It’s a wonder that The Americans waited 44 episodes before dropping the needle on side two, track six of Queen’s Hot Space. It’s a show of the series’ characteristic restraint that the familiar bass line and finger snaps don’t show up until minute 44 of “Clark’s Place.” But just like the last episode directed by Noah Emmerich, this week’s Americans takes a staple of classic-rock radio and uses it to craftily illustrate one moment in the strange lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. “Under Pressure” underlines the mood of “Clark’s Place” and pulls additional meaning out of its themes, all the while suggesting that Emmerich could have a fruitful second career in music video. The ecstasy and the anxiety of the Jennings, the FBI agents, and the woman caught between them are encapsulated in the duet between Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Insanity laughs. Under pressure, they’re breaking.
“Under Pressure” isn’t just a great pick for the closing number in “Clark’s Place.” It’s the only pick: The song’s lyrics reverberate throughout Peter Ackerman’s script, from Gabriel telling Philip and Elizabeth “you two still care about people” (“And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night”) to Henry asking Stan if he’s high (“Pray tomorrow gets me higher / higher / high”). There’s a family splitting in two under Philip and Elizabeth’s roof, as their youngest child becomes a surrogate Beeman. Paige grows more and more familiar with the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching her good friends Pastor Tim and Alice having the screws put to them by her parents.
“Clark’s Place” is an episode about pressure. I’d already typed out the word three times in my notes prior to the big soundtrack moment: Twice in relation to Paige’s late-night chat with Elizabeth, and the third when Beeman and Aderholt discuss Martha in the vault. The squeeze has never been tighter for these characters, and everybody’s searching for a little release, be it Martha and her Valium or Elizabeth and the skirt that rises with the octaves of Freddie Mercury’s voice. Even that wily scamp Ronald Reagan looks like he’s running out of breath this week, what with those rosy cheeks.
Pressure is inherently dramatic. The trouble is, it’s inherently difficult to dramatize. “Clark’s Place” navigates this challenge with slow-burn-Americans panache, particularly in the sequence where Philip slips out of Clark’s apartment without being detected by Martha or Aderholt. But it seems at times that the episode is winding up a punch that’s never thrown. Maybe that’s just the aftershocks of “Chloramphenicol” talking, my expectations for eventfulness startlingly raised in the final moments of last week’s episode.
“Clark’s Place” isn’t The Americans recoiling from the attack. It’s the preparation for the pounce, the show’s muscles tensing in preparation for action. What is it that Gabriel says? “It’s excruciating not to make a move when things are uncertain. We are people of action.” “Clark’s Place” draws suspense from that sense, but left me feeling a little like Philip in the parking garage: Desiring action when the situation calls for pause.
The byproduct of that is the impression that not a whole lot happens in “Clark’s Place,” when it’s actually a densely packed episode. The show’s circle is contracting, but there are still a lot of ongoing stories to attend to, most pressingly Oleg and Stan learning of Nina’s death. The news reaches the uneasy allies through a bureaucratic game of telephone, intensifying the grief Oleg was already feeling over his brother. When he returns to the rezidentura, the first co-worker to greet him offers sympathy for Yevgeny. The second merely says “I’m sorry,” her vagueness allowing Costa Ronin to pinpoint the true source of his character’s pain. This homecoming sets up some of the best framing of the episode, as Oleg mirrors the rezidentura’s Lenin mural and glances toward Arkady’s office—and toward the Nina-less future.
Ronin stares ahead in another of the episode’s affecting compositions, this time in the loaded silence that follows his meeting with Stan. Ronin and Emmerich tussle over the episode’s acting MVP honors in the front seat of Stan’s car, as their characters grapple with the end of Nina’s life and the maddening conflict that made her its collateral damage. They each process the loss through anecdote, which suggests their trajectory for the remainder of the season: Oleg damns the actions of a country his father says is “going to shit,” aggrieved at the secrecy surrounding the conflicts that killed Nina and Yevgeny. Stan runs the events through his counterintelligence training, rationalizing them in a warrior’s mindset. “They said this could happen—losing someone. But… ” Oleg finishes his sentence. Both are heartbroken, but only one of them gives up a night with his son to keep up the fight.
