Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Americans: “Arpanet”

Illustration for article titled The Americans: “Arpanet”

Todd: One of the things that both fans and detractors of The Americans can often come to terms on is the idea that the show isn’t particularly visually sophisticated. Its directorial choices usually fall squarely within the “classical filmmaking” box, and outside of a couple bravura shots from the two episodes Thomas Schlamme has directed, the show rarely goes in for directing that calls overt attention to itself. But I think “not particularly visually sophisticated” is a long way from “poorly directed,” and “Arpanet” offers a bevy of great scenes in which I get to prove my point. I’ll focus on one and mention a few others, so as not to belabor the issue in an episode that was another terrific installment in what’s shaping up to be a terrific season of television.

No scene reflects The Americans’ directorial style so well as the lengthy sequence set in the FBI safehouse, during which Nina submits to a lie detector test that Oleg has painstakingly prepared her for. (One of the ways to beat a polygraph turns out to be clenching one’s anus. This show is full of helpful hints.) I opined last week that The Americans is a show that captures small moments of physical intimacy as well as anything I’ve seen before, and the series introduces emotional intimacy between us and the characters via the time-honored close-up. Nina’s lie detector test is a bravura example of this precisely because of the close-up. There’s no trickery here, like Nina looking over to the corner and seeing Oleg standing there or a quick cutaway of the office in the Rezidentura. It’s just a shot of an empty space in a room, shot from Nina’s point-of-view. But once director Kevin Dowling establishes that, we’re firmly inside Nina’s head. Her eyes shift one way, and we know she’s lying (and thinking of Oleg), even if the machine is fooled. Her eyes shift another way—to let Stan know she knows he killed Vlad—and she’s telling the brutally honest truth.

Lie detectors are wonderful plot devices for TV shows, because they come with built-in suspense (will the character “beat” the polygraph?), and they also carry with them the possibility of heightened emotional stakes from all of the other characters who want to see that polygraph result come up in their favor. Yet the characters in “Arpanet” are constantly trying to detect each other’s lies, whether it’s Philip ordering what Charles Duluth is having when he can’t quite be convinced the old drunk has gotten on the wagon or Elizabeth figuring out what’s beneath Lucia’s anger about Laric. (She doesn’t have to push very hard.) Joshua Brand’s script also positions machines as perfect arbiters of human behavior, introducing first the polygraph and then the Arpanet (the early forerunner of this here internet box) as, respectively, a potentially disastrous incursion into Nina’s triple-agent status and a potential god. Then the characters set about sabotaging those machines. Man still wins, for now.

I love Brand’s script—as I always love his writing on the show—but for me, it was Dowling’s visuals that gave this episode the extra kick, similar to how last week’s episode gained so much from the framing in that ill-advised role-play sequence. Think, for instance, of how the camera tilts up toward heaven, then passes through the floorboards to reveal the monstrous beast of a computer that makes the university’s hub of the Arpanet go. Or check out when Philip—dressed as Janitor Jesus to infiltrate the computer lab—is suddenly revealed to that unlucky student who needs to go back to get his wallet while Philip is downloading computer contents to his rat-sized bug. (After so many modern technothrillers in which the information just needs to be put on one flash drive, it’s a kick to watch Philip have to lug around what looks to be the size of a TRS-80.) “Arpanet” is marvelously tense throughout, even when the characters are almost too stupid to be believed. (Would Charles really smudge up the numbers on his hand like that? Or not even write them down on a piece of paper in the first place?) Hell, the episode gains tension just from watching Henry sit around in a house the neighbors have left empty, playing Intellivision. (Just as Paige has learned very well how to lie from her parents, Henry has apparently inherited a skill for breaking and entering.)

During the scene in which he trains her to beat the polygraph, Oleg tells Nina that she must be a placid surface on the inside, one that’s concealing everything she has to hide and everything she has to lose. In some ways, I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for this season of The Americans: These characters are all keeping incredible, roiling passions locked up underneath placid exteriors and interiors. That makes the moments when reality intrudes all the more disturbing—but all the more effective as well.

Genevieve, did this make you nostalgic for ’80s computing power? And what about Oleg and Nina? Doesn’t that seem like a love match that will stand the test of time?


Genevieve: You mean the Nina who a couple scenes earlier swears to Stan that she’s his forever and ever? Yeah, she and Oleg are totes in it for the long haul.

Of course I jest. I admit, that last scene between them took me by surprise, despite the way this episode built up the emotional intimacy between Nina and Oleg during their polygraph-exploiting adventures. Not because I took Nina at her word to Stan—the way she looked at him when the polygraph administrator asker her if she knew who killed Vlad should make even him dubious of her loyalty—but because it seems like a pretty dumb move on Oleg’s part… or maybe it’s a brilliant move? I really can’t tell with that guy, but thus far this season he’s come across as far too calculating and shrewd to be swayed by Nina’s damsel-in-distress routine.


Then again, it’s a very good routine, well-honed over months spent being Stan’s personal rescue project. If Oleg truly has taken leave of his senses and fallen for Nina, I can’t blame him… and he’s certainly not the first to do so. Nina clearly has a thing for protectors, and they for her: Oleg marvels at the fact that she has “no armor, nothing to protect you except your wits, your courage, and your beauty.” He lists those qualities like they’re nothing, but they’ve done a pretty good job of keeping her alive and in the good graces of powerful men who could doom her with a word, but so far haven’t—first Stan, then Arkady, now Oleg. But she’s also playing all three of these men against one another in different ways: She tells Stan Oleg is a “peanut” and that Arkady has contempt for him—contempt that she shares with Arkady behind closed doors—but also subtly nudges Stan into handing over the surveillance reports that Oleg is after with a wide-eyed “Can you do that?” (Stan’s answer: “To keep you safe, yes.” Whooof, Stan, buddy.) She also reveals to Stan—but not, as far as I can tell, to Oleg—that Arkady is seeking approval to get Nina into the Illegals program, which would allow her, in her words, to get anything, including information on Oleg. Whether we (or Stan) should believe this claim is still an open question, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Nina is looking out for Nina first and foremost. Or, who knows, maybe she really likes Oleg. He seems to have pretty cool taste in music.

