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

The Americans: “The Walk In”

Illustration for article titled The Americans: “The Walk In”

Todd: “The Walk In” does that thing where the episode throws dozens of balls into the air at its beginning, then somehow catches nearly every single one as it ends. I’m always slightly terrified when the show begins the process of doing this, convinced it’s going to drop at least one of them or embarrass itself otherwise somehow. And there are so many opportunities to do that here, from the idea of Paige going on an unsupervised trip to Pennsylvania to meet her dear Aunt Helen to that storyline where Elizabeth threatens a lowly maintenance worker while the two of them inspect the plant where Elizabeth and Philip have been sent to get information on a certain type of machinery. (It has something to do with propellers, and I’m sure somebody in comments already has the exact bit of technology they’re checking out.) But then everything comes together in a magnificent musical montage—the first of the season—and the show lands the plane, after only a few bumps.

I want to start with Paige’s misadventures, because I am the patron saint of teenage girl characters in dark cable dramas, it seems. The trip to see Aunt Helen felt like the episode’s bum note to me for a while, with Paige meeting a new friend on the bus and talking about how hard all of this recent uncertainty in her family has been for her. It felt like the show underlining points it had already made so skillfully through subtext in the past couple of weeks, which isn’t always what the series does. And then Paige actually got to her aunt’s house, and the story turned weird and kind of creepy, in that way The Americans does so well. She enters the house, uninvited, looking around for proof of this woman’s existence. She doesn’t find it, because, of course, we suspect that this is all a plant, a convenient fiction Philip and Elizabeth never thought she would seek out. And then there’s this befuddled old woman coming downstairs and trying to converse with Paige like she’s her daughter, and there’s a photo of Elizabeth on the wall, and oh God, what does it all mean?!

The story ends with “Helen” giving Philip a call to let him know that his daughter has been snooping around where she shouldn’t have been, and she’s more than lucid. My favorite moments on this show are the ones where the bottom drops out from under you, and you realize that both the KGB and their American counterparts have systems within systems to prevent being detected. Helen, of course, is a plant, some sort of KGB operative who is also useful as a cover story in case Elizabeth ever needs a relative’s house to go to in case of recuperation. But the show so skillfully places us in Paige’s mindset that I figured the photo of Elizabeth was there because it had been planted in the home of an old woman with dementia, not that this old woman was part of some long-range network of Soviet spies. Like most teenagers, Paige is looking to rebel; that’s a lot harder when mom and dad literally have eyes everywhere.

Elizabeth herself, meanwhile, remains trapped in the terrified place, the world where she wonders if what happened to Emmett and Leanne could also happen to her and her family. She lets the factory worker slip away after getting a look at his three sons (though not without taking the photo of said three sons), and when she talks to Philip afterward, she almost seems to be trying to get his reassurance that what she did was all right. She goes to find Jared, to give him the letter his mother wants him to have, explaining who his father and mother were, but when the time comes, she can’t upend this kid’s life any further. Throughout the episode, she flashes back to a time when she wasn’t sure she wanted to be a mother, when Leanne talked her into it, more or less, yet as the episode goes on, it’s clear just how far this is from the Elizabeth we’re seeing now.

Again, this could all be super clichéd, but the combination of Keri Russell and the writing makes it work. When she crouches beside Leanne’s letter in the darkness, having broken her vow to her friend (and, in a way, to her country), it’s like a dam’s breaking inside of her, and yet it’s expressed through a single tear that trickles down her ever-stoic face. And then, against that image, Peter Gabriel’s voice. Here comes the flood, indeed.

But I’ve touched on maybe a third of this episode, Genevieve. How did you feel about the adventures of Stan and Bruce? And are you more into Nina’s storyline now that Oleg is digging into her personal affairs?


Genevieve: That moment when Oleg explains to Nina what scalping is— “Sell it pocket the money. I won’t tell anyone”—is a major eyebrow-raiser, for both Nina and the audience. Given how Nina ended up in the situation she’s in, that feels very pointed, and seems to suggest Oleg knows, or at least suspects, more than his genial manner lets on. Arkady tells Nina she’s starting to climb out of the hole she dug for herself, but Oleg may readying a shovel of his own.

The circumstances that lead Arkady to be so pleased with Nina represent another one of those bottom-dropping-out moments you mention—or at the very least, some masterful misdirection on the writers’ part. By pairing the sudden appearance of Bruce Dameran last week with the revelation of the Super Secret Propeller Plans, plus Oleg’s constant reminders about his science and technology mission, we’re led to assume Bruce was bringing the KGB some classified technological or weapons information. Stan and Gaad are led to believe the same thing, though they seem a little perplexed what sort of information a World Bank employee who won the Purple Heart for sustaining injuries in Vietnam would have to offer the KGB. As it turns out, he doesn’t have any; what he does have is a conspiracy theory involving the World Bank and Ronald Reagan, and plans to assassinate some World Bank leaders during a big meeting being held across the street from that Laundromat Stan was scoping out last week. Bruce was obviously hoping the KGB would be sympathetic to his cause, but the only use they have for him is as bait to help reel Stan further into Nina’s debt. Those of you in the comments last week wondering why Nina would so easily tell Stan about the walk-in to the Rezidentura, here’s your answer: Stan has a medal and commendation, and Nina has his declaration of love. Arkady is pleased, and so is Nina.


But why is Nina pleased?  As she’s typing her report for Arkady, recalling the moment Stan tells her he loves her, an inscrutable smile plays across her face. Is she simply relishing her victory? Or do Stan’s words have deeper emotional meaning for her? It’s difficult to tell, and all credit in the world to Annet Mahendru for playing this so cannily. More than perhaps anyone on this show Nina is caught between conflicting loyalties, and really has no tether to a firm, trusted reality. Despite their problems, Philip and Elizabeth know they can trust each other; Stan has his unshakable trust in his cause and mission, even if it sometimes bumps up against his personal life in uncomfortable ways. But Nina has no such grounding force, no one she can implicitly trust—not Stan, not Arkady, and certainly not Oleg. They all have too much dirt on her, and she’s completely unmoored because of it.

