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

The Americans: “Stealth”

Illustration for article titled The Americans: “Stealth”

Todd: “Stealth” is the “get everything set up for the last two episodes” episode, the “holy shit, has this show gotten tense this season” episode. Every moment of it crackles like bombs are about to start exploding all over. And some of them do. Kate loses her life at the hands of a vengeful Larrick, who strings her up from her ceiling fan and then snaps her neck. Philip learns the ultimate secrets of RAM—radar absorbing material—from a cancer-ridden Zeljko Ivanek. And Elizabeth agrees to let Paige go on a church outing, so long as she’s also working to weaken the U.S. military by trying to stop the flight of planes carrying nuclear weapons. (I have a friend who really wants there to be a sequel series about a disillusioned Paige as an American spy in her late 20s. After this episode, I’d say he might get his wish.) But for the most part, this is an episode of traps being set, of things waiting to spring, as the show’s writers and directors see just how tightly they can wind things before they begin to snap.

In particular, the trap is about to be sprung for Stan and Nina, who both learn that Nina’s going to be sent back to the USSR and put on trial for treason. The difference is that Stan doesn’t learn the crucial dependent clause here: She’ll be sent back if she can’t get Stan to betray his country by sharing information on the stealth program that Bakalov back in his homeland can use to help the Russians keep pace with the Americans in this arena. Stan’s being set up, everything about his life from his crumbling marriage to his dangerous connection to Nina being used against him, that he might get caught in the trap Arkady is so carefully setting up for him. (It’s here that I’ll say that I sort of doubt Arkady is telling the truth about Nina being sent back to the USSR. I think he’s using it as a ploy to drive a wedge between Oleg—who now knows that Nina spied on her country before becoming a double agent—and Nina, while also making sure Nina toes the company line.)

If I’m forced to pick an outlier in this terrific season of television, I might point to Stan, who consistently feels—by design, I imagine—as if he’s starring in some other series entirely. Indeed, when Philip dropped by the Beeman house to ask if Henry could interview Stan for a school project on his greatest hero (a weirdly truncated plotline that came out of nowhere), it was a bracing reminder that these two characters occupy the same space and are working on the same problems. Yes, I intellectually know that, since Stan, after all, asked Jared about whether he had ever seen Philip and Elizabeth last week, but it’s also been fascinating to watch the show so thoroughly isolate Stan from everybody else in his life, just in time for Nina to turn the final screw that might push him over the edge. Stan was such a vital part of season one, and his hunt for Philip and Elizabeth was so important to that season’s overall arc that I’m a little concerned, heading into the final two episodes, to see how simultaneously far afield from the story Stan is and how close to its center.

Stealth technology has been a huge boon for the show metaphorically this season. The show, of course, is all about the costs of hiding in plain sight, the ways that living this sort of life would have a deleterious effect on both a marriage and parenthood. But I think it’s particularly interesting when it comes to Stan, a character who seems almost as if he doesn’t know himself anymore. With every week, he gets sucked a little further down the hole of betraying his country, but with every week, he also comes up with more and more justifications about how he’s just trying to set up Oleg. And if we’re watching this as regular TV viewers—who know that Stan is going to stick around and Oleg may not—then it’s tempting to side with Agent Beeman. But this season of The Americans has been, to a large degree, about getting lost in the role you set up for yourself, about what it means when “freedom fighter” or “Christian” or “wife” becomes who you are, instead of another mask you wear in your day-to-day life. And in almost every case, it’s something the character… not regrets, exactly, but something that pushes them away from others in their lives—and maybe even their truest selves. Stan, above all, is about to find this out the hard way. You can’t serve two masters, not even a little bit.

Then again, this is an episode where Elizabeth caves a teensy little bit toward Paige and realizes that the two of them are more similar than she’d realized. So maybe I’m reading too much into this. And while we’re at it, what do you make of Jared’s role in the season’s endgame, Genevieve? I must admit I had no suspicions he was going to be in this for the long haul.

Genevieve: Yeah, that caught me off guard, too. As I’ve said before, I’ve learned by now not to try to predict which way The Americans is going to take any given plot line, but it’s usually easy enough to see, as a major revelation unfolds, the various roads that brought us to that point. But the Jared-Kate reveal is born of no foreshadowing that I can recall, which makes it the biggest surprise of this episode by a wide margin. (In contrast, we were all predicting from Kate’s first appearance what her ultimate fate would be; tonight’s episode just gave a “how” to the “what” we know was coming.) Thus far, The Americans has been pretty conservative when it comes to doling out cliffhangers; last season had only a couple moments that qualify as such, and they were crowded toward the back end of the season. Even last week’s action-packed episode ended as The Americans typically does: not with Larrick storming the call center, but with a quiet moment between Philip and Elizabeth in their home, reflecting on all that’s come before. And the last scene of tonight’s episode isn’t very far removed from that—Philip and Elizabeth are indeed together, in their home. But the revelation of that toilet-paper-roll message Philip decodes—“Get Jared out”—is a huge, significant moment, implying a whole layer, or layers, of intrigue that haven’t been on our, or Philip and Elizabeth’s, radar before now. Is Jared the real reason Kate was brought in as Philip and Elizabeth’s new handler? Was she acting independently of—or even counter to—them when she met with Jared, wearing no disguise? Is Larrick going after Jared simply as a matter of revenge against Emmet and Leanne, whom he said earlier that he would have killed if he could have, or does the boy know something? Or is it not even Larrick who’s after Jared? Those three small words, concealed in code on the inside of a toilet-paper tube, raise so many questions.


