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

The Americans: “Cardinal”

Illustration for article titled The Americans: “Cardinal”

Genevieve: “Things can go wrong. They usually do. It’s part of the job.”

That’s Elizabeth counseling a frightened Sandinista agent in the midst of a mission gone bad, one involving a Congressional aide, coke, and pills, but it may as well be her reassuring herself. Elizabeth’s brief sojourn to aid this woman is one of the few moments in “Cardinal” when she lets her children out of her sight—and one of the few moments she does much besides gaze worriedly out the window, clocking every potential threat to her and her children, from the neighborhood jogger to a suspicious-looking work crew. It’s a little jarring to see Elizabeth so frightened and (relatively) timid, after a first season of her assuming the role of the heavy in the Jennings’ marriage. She’s holding down the homefront while Philip plays super-spy, donning his skeevy-electrician guise to check up on Emmet’s contact, and playing nurturing absentee-husband to a sick Martha.

Knowing what we do about Elizabeth, she’s just as anxious as Philip to get out there and seek out the truth behind Emmet and Leah’s murder, but that desire now comes second to her desire to protect her children: She stops decoding the signal from Moscow we see her listening to in the opening scene, because she doesn’t want to leave the kids alone downstairs; and when the distress call comes in from the Sandinista agent, and she’s forced to leave her kids, she does so only after whisking them away from the house and the watchful gaze of the work crew to hide them in a theater showing Raiders Of The Lost Ark (and doubling back on the highway in case anyone’s following them). Compare that to last season, when Philip and Elizabeth would regularly leave their kids at home alone in the middle of the night to go on missions. When Elizabeth asks Philip at the end of the episode—back together in their bedroom, where they belong—“How are we going to live like this?” he tells her, unconvincingly, that they’ll get used to it, like they did before. But things aren’t like they were before. Something went wrong.

But no one knows exactly what went wrong just yet: Not Philip and Elizabeth, not Arkady and the Rezidentura, and certainly not the FBI, who haven’t even made the connection between the hotel-room murders on the news and Directorate S. And neither does Fred, the man who handed off the message to Philip in last week’s episode. Fred represents Philip and Elizabeth’s best chance of finding out who killed their comrades, but he hadn’t even made the connection between the deaths on the news and “Paul,” his contact and, it turns out, friend. The scenes between Philip and Fred are interesting, and not just because they’re the most tense, heightened moments in an episode that stays at a pretty low boil compared to last week’s explosive premiere. After Philip wakes up from being electrocuted by Fred’s mysterious floor-box, he learns that not only did Emmet open himself up to this outsider, he opened his family up as well—Fred knew their son, bought him model kits as presents, and wants to leave him all the money he got for sharing information with the KGB. (Philip assures him it’s unnecessary and that the boy will be taken care of, but even he doesn’t seem very convinced of that.) When Fred guesses, correctly, that he saw Philip’s son with him during the hand-off, Philip offers a half-hearted “We’re not really supposed to talk about that,” knowing that Emmet did talk about that, and because he did, his son is an orphan (and only alive at all thanks to dumb luck).

But Philip does learn something useful in his meeting with Fred: The information he gave Philip, which has been set aside as the Rezidentura scrambles to figure out what happened to its agents, was time-sensitive information regarding settings on a machine in a propeller plant. The very same time-sensitive information Oleg is pestering Nina about getting from Arkady, who’s busy dealing first with the Emmet-Leah fallout, then with a walk-in to the Rezidentura, World Bank employee/Vietnam vet Bruce Dameran—who is now on Stan’s radar as well, thanks to Nina. Todd, how do you feel about all this science-and-technology-based intrigue at the Rezidentura? It takes us quite a bit outside the Jennings’ sphere, which I think is where we both generally prefer to spend our time with The Americans; on the other hand, it puts Stan back in the game and gives us more time with Blondie-loving feminist Oleg.

Todd: I think it all ties together, because this episode—and this season, maybe, though, granted, one should never draw conclusions based on two episodes—is all about the characters’ weak spots being exposed and possibly exploited. Philip and Elizabeth have their children, the one thing that ties them inextricably to the country they’re ostensibly working to bring down. Stan has Nina, the woman whom he’s gotten completely in over his head for. Nina herself has this tangled web of allegiances she’s weaving, which could fall apart at any moment, while Martha has a fake marriage that could also fall apart with the slightest tug from someone in the know. And then there’s the United States itself, so secure in its technological advantage, yet all the while realizing that that very thing could become its Achilles’ heel should it fall into the wrong hands. Thinking of it that way helps me be more intrigued by the stuff at the Rezidentura, which feels less compelling than the other story threads in the episode, at least at this early date.


“Cardinal” is also a second episode, which means that it has to do a lot of table-setting. Much of this episode is just taken up with making sure that all of the right pieces are in place for the season’s story engine to go forward. If “Comrades” was the explosion, the violence that lurks over everything that follows, then “Cardinal” is just like that electric box in the floor, the one that doesn’t immediately suggest its danger but packs more of a punch once you explore it further. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of episode, with an hour that’s more setup than punchline. It’s a necessary evil at this stage of the season. But it also sort of means that we’re repeating some of the points that the premiere made—particularly in regards to Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship to their kids—while making sure everything else is maneuvered just so.