A lot of “The Walk In” seems to be about feeling unmoored and isolated, as characters try to find something around which they can orient themselves. Henry underscores this theme with his search for Polaris using the cheapie star chart he ordered from the back of a comic book. It stays in the same spot and all the other stars rotate around it, so you can always count on it—if you can find it. Paige’s search for Aunt Helen reflects this desire for something she can count on, some concrete family history, something to tie her and her family to something she understands. In the end, she doesn’t exactly get that, but she does find a connection of sorts in Kelly, the girl on the bus. Similarly, the death of Emmet and Leanne, and their son’s subsequent situation, has made Elizabeth realize that she and Philip have no friends, no one they could trust their kids with if something happens to them. (Philip sardonically suggests the Beemans.) And the letter Leanne asks Elizabeth to give Jared signifies a link to something real, to the truth about his parents—an explanation for the tragedy he cannot know the reason for.


Ultimately, Elizabeth denies Jared those answers because… well, why, exactly? Todd, you say Elizabeth burning the letter is her breaking her vow to her country. I supposed that’s true in the sense that she should theoretically want to pass on the ideals Jared’s parents died for; but it doesn’t take a super-spy to know that blowing your cover to a 17-year-old would probably be frowned upon by the higher-ups at The Center. Jared knowing the truth would present a tremendous risk to their mission, as it’s predicated on the (probably faulty) assumption that he, having been born and raised American, would be sympathetic to his parents’ cause and keep their secret. Elizabeth seems to be coming to the realization that this probably isn’t the case. In the first season, when Philip was considering defecting, she expressed belief that maybe Paige and Henry could be brought over to their way of thinking, and we saw lots of little moments of her gently pushing her kids away from certain American social values. (If nothing else, she seems to really hate it when they watch the local news.) But as her kids get closer to adulthood—and in Paige’s case, closer to the truth about her parents—such blind assumption of a completely foreign way of life seems increasingly unlikely.

Todd, did Leanne’s request strike you as foolhardy as it did me? Jared seems like a nice kid and all, but what exactly did Leanne think he would do with the information in that letter?


Todd: I don’t know that Leanne necessarily believes that Jared will be instantly won over to the KGB cause (he said of a character we’ve known for about five to 10 minutes), so much as I think that she believes that even if Jared was angry at her and his father for who they were, he would never, say, report that information to the media or even to the authorities. It might calcify into an anger that eventually caused him to recolor every memory he had of his parents with other thoughts, but Leanne is making the same bet so many people on The Americans are, often to foolhardy ends: Our relationship is strong enough to weather this ultimate truth about ourselves. The truth is that Jared, Paige, and Henry have all been raised to believe that Communists are basically subhuman, incapable of, say, loving and raising their children just like anybody else. Learning the truth about their parents would ultimately push them just far enough to make them unpredictable, and I think that’s why Elizabeth does what she does. She’s always been a little more cynical about these things than her husband, and she’s also starting to realize just how wide of a gulf separates her from her children. Which, come to think of it, happens to most parents when their kids hit adolescence, but as always, it feels more fraught when you get the KGB involved.

You question whether Elizabeth burning the level is actually a betrayal of her country, and I get where your skepticism comes from. Leanne’s request could just as likely be read as a far greater betrayal, at least on a strategic end, and I agree. But what I’m getting at here is more the idea of an emotional betrayal, one not of politics but of loyalty. The Americans is rife with these, and I think this is another case where Elizabeth realizes the practical importance of getting rid of that letter, but she’s simultaneously straining against the fact that she will probably need to keep this from her children as long as she possibly can. The Elizabeth we met in season one was someone who was proud and happy to be a servant of her country, but season two is testing that loyalty in all sorts of ways. My read on this is that she sees in Leanne someone who still possesses that basic hope her son would read that letter and see not a Communist spy but his mother. It’s Elizabeth’s clearheadedness that lets her know that would probably never happen, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still feel like a betrayal. The world that meets our ideals is rarely the one we live in, and every time we acknowledge we occupy the latter, it feels just a little more difficult to bear.


Todd’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • The title of this episode ostensibly refers to Bruce Dameran, but there are a couple other “walk-ins” in “The Walk-In,” that is, people showing up places uninvited: Paige walking into Aunt Helen’s, and Elizabeth walking into the deserted home of Emmet and Leanne. [GK]
  • Playing off of that last point, Genevieve, I’m sort of amused by how many of the spy scenes this season amount to Philip or Elizabeth entering an empty house and skulking around until they find what they need. [TV]
  • “Lying will not be tolerated,” says Philip to Paige. The ultimate “Do as I say, not as I do” moment. [GK]
  • If there’s a thing that doesn’t quite work for me in this episode, it’s Henry’s search for Polaris. I kind of like it as a thematic device, but it also sort of rubs me the wrong way in terms of being so easy to grasp as such. [TV]
  • Leanne’s right about one thing: The Revolver album IS the best. [GK]
  • Jared is a great babysitter, plays the guitar, AND has a great singing voice. Maybe Elizabeth should hook her daughter up with him; seems like a nicer dude than that Matthew Beeman kid. (Hey, where’d that guy go?) [GK]
  • We’ve gotten only a very little Sandy time this season, too. Now that Susan Misner’s a regular, I’ve been waiting for a little more insight into what makes that character tick (other than being disconnected from her husband). Here’s hoping it comes as the season progresses. [TV]