Another, semi-unrelated question: What happened to Kate’s body? It had disappeared by the time Philip and Elizabeth broke into Kate’s apartment at the Centre’s request, and I’m betting they won’t find Telephone Man when they go to the call center, either. Larrick’s racking up a body count, and while he is undeniably as skilled as he is ruthless when it comes to killing, it seems unlikely someone won’t find those bodies at some point. If I were to guess—and I know I just said I wouldn’t do that anymore—Larrick’s killing spree seems like an avenue for Stan back into the main action of this season, through his investigation into Emmet and Leanne, and now Jared. Because you’re right, Todd, Stan’s been isolated this season, and spiraling in a manner that’s begging for some sort of redemption. (That truncated Henry plotline you mention seemingly exists solely to give Stan a reason to say “I’m not a hero.” We know, Stan. We know.) Stan receives a commendation for “dispatching” Bruce Dameran, a victory he stumbled into by accident, and one that seems to bring him little joy, judging by the way he leaves that box unopened. Stan taking down Larrick would give him a victory he earned and bring him within a hair’s breadth of finding Philip and Elizabeth, while simultaneously taking the immediate heat off of them. I admit this may be pie-in-the-skying on my part, but dammit, I’m ready for Sad Stan to get a win already—because lord knows this Nina thing is not going to end well.

Todd, you point out that Stealth has been a great metaphor this season, but I’m also enjoying it purely from a literal, plot-driving perspective, simply for the puzzle-piece aspect of it. The process of blind-engineering an ultra-top-secret American technology has required a series of mini-missions on the part of Directorate S: First they have to get their hands on Anton (who wakes up next to a shapely posterior in Moscow at the top of tonight’s episode), then they have to get the information on ARPANET to help Anton, now Anton informs Vasili he needs (at least) two more things: information about RAM, and a computer visualization program called Echo, without which any stealth technology Russia builds will be little more than “a model airplane.” (Worth noting: The season finale is titled “Echo.”) It can sometimes be a little difficult to keep track of all the various side-plots and characters The Americans moves in and out of the rotation—Lucia, we hardly knew ye; and what the hell is Claudia up to right now?—so I appreciate that the stealth-technology storyline has provided a sort of through-line, plot-wise, for season two.


On that note, Todd, I want to hear more about your thoughts on Philip’s encounters with Zeljko Ivanek’s John Skeevers. The conspiracy-theory angle struck me as an interesting one for this show to take, as did the pairing of Skeevers with the increasingly disillusioned Philip, rather than the more staunch Elizabeth. How did you feel about their scenes together?

Todd: What I like about those scenes is one of the strongest aspects of this season: the way the show lets us see the real Philip and Elizabeth peeking through their various guises as they go out on missions. The Vietnam vet who’s lost faith in his country isn’t so very far from a Philip who’s losing faith in his own mission, just as the woman who went to that Alcoholics Anonymous meeting offered Elizabeth a guise through which she could discuss problems in her marriage. Ivanek is one of our finest TV character actors, so it was no surprise he was able to give Skeevers such a vivid characterization. But he also represents a kind of dim mirror of what Philip could become: a man without hope. So much of these scenes is powerful—just listen to Ivanek mumble about the bats dying—but at its core is an exchange that could define this show in general: “Who are you?” “Does it matter?”


Really, that’s The Americans’ mission statement this season. Does it matter who you are when you’re caught up in a cause greater than yourself? Where does loyalty to something else end and the individual begin? And how much collateral damage is “acceptable” in these pursuits—even if that collateral damage is just a bunch of bats? “Stealth” is more of a piece-moving episode than some of the other ones we’ve gotten to see this season, but it’s filled with little exchanges and moments like the one I just highlighted, all of which point to the way this season has so skillfully spun a web that it seems almost ready to hack to pieces.

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

Stray observations:

  • One of the things I like about Larrick is that as a villain, there’s never any threat he’s going to rape or sexually assault the women on the show, because as a gay guy, he’s just not going to do that. This particular plot device has been overused and become a source of cheap stakes and cheap shock, particularly in this television season. I also think it’s neat that we live in a time when you can have a gay villain and not worry in the slightest that some people will read the story as “he’s a villain because he’s gay.” [TV]
  • Gaad’s response to Stan hinting that things aren’t going well at home: “I’ve been married 17 years, happily for the most part. Luck of the draw.” Thanks, Gaad. Just super-helpful. [GK]
  • I’m really enjoying super asshole Gaad this season. I hope he makes many more appearances next year. [TV]
  • Nina’s office is so feminine compared to the other parts of the Rezidentura we’ve seen. Compare her pastel-filled, bright office with Arkady’s dark cave of wood and leather. [GK]
  • A neat little POV shot just before Larrick attacks Kate as she comes out of the bathroom; there’s just enough of a delay to make you think maybe, just maybe, someone isn’t there, then, boom! [GK]
  • Finally, Sandra gets an answer to the thing we’ve been wondering all season: Where’s Matthew? No worries, he’s at Harry’s house. [GK]
  • Speaking of Sandra, that scene between her and Stan was heartbreaking. I really do hope these two find a way to work things out. Television needs more stories about how infidelity doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship if both partners don’t want it to be, and The Americans could write that beautifully. However, I suspect both Stan and Sandra are over this. (That’s too bad, because Susan Misner brings a great energy to the role.) [TV]