Genevieve: The Americans is far from the first dramatic series to ask its audience to root for an antihero, or even a villain, though it might be the only one to ask us to root for characters who are actively working to destroy the collective “us” of American society. “Root for” is a sticky term to apply to how we engage with the espionage Elizabeth and Phillip perform, given both the nature of their target and the historical hindsight that makes the question of their ultimate success a foregone conclusion. By coupling its main characters’ spy-related activities with their matrimonial activities, The Americans somewhat bridges—and also complicates—the disconnect between our presumed emotional reaction to each of those elements. But as this week’s episode demonstrates, the answer to why we should root for these characters who are technically the “them” to our “us” becomes much simpler: It’s damn hard not to root for the success of a well-executed caper story.
So while Elizabeth and Phillip’s frantic scrambling in “The Clock” is technically in service of obtaining information that could help the Soviet Union rain missiles down upon the United States, it’s hard not to cheer when they pull off the all-but-impossible task of bugging the office of the Secretary Of Defense ahead of his upcoming meeting with Margaret Thatcher and John Nott. It was smart of the writers to leave this story until the second week, when we’ve already established an emotional connection to Elizabeth and Phillip (or “Directorate S,” as they’re apparently known to their superiors), because the threat of discovery and, presumably, death that accompanies the task they’ve been handed is what makes it so suspenseful. That doesn’t work as well unless we know their complicated relationship with each other, their children, and their overarching mission, as established in the pilot.
The opening of “The Clock” turns the tables on last week’s pilot by having Phillip play the honeypot to Annalise (Gillian Alexy), a horny blonde he’s seduced as Swedish Intelligence Officer Scott Berman into taking covert photos of the secretary of defense’s office. This adds another important facet to Phillip and Elizabeth’s relationship—which last week seemed much more one-sided as Phillip listened on in pain to his wife’s recorded sexual espionage—but it also sets up the main action of the episode, as Phillip and Elizabeth attempt to infiltrate and bug that office via a cleaning lady named Viola (played by Weeds’ Tonye Patano), an operation that should take six months to set up, but that they’re being asked to do in three days because of the impending meeting. Getting Viola to do this not only means exposing themselves to her right away—albeit in funny-looking wig and mustache, but still—but also leaving almost no room for error. And this being a caper, there of course ends up being some error, first in the form of Viola’s gun-wielding brother, whom Phillip takes down in a knock-down-drag-out fight, then in the form of her pious belief that Jesus will deliver her son from the poison Elizabeth secretly injected him with (in a nifty nod to The Umbrella Assassination) to ensure her cooperation. Phillip and a well-placed pillow quickly relieve her of that notion, however, and Viola complies—after nearly getting caught for the second time by her employer’s well-timed entrance. (Annalise is similarly almost caught while taking photos. Either that office is jinxed, or The Americans is overly fond of the device of people getting walked in on at inopportune moments.)
The very real threat of failure that hangs over Phillip and Elizabeth’s operation not only makes “The Clock” a nice little suspense story, but it also helps further flesh out the characters’ world and motivations. Phillip’s chagrin over their superiors’ unreasonable demand, contrasted with Elizabeth’s belief that “If they’re asking us it must be necessary,” cements the disparity between their respective conviction in their assignment. But later, as Elizabeth muses over how her two children would adjust if the worst should happen, and tries to connect with Paige over bras and ear-piercing, it’s apparent that her devotion to the cause is far from blind. Phillip’s look of horror at Elizabeth’s ruminations and refusal to entertain anything beyond a “They’ll be fine” also demonstrates a personality conflict—pragmatism vs. sentiment—that is apparently going to continue to define this couple and their actions.
The Clock Caper is a good indicator of how The Americans seems to be handling its serialization, as it sets up future events—with the KGB’s discovery of the Americans’ ballistic missile shield—without necessarily setting them in motion. It’s standalone enough to be immediately satisfying, but significant enough to have repercussions down the line. Stan’s storyline is similar in this regard, as he pursues a Soviet Embassy employee/potential informant. Stan and Agent Amador shaking down the hi-fi guy for information (and beluga caviar, which Stan uses to fuck with Phillip’s head some more) is far less tense than Phillip and Elizabeth’s mission, and earns them some nice kudos from the president’s chief of staff, but them turning “the brunette” has major implications for the long-term narrative of this show. Todd, what do you think of this development, and of the episode overall? And while we’re at it, how come you never bring a nice caviar spread to these little meetings of ours?
Todd: Just you wait until the season finale, Genevieve. I’m breaking out caviar for both us and everyone in the comments section.
I watched both this and the pilot in rapid succession back in early January, and I actually liked this episode just a bit better. On a rewatch, I’m not as certain, but I do think this is a ridiculously strong follow-up to an already terrific pilot. In some ways, this episode has to do a lot of legwork in setting up how this show is going to look on a week-to-week basis. The incident with Timoshev last week felt in a lot of ways like the center of a movie version of this story, and considering how many of the conflicts in that episode arose rather abruptly (Phillip’s desire to defect foremost among them), part of me almost wonders if Joe Weisberg initially conceived of this as a movie, then condensed that movie story down into the pilot, then had to figure out how to proceed into a series.
Even if that’s not the case—and I’m probably wrong—there’s a fair amount of “second pilot-ing” going on in “The Clock,” what with the establishment of lots of elements I assume will play out in the weeks to come. We’ve got our first real look at Phillip and Elizabeth in the field, and I love how they almost seem to emerge from out of a particularly eerie horror film when their lives intersect with Viola and Grayson’s. (In particular, I love how Keri Russell affects a brilliantly dead-eyed stare, as though she’s a Man In Black.) We’ve got the real establishment of the travel agency as one of the series’ “home bases,” a place that the action can turn to when things need to settle down a bit. We’ve got the establishment of the very light serialized elements, as you pointed out. We’ve even got the first real establishment of the series’ emotional stakes in earnest: If Phillip and Elizabeth are ever captured, they’ll be separated from their children, almost certainly forever.
