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The Americans: “Salang Pass”

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The Americans loves depicting process. It’s where season three’s most edge-of-your-seat moments derive their tension: Philip rifling through Ted Paaswell’s home office in search of something to bug; the various protocols the Jennings must initiate in order to sneak Elizabeth past Paaswell and his buddies “Chicago,” “Tuscon,” and “Toledo.” In “Salang Pass,” those sequences are echoed in Philip’s stoned/not-stoned casing of Breeland’s office, a matter-of-fact scene of a man measuring the space inside a brief case that’s made unbearably tense by the teenage girl who might walk in on him at any moment.


There’s one major aspect of the Jennings’ operation that The Americans doesn’t show us, though, and it’s one I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout “Salang Pass”: How does Clark and Martha’s marriage keep going, anyway? Philip’s cover helps: As an internal investigator, Clark is presumably on-assignment most of the time; as an FBI employee, Martha understands that’s part of the “job.” But how often are they seeing one another? Does Clark keep all of his possessions at Martha’s, or has Philip told her he needs to keep a separate residence to keep up appearances? Do they have a standing date for dinners at Martha’s? Martha’s plan to adopt a foster child is continuing apace, so clearly she wants to change this arrangement. The fact that she’d even consider adopting a child with a husband she barely ever sees indicates that Philip’s still keeping up a good front—one that makes Martha’s arc more tragic by the episode.

But this isn’t a show about Martha, so it’s the relationship’s psychic toll on Philip that’s at the center of “Salang Pass.” Make that “relationships’”: In an installment focused tightly on the man of the Jennings’ house, we watch as Philip tries to maintain the identities he presents to not only Martha, but to Elizabeth, Paige, and Kimberly as well. In a visit with Gabriel, Philip receives assurance that this juggling act can’t be easy. Later, reminiscing with Elizabeth, he confirms this: As he was trained to do in the Secret Soviet Sex Offices imported from American Horror Story’s lost Cold War season, he must work to “make it real” with each of these women. Even Elizabeth, sometimes—the most heartbreaking revelation in an episode that’s more often tender than it is traumatic.


That’s an odd thing to say about an Americans installment in which a) Elizabeth crushes a man with a car, and b) Philip kisses an underage girl, but it’s true. In the show’s examination of parenthood, “Salang Pass” is a pair of rose-tinted glasses. (Another bit of identity crisis for the episode, one that’s not tied to Philip’s own pending persona scramble: The title of this wistful depiction of being a parent comes from the location where thousands of Russian soldiers met a fiery death.) In conversations between parents—and in one moment of quiet recognition on the Breelands’ porch—the episode separates The Americans’ kids from its offspring. Philip, Elizabeth, and Stan look back fondly on a time when they understood Paige, Henry, and Matthew, when they liked the same things, before the kids developed personalities of their own. In some ways, this is the thing Elizabeth wants to circumvent by bringing Paige into the KGB. As a spy, she can shape her daughter’s personality, maintain some sense of control over her, prevent her from being baptized in an expensive new dress.

That’s what’s so intriguing to me about the look Philip gives Kimberly when she wonders aloud about her father’s theoretical second family. Philip feels something here, but he can’t express it under the guise of James. He sees that Elizabeth was right to worry about Paige turning into Kimberly: Kept in the dark about her father’s (and maybe her step-mother’s?) real job, she’s come to resent Isaac. She misses the type of parent-child activities Philip and Stan yak about over beers; she misses the little rake and the big rake. Momentarily, the conscience that Gabriel warned about peeks over James’ wire-rimmed aviators and sees Philip’s own daughter, turning to religion to find the straight talk and omnipresent father she doesn’t have at home. This sudden recognition of his daughter in someone else’s feels relatable; the fact that Paige’s “rebellion” involves Christianity is what makes this The Americans. Either way, the emotion is deeply felt and deftly deployed.

As is what follows: Flying popcorn kernels and embraces that look more fatherly than flirtatious. The Americans is walking such a fine line with the Kimberly arc, and I’m really impressed with how the show is playing it more for the anguish it causes Philip and Elizabeth, and less for the empty salaciousness of a high schooler romantically pursuing an older man. In “Salang Pass,” Keri Russell works in pointillism, conveying Elizabeth’s feelings about what her husband is doing in small, meaningful dots that come together for a fuller picture of mixed feelings. She needs this plan to work, but she doesn’t want it to work, and the way Russell carries herself in the bathroom scene and the bedroom scene gives us that impression in such fine shades. No wonder she squashes Mr. “Five More Minutes” like a bug. She turns the object of his misdirected affection into the instrument of his death, a hunk of metal forever standing between him and the dinner table.

That’s probably a metaphorical bridge too far, especially for a script as crisply written as “Salang Pass.” There’s deep, meaningful conversation throughout—especially the aforementioned scenes of Philip and Stan’s beer summit and the Jennings’ pillow talk—but there’s also well-observed material like Paige’s reactions to her dad’s dress suggestions or Henry and Kimberly’s attempts to talk like adults. (Additional kudos to Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, and Julia Garner in those moments, balancing sincere expressions with adolescent posturing.) Even the plot-advancing conversations have an added pop to them this week, though those are also elevated by performance. It’s a treat to see Russell experiencing something approaching joy as Elizabeth draws Lisa into a web made of Coach bags and defense-contractor secrets, and this week’s scenes between Noah Emerich and Costa Ronin have me rooting for a future arc in which one of their characters gets made and Stan and Oleg have to hit the road, mismatched-non-buddies-Midnight Run-style.


Somebody’s liable to slip up soon, and the even money’s on Philip. He has to have his limits, even if he’s a professional and he’s trained for this type of work—unlike Zinaida, or so Tatiana tells us in “Salang Pass.” And when The Americans tells you something like that—for instance, “Martha’s sticking by Clark, even if he doesn’t seem to get over to her place that often”—all of the TV architecture around it is crafted so well that you can take it at face value and reserve your questions for more important matters. (E.g. “What do you think Mail Robot was up to this week?”)

Stray observations:

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week Five: C+. We’re settling into this season’s major wig arcs, so “Salang Pass” doesn’t give us much that’s new or novel from the hair department. Acknowledging the quick-and-dirty nature of the Northrop employee’s murder, Elizabeth does the deed while wearing what appears to be the hat from a children’s Royal Guard costume.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week Five: B. A Flock Of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away)” is as distinctive and era-appropriate as new-wave singles get, but I’ve never cared much for the song, beyond the doppler-effect guitar riff and the chorus. It’s perfectly placed within the episode, though, soundtracking a gathering of jocks who’d have heard the song on Top 40 radio or seen the video on the year-old MTV—though they’d probably shove Mike Score into a locker if given the chance.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? No, but if this foster-kid plan doesn’t work out, I think Martha and Clark would be able to give Mail Robot a happy home.
  • Did anyone mention Mail Robot? No, but here’s an excerpt from my Americans spec script in which Mail Robot comes to live with Martha.