Team Polygraph is just one of many seemingly doomed partnerships we see in “Arpanet,” not all of which are of the romantic variety. Todd, you’ve already touched on Philip’s nearly disastrous team-up with Charles, and Elizabeth’s discovery of Lucia’s tendency to “burn hot.” But more potentially dangerous than either of those allies is Larrick, whose mere request for a meet-up agitates the Jennings; as Elizabeth says, “You keep a tiger as a pet, it’s still a tiger.” A tiger (or a monster, to use another analogy of Elizabeth’s) that, if you’re a highly trained deep-undercover KGB agent, you should keep a sniper rifle trained on at all times.


That scene of Elizabeth meeting with Larrick on the park bench may have featured the most tense moments in “Arpanet,” which is saying something considering the polygraph test and the computer-room break-in sequences.  (Introducing a character into a scene through the telescopic sight of a sniper rifle’s has a way of heightening the mood a bit.) Not only does his revelation that he’s disappearing to Nicaragua’s Selva Negra Cloud Forest to look at butterflies and mine harbors throw a huge wrench in the Jennings’ assignment, but the way Larrick divulges the information underlines the antagonism beneath the placid surface of their cordial conversation. (There’s that theme again.) And then, as he’s preparing to leave, he tells Elizabeth “It’s hard to feel safe anywhere… I’m surprised you came alone,” followed by a pointed look at Philip, watching from a nearby rooftop. What might Larrick have done if he hadn’t clocked Philip? Elizabeth’s face says it all: nothing good.

Despite all these tense scenes and doomed partnerships, though, “Arpanet” felt like a bit of a comedown after last week’s fantastic “Behind The Red Door,” in part because it spends so much time jumping around among its various tangled threads. But the stuff with Nina and Oleg was beautifully handled, and provided a much-needed anchor for an episode that went in a bunch of different directions at the same time. (Usually Elizabeth and Philip provide this anchor, so it was interesting to see a new relationship taking the emotional lead in this episode.) And even though it felt like a total digression in the face of all these high stakes, I loved the stuff with Henry breaking into the neighbors’ to play videogames, mainly because his goal is so obvious and pure in comparison to the inscrutability of… well, every other character on this show, pretty much.


Then again, taking that apple out of the fridge was a rookie mistake Henry’s parents would be ashamed to see him make. Why, it’s almost like dressing up like a spy in an old movie to go “undercover” to meet a real-life spy, which is how we get our requisite glimpse of Kate this week. (Segue of the week goes to: Me. Self-high-five.) Todd, it’s been three weeks since the Jennings’ new handler was introduced, and I still have no idea where she’s coming from or what her purpose is on this show right now, other than to deliver missions and exasperate Philip with her apparent cluelessness. This may just be a symptom of watching a show where everyone is hiding something, but I keep expecting more from Kate than we’re getting. Am I expecting too much?

Todd: I am all but certain that Kate is up to more than we’re getting right now, and I can’t wait for that other shoe to drop. Unlike with Claudia, however, I think we’re going to learn something that makes us realize just how much she’s on Philip and Elizabeth’s side (as opposed to how Claudia’s ultimate reveal was about how she’d messed up). Granted, part of this stems from the fact that Kate is played by the wonderful Wrenn Schmidt, who was so great on Boardwalk Empire and who deserves a great career. So I may be projecting a bit. But every scene we get with Kate makes me just a little more fascinated by her and a little more ready to figure out what her deal might be. She’s ostensibly been chosen because Philip and Elizabeth are important enough to the KGB that it wants them kept happy. But I have a feeling that conceals just about everything that might be her true purpose.


I’m not quite as down on this episode as you are. Yes, it’s a comedown after “Behind The Red Door” (and the gut-punch ending of “The Deal,” I would argue), but it would be hard to match up to what feels like a highpoint of the series as a whole so far. “Arpanet” is much more meat-and-potatoes throughout, but I like the way that it has the confidence to shift Philip and Elizabeth away from centerstage and give more of that time to the tangled web Nina is weaving all around herself. The series promoted Annet Mahendru to a regular this season, and I was intensely skeptical that it could pull off the tricky balancing act of making Nina such a vital character to the show. I shouldn’t have worried. I should know that by now.

Todd’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: B

Stray observations:

  • It’s ironic that the thing Stan really wants to know from Nina’s polygraph—if she loves him—is the thing he can’t ask her in front of the polygraph administrator. [GK]
  • I like the musical score when Henry is spying on the neighbors, then breaking into their house. It makes it seem like we’re suddenly going to start getting narration from a future Henry voiced by Daniel Stern. [TV]
  • I realize it was a fakeout, but what kind of bartender puts the juice in first? Come on. [GK]
  • I’m loving Noah Emmerich’s work this season. He’s so quiet and still, but his face is held so tightly that you can tell Stan is in complete agony. I’m not sure what his grand master plan is, but I can’t wait to see it inevitably unravel. [TV]
  • Paige couldn’t be here this week; she had to go to church. [GK]