In particular, I’m a little sad that poor Martha (who now seems to have the adjective “poor” permanently affixed to her) has gotten so little to do so far this season. She almost feels like something the writers are setting up for much further down the line, actually, as having her find out her husband’s true identity seems like something that won’t happen for seasons on end. So instead, the show is already laying in how much trouble this new arrangement is for the Jenningses, and it’s giving us a taste of how having Martha as a part of his life on a more permanent basis might be an even more serious headache for Philip than he was counting on. See, Martha wants to switch jobs, and that opens a whole host of problems for Philip, who needs her in the FBI office to keep spying on Gaad, Stan, and the whole crew. Martha was, at one time, an asset, but now, she’s his second wife, and she has a life of her own that she wants to keep leading.


It’s that subtle dance between pressure points, weak spots, and actual control that makes up so much of this episode. For instance, when Philip is in captivity, theoretically, Fred has all of the control. But we know this show—and Philip—well enough to know that he will be able to get out of this situation, because he’s unflappable in these sorts of predicaments, coolly calculating and always finding an exit strategy, even when things seem most dire. In fact, I’d wager one of the most important things to notice in this episode is just how much Philip and Elizabeth’s reactions seem to differ. The thought of losing his children certainly throws Philip for a loop, but in that last scene, I read it almost as if he really did want to believe the two of them would get used to it. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, always the true believer last season, has found the one area where she comes just a bit unglued. Is this potentially a clichéd route to go with her character? No doubt. But at every moment of this story, Keri Russell plays all of those frantic, terrified emotions so perfectly that I don’t really care. This is the one situation Elizabeth isn’t remotely prepared for, and it has her rattled.

All of which brings me back to Paige, who gets much further in her search for the truth about her parents than I expected her to this soon. One of the things I love about great serialized television is when a storyline suddenly starts unspooling much more quickly than I was thinking it would, primarily because the characters are intelligent and taking agency. The Americans has always been a cooler, drier show than a lot of its cable drama kin, but it very much shares with them the sense that when these stories start to take on their own momentum, it’s best to follow them. Giving major storylines to teenagers is kind of a crapshoot on these sorts of shows, but Holly Taylor seems more or less capable, and I’m intrigued to see where this is all going. Because if there’s one thing this season is increasingly revealing, it’s that Philip and Elizabeth ultimately can’t protect their children from the world outside. Sure, they can keep the wolves who mean them harm at bay, but they can’t keep their kids from growing up into the people they’re going to become. No one can.


What do you think about Detective Paige, Genevieve? And let me raise a horrifying prospect for you: Is Martha pregnant? Or is she really just sick? (C’mon! This is TV! People don’t just get sick for nothing!)

Genevieve:  Well, that's a horrifying scenario I admit I hadn’t considered, mainly because I don’t think of fever and the sniffles as traditional early signs of pregnancy. Which isn't to say that The Americans wouldn’t go that route, but man—given what happened to the secret wife and offspring of Rob after he was killed in the pilot (the baby shipped back to Russia, the secret wife found dead of a “heroin overdose”), I would really hate to see what Philip's KGB overlords would do to a child conceived outside of the established plan for Directorate S. I like to think Philip would account for such a thing, though—slipping birth-control pills in her tea or something—if only because I can't bear the thought of that happening to poor, poor Martha. (Just thinking about it has inspired me to append another “poor” to her name.)


But I think Martha’s career aspirations are a bigger potential problem for Philip/Clark right now; he managed to talk her out of that gig in the Equal Employment Opportunity Office and into an application to be a clerk for Gaad, but I doubt this is the last such opportunity for Martha that will present itself this season. Even if she does move up the ranks at the FBI, as Philip wishes, how long is she going to keep secretly recording her superiors for the benefit of a spouse who can’t even make it home to bring her soup when she’s sick? We joke about how pathetic Martha can be, but she’s not exactly an idiot, and now that she’s gotten what she wants out of Clark—a marriage, secret though it may be—she may not be quite so acquiescing anymore.

But Paige is the more immediate threat, in that she seems to have inherited her parents’ natural suspicion and talent for tracking down information. I’m still not entirely clear on the path she was following, tracking down the address where Elizabeth was staying during her absence—she seemed to be asking the operator for a different town than was listed on the postcard—but her gut instincts seem remarkably well-honed for someone who got herself and her brother sorta-kidnapped just a few episodes back. Paige’s suspicion is just barely becoming apparent to Philip and Elizabeth—in last week’s episode, after she walked in on them, Philip made the point that probably wasn’t the first time she’d gone snooping—and it’s hard to say whether the events of last week's episode are going to make them more watchful of her, or provide the distraction she needs to find out some real dirt on them. When she does—and I really think this is a matter of when, not if—it’s a whole new ballgame, as Philip and Elizabeth can't exactly deal with Paige in the same manner they usually address threats to their mission. Kids change everything—which is why we should all really hope Martha just has a bad cold.


Genevieve’s grade: B+
Todd’s grade: B+

Stray observations

  • “Clark, I don’t want to be a victim.” Oh, Martha. Martha, Martha, Martha… [GK]
  • That scene early in the episode in the travel agency is the one I referred to in my piece on visiting the set for the show. Noah Emmerich really did briefly worry that spotting the clock in the travel agency as the one from his mother’s house was meant to be a clue that would cause Stan’s synapses to fire. And who knows? Maybe it is now. [TV]
  • Fun visual gag: Philip spots a couple of Sherlock Holmes books while snooping in Fred’s home. [GK]
  • It’s 1982, yet the Jennings family has yet to catch up with Raiders Of The Lost Ark? For shame, Jennings family! You’re blowing your cover! [TV]
  • Huh, Fred’s copy of Playboy is remarkably free of photographs of naked women. Guess he reads it for the articles. [GK]