A few folks in comments last week were asking some of the very questions you opened with Genevieve, in that it’s not immediately certain just why we should sympathize with Phillip and Elizabeth, who are, after all, trying to tear down the United States from within. Antiheroes are most successful when we can identify with them on some level, and I find this particular motivation to be a compelling one when it comes to the idea that Phillip and Elizabeth have something worth losing. It also helps that the casting for Henry and Paige is solid. They’re not ostentatiously showy actors, but they are believable as kids, and that makes it all the more compelling when we see just how much Phillip and Elizabeth love them, each in their own way.
We didn’t get to talk last week, due to trying to avoid spoilers, about how Stan ends up the across-the-street neighbor of Phillip and Elizabeth. The first time I saw the pilot, I actually rather disliked this development. It feels incredibly convenient, and it makes everything feel just a little too… television-y, for lack of a better term. At the same time, I’m impressed that the show is more or less committing to this development, to the point that every interaction between Stan and his neighbors can be read as either Stan just trying to be friendly or Stan trying to fuck with people he suspects might be Soviet spies because he’s been trained to see enemies everywhere.
Yet in some ways, that’s the point of this show. When you’re trained to see everything through a certain lens, everything starts to look a certain way. Be trained to see the capitalist oppressors as such and you might miss the benefits you reap from said system. Be trained to see all Communists as inhuman monsters, and you might miss how the ones living next door are just like you. Everybody’s working off incomplete information on this show, and the more the picture starts to fill in, the more they seem to cling to their initial impressions.
Any final thoughts, Genevieve? And while we’re at it, any spoiler-y thoughts about the pilot that we didn’t get to share last week?
Genevieve: First of all, I’m not 100-percent convinced Stan’s sudden arrival is purely coincidental. (Nor are Phillip and Elizabeth, based on their bedroom debriefing in tonight’s episode.) There’s a good chance it is, because coincidence greases the gears of narrative, but the way this show is going—particularly the way we’re seeing the FBI’s clout increase under the Reagan administration—I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason for his family’s move was revealed to be based on suspicious activity in the area or some other tip. If nothing else, the uncertainty of that lends a nice flavor to Stan’s interactions with Phillip and Elizabeth, keeping them (and us) in a constant state of suspicion. Not only is this a helpful mindset to have when dealing with spies, it also adds another level—or two—to even the most minor of interactions. Is Stan trying to mess with his new neighbors because he suspects them, or is he just trying to do as his wife says and disengage from work for once, embrace the quiet, suburban lifestyle? Does he even know which he’s doing? That question gives extra weight to innocuous-seeming interactions, like the business with the caviar—which really was one of my favorite bits of this episode, particularly the way it was leveraged into a nice moment of Phillip and Elizabeth sharing some more tidbits from their past.
One last thing about “The Clock” we need to touch on, though: Annalise. Her emergency call to Phillip/Stan, and their subsequent conversation in the car, is festooned with red flags. When she abruptly exits and walks away from the car, following a flip-out where she first threatens to tell the police, then asks him to play make-believe with her, Phillip looks unnerved—and rightfully so. This is almost certainly not the last we’ll see of Annalise, and given her apparently, um, fluid mental state, that could be a very bad thing for Phillip and Elizabeth. (Elizabeth’s surprised reaction to Annalise’s photo—“You never said she looked like that”—indicates she could be a problem even if she is still on their side.) She’s another in a long line of uncertainties for a couple whose lives are increasingly defined by doubt and danger—and considering where they started off, that’s saying something.
- I like that this episode has some very brief asides about race that show the world these characters live in. Viola mentions that she can take her purse anywhere she wants because people don’t see her (and I love her boss’ friendly condescension toward her), while Stan’s partner briefly looks dismayed when Stan’s the one who gets the phone call from someone who just might be the president. The world of early-’80s D.C. is still very much a white person’s world, particularly when you’re running in circles of power, but there are ways to pluck at the edges of that. (TV)
- A less-weighty reflection of the era: Henry’s hockey-playing. We’re a year out from the Miracle On Ice, which likely inspired a few young kids to pick up a hockey stick at the time. I wonder how Phillip and Elizabeth feel about the fact that their son’s new hobby was (presumably) influenced by such a notable Soviet defeat? (GK)
- Another thing that didn’t work for me in the pilot: I just didn’t like at all that Elizabeth’s past motivation had to do with her rape. Rape is a plot point that’s hard to work into just about anything nowadays, because it’s so incendiary, and it’s rarely used in a way that recognizes that fact. I felt as though the pilot dug its way out of the hole it placed itself in early on with that point, but it was a near thing. (TV)
- This week in amusingly oversized ’80s surveillance devices: Annalise’s hidden camera, which requires a whole S&M-style harness to use, and the transmitter/recorder setup Phillip uses to pick up the feed from the SOD’s office, which apparently needs a whole car trunk to contain its bulk. (GK)
- I love how on edge Elizabeth seems at all times. Actually, both of these people seem like they’re just about ready to snap. (TV)
- Phillip is starting to give me some serious “Roger from American Dad” vibes with his disguises. Roger almost certainly has a “Swedish Intelligence Officer Scott Berman” getup in the back of his closet. (GK)
- I’m already envisioning an Americans-themed version of Clue: Elizabeth with the umbrella at the bus stop! Viola with the clock in the office! Stan with the speaker padding in the hi-fi shop! (GK)