both taking a mercenary attitude toward their methods of extracting information, and both living a life that, to paraphrase Elizabeth, causes them to wake up every morning worried about everything. (Stan also echoes Phillip somewhat in his confused dismay at learning how Nina got Vasili to talk.) Todd, what do you think of how Nina’s character was fleshed out this episode? And hey, did you get a gander at Martha’s sexy new shoes?
Todd: I did. They really show off her calves. (I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be speaking that way in the workplace.)
“Comint” is perhaps a little slower than the last few episodes, but it might be my favorite episode of the show yet, accomplishing a great deal of fleshing out of a lot of the characters, all without having any big moments where somebody stops and delivers a monologue about why they are the way they are. Even Claudia’s talk about her West German informant and the Equal Rights Amendment seems like it could be on the nose but more or less skirts that problem neatly. I said last week I’ve been waiting for the show to give us a better sense of why Elizabeth is the way she is, and I’d say “Comint” does an excellent job of just that.
In terms of plotting, the episode’s slightly less packed than last week’s—really, the only major plot turn is Elizabeth killing Udacha, and he’s somebody we’ve just met—but there’s so much fascinating character detail here. In particular, that scene of Stan and Sandra sitting at his kitchen table while he learns to speak Russian was pretty masterful. She’s dressed up to try to get him to make love to her; he’s practicing the language that will hopefully endear him to the person he seems more interested in (we think). But maybe it’s just a thing he’s doing. Maybe he’s really that uncertain of what he wants from his married life. Or maybe he’s literally haunted by a voice that reminds him of somebody else.
Nina’s turning into one of my favorite characters in this thing, and I’m enjoying the way that she’s turning into a pretty efficient spy, though I fear that her eagerness is going to get her killed, particularly now that everybody in the KGB is on the lookout for a mole. (Her sudden turnaround in how she treats her boss will surely look more suspicious in that light, and I doubt Stan will be able to save her when that moment comes.) It’s sort of like the show is using Nina to very roughly sketch in where Elizabeth was years ago, and I like the way both characters are able to weaponize their sexuality, in a way that makes their male confidantes very uncomfortable. Sex is the great currency of The Americans, and that makes a meaningful encounter all the more important.
I want to return to that scene you highlighted where Elizabeth gets out of the bad sexual encounter by, essentially, playing a part. We know she could put that guy’s head through a wall if she really wanted to, but doing so would blow her cover. So she has to play along and hope that he’ll step back from the brink and not force himself on her. The more weeks I watch this show, the more impressed I am with the many layers of Keri Russell’s performance. Matthew Rhys is doing fantastic work, but his role seems to have fewer depths to it, while Russell is constantly negotiating this tricky minefield and doing it with aplomb. This sequence is just the latest highlight from her: Elizabeth finds herself playing the scared woman who gets in over her head, but Russell at all times keeps a certain physical poise that lets you know she could snap this guy’s neck without a second thought.
What’s working so well about The Americans already is just how great it is at a scene-to-scene level, even when the master plots aren’t as interesting (though I’d say they were tonight). And I also like how confident the series is in our ability to remember where it’s been: Elizabeth telling Phillip he doesn’t need to be her “daddy” calling back to his beating of the man in the pilot, or Nina’s phantom presence in the Stan scenes. It’s a smart show, and the longer it goes on, the smarter it seems because the less it spells out everything.
But: Let’s talk about Elizabeth getting stuck in that car’s trunk, by far the suspense highlight of the episode for me! Genevieve, how often has that happened to you? It’s happened to me at least twice (that I can recall).
Genevieve: It’s never happened to me, Todd, but if it meant Phillip waiting for me with a coffee and vanilla crème donut upon my escape, I’d certainly consider it.
Considering I was just bemoaning a couple of weeks ago that Elizabeth has been taking a supporting role in the nitty-gritty spywork lately, I was pretty excited about the trunk sequence as well. Not only does Elizabeth get to take the lead in this escapade, sneaking from one car to the other while they’re up on the mechanic’s lifts, but she also gets to play the calm, collected badass when things go awry and she’s accidentally transported behind the FBI’s heavily guarded walls. For a second when she popped out of the trunk and removed her cat-burglar getup, I could have sworn she was going to take advantage of being in the lion’s den and further infiltrate the building; but of course, Elizabeth is far too practical to take such uncalculated risks, and she instead nonchalantly strolls past the armed guards with a subtle “see ya”—a great, compact moment of tension delivered perfectly by Russell.
Of course, it turns out to be all for naught. Even though Elizabeth gets the encryption codes from the trunk of the FBI car, facilitating the long-overdue meeting between Vasili and Udacha, Nina overhears this information while she’s, ahem, retrieving something from under her boss’ desk. She funnels the information back to the FBI, who change the codes, tipping off the KGB about their mole and sealing Udacha’s fate. (And, down the line, probably Nina’s as well.) It’s a fast-paced, somewhat confusing sequence of events that’s doled out quickly in the episode’s closing minutes, which come off a tad workmanlike in an episode that until this point hasn’t done much in the way of hand-holding. That’s a minor gripe though, especially considering the effectiveness of the scene of the FBI tailing Vasili, and especially the scene of Elizabeth doing what ultimately has to be done. It’s startling and sad—especially Udacha’s final words, “Did my friend send you?”—but it’s also necessary, at least from where Elizabeth’s standing. And as this episode illustrates, she’ll always do what’s necessary, no matter how distasteful.
- Another subtle moment of badassery from Elizabeth: She makes Udacha double-check her fake credentials before questioning him. [GK]
- Smart visual storytelling: Elizabeth’s gunshot spooks a flock of birds. The same flock of birds appears by the Potomac, letting us know where Elizabeth is roughly in relation to everybody else. [TV]
- Since the pilot of this show aired, I’ve been hearing “In The Air Tonight” everywhere. While that’s probably just me being more aware of its existence, I can only hope that “Tusk” will follow suit. Tusk! [TV]
- A nice moment: Nina washing her mouth out with Vasili’s perfectly prepared tea after servicing him. [GK]
- “What’s he doing?” “I don’t know… gazing?” [GK]
- I feel like I say this every week, but Phillip’s wig in the mechanic scene may just be his worst yet. [GK]