Did I say Costa Ronin and Noah Emmerich were the top contenders for acting MVP this week? Because I meant to say every cast member is on the tops of their games in the episode. “Clark’s Place” is a showcase for The Americans’ ensemble and their ability to play people on the brink. It’s tough to convey pressure on the page, but it’s a lot easier to show it in your face: Check out Alison Wright as Martha waits for the phone call in the laundromat, and watch her eyes dart back and forth as she lets Philip in on her disappointment. See Holly Taylor wrestle with Paige’s inner conflict, pacing the floor of Pastor Tim’s office as she ping-pongs between the things she wants to do and the things her parents want her to do. Notice Keri Russell giggling over Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech and the tone in her voice when Elizabeth calls Henry a “wiseass,” strange, unguarded behavior from her character that sets the stage for the uneasy “Your mother and I are going to talk with Pastor Tim and Alice tonight” conversation.
“Clark’s Place” plays its smartest, subtlest notes with Elizabeth, who appears to have something eating at her throughout the entire episode. It could be the “Chloramphenicol” ordeal. It could be the death of her mother, someone whom she’d said goodbye to many times before, but has yet to bid farewell in the way that means the most. There’s an absent mother in the backstory she feeds Young-hee; in Yevengy’s funeral, “Clark’s Place” depicts the sort of public mourning Elizabeth hasn’t taken part in (or wouldn’t allow herself to).
And then there’s the distance between her and Philip. For once, it’s circumstances, not the Jennings themselves, keeping them apart. Martha’s demanding a lot more of Philip’s time and energy, and last week, they couldn’t touch for fear of infection. Until that peak in “Under Pressure,” “Clark’s Place” puts a ton of space between Russell and Rhys, leaving Elizabeth to watch Philip in the distance as he makes the call to Martha, or separating them through depth of field in the kitchen. There’s a whole lot of meaning in Elizabeth walking from the background to the foreground of a shot in order to make contact with her husband.
“Under Pressure” lends some urgency to the images of the Jennings getting physical, but the act itself has plenty of urgency to begin with. After all they’ve been through, after all that’s still to come, any chance to be together could be their last chance. Martha, Pastor Tim, and Alice are all loose cannons. They’ve placed the burden of their secret lives on Paige. Hans thinks he saw surveillance lurking around Clark’s apartment. (“Thinks?” Gabriel asks, rhetorically. “Knows,” the audience answers, definitively.) They just lived through exposure to a deadly pathogen, which still has Gabriel wheezing and walking with a cane. To top it all off, Philip just shook hands with Aderholt, who was thrashed by Elizabeth at the beginning of season three and now has both of the Jennings’ faces in his mind.
The pressure just keeps mounting. These are the days—it never rains, but it pours.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week Five: C. Let’s call it an average week for wigs, then turn our attention to Hans’ surveillance disguise, which is a flak jacket, a pipe, and a generous hair trimming away for making him out to be Sergeant Hunter from Hill Street Blues.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Four, Week Five: A. Another incredible week on this front, with a prominent cue and some expert editing adding “Clark’s Place” to The Americans’ Soundtrack Hall Of Fame.
- Was there any Mail Robot? Keep coming up with love, but it’s so slashed and torn.
- The title of The Americans’ third-season finale, “March 8, 1983,” is proving to be an incredibly helpful yardstick for measuring the show’s timeline, and for determining how quickly its depiction of 1983 is and isn’t playing out. Going only by President Reagan’s television appearances, we know that 15 days have passed in the past five episodes. (Tonight’s address, which prompts Elizabeth to do her best Crow T. Robot impression, is the March 23 speech that heralded the beginning of Reagan’s unrealized Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known by its Ted Kennedy-bestowed nickname, “Star Wars.”) Extrapolating from there, we can guess that we’ll be at April 8, 1983 by episode eight (“The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears”)—though the ninth episode, “The Day After,” suggests a big time jump in its titular allusion: The Day After wouldn’t premiere on ABC until November.
- I feel like I could write a For Our Consideration essay that absolutely no one would read about season four of The Americans and the two abandoned visions for the future at its periphery: Reagan’s SDI proposal and Walt Disney’s original plan for EPCOT. Both were touted by trusted, patriarchal figures with showbiz experience, but one proposes a tomorrow of peace and prosperity, while the other portends never-ending and ever-escalating technological combat. In the end, which is a more ludicrous forecast: Populations organized around climate controlled 24/7 pleasure domes, or nuclear annihilation diverted by space lasers?