Review: On 'The Americans,' are Paige, William, and Oleg near breaking points?
A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as I show you how to hook the computer up to the TV...
"I can't do this one, Philip." -William
Though only a few weeks have passed for us since Martha got on that plane, it's been a very long time in the lives of the show's characters, particularly for the ones who, unlike Philip and Elizabeth, didn't spend most of that time playing travel agent for real. Things are bad, and tiring, and several straws break several camel's backs throughout the whimsically-titled "A Roy Rogers in Franconia."
Much of the episode is obviously spent on the aftermath of Paige witnessing her mother efficiently kill a man right in front of her, absorbing what that means about what her parents' work must really be like, and whether that in any way changes how she feels about assisting them. It's an interesting approach the show takes, albeit one that feels on the rushed and/or overly busy side, as Paige is dealing with this new information in the same hour where she and Matthew Beeman kiss for the first time. In a way, that's a mirror of how her parents are always juggling too many operations and secrets at once, which is fitting for the first episode where her parents realize that, with Paige reporting to them about what Stan told Matthew, they have effectively turned her into a spy. But there are moments in the episode where it feels like Paige has taken the whole violent incident — which included not only a death, but seemed on the verge of becoming a rape situation before Elizabeth went full assassin on them — surprisingly in stride, and where maybe the season could have found a way to stretch this particular part of the story out across one additional episode to hit exactly right.
Still, Paige's ongoing frustration with having to stick with this career she was born into matched well with what's happening with several other KGB operatives this week, whose fatigue and guilty consciences combine to set up one hell of a cliffhanger going into next week's season finale.
William's qualms about handing a bio-weapon over to his superiors wasn't too surprising, given the reservations he's previously expressed about giving these kinds of viruses to anyone, let alone a country whose technology has become so slipshod at this stage of the Cold War. Still, it was rough(*) to watch Gabriel so expertly get him back on message by promising him the proverbial One More Mission, which even in 1983 should have been pop culture code for William to prepare for either his imminent death, or a turn of events that would ensure his participation in many, many more missions.
(*) The only thing rougher was the thought that all of Elizabeth's time wrecking Young-Hee and Don's marriage was even more for naught than it had seemed last week.
Oleg's bout of guilt regarding the same project was a bit less expected, but also something that the show carefully set up over the course of the season. Between the death of his brother — and the way Soviet policy about Afghanistan combat deaths all but rendered his brother invisible — Nina's execution, the barely-averted nuclear holocaust, what Tatiana has told him about the bio-weapons project, and Stan's speech to him last week about Gaad's death(**), the seeds have been sown for him to begin doubting the mission.
(**) Now, was that speech in hindsight an example of Stan suddenly (perhaps with help from his brief stint in est) turning out to be a psychological genius? Or was the sentiment sincere at the time, even if Stan will now gladly accept the tip that followed?
As with Gabriel's promises to William, Oleg insists to Stan that this tip about the virus will be a one-time thing, but we know that isn't how this works. If the FBI wasn't onto William (in a scene where, as with the hunt for Martha's husband, a search of death certificates proves very handy), I fear the Centre would have figured out a way to keep him in America, doing this terrible work. And now that Oleg has given Stan a major piece of actionable intelligence like this, Stan now has something to hold over his head for as long as he cares to.
This job is too much, whether you're a hardened operative like William or a kid like Paige. Everyone hits a breaking point. But it looks like a lot of characters are hitting their breaking point at the same time — while Philip is preparing to meet with William just as the FBI is on his tail — which should lead to a nerve-wracking finale.
Not fun, but riveting as hell.
Some other thoughts:
* Aderholt's visit to the mail robot repair shop, where Elizabeth murdered poor old Betty Turner back in "Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?," had me hoping we eventually get a Rise of the Mail Robots spin-off. The show already has enough models of the thing to make it work!
* Matthew suggests his father's job isn't "like, car chases and stuff," even though we've seen him in car chases (most notably at the end of season 1) before.
* Paige Jennings: Spy-at-Large, getting things done: by telling her parents what Matthew told her about what Stan told him about what Martha's father told him, Paige inadvertently succeeds in getting Gabriel to finally reach out to Mr. and Mrs. Hanson to assure them that their daughter is still alive and loves and misses them.
* The Soviets were a bit more egalitarian among the sexes than America was back then, but as Oleg notes, a woman like Tatiana being promoted to head of the rezidentura in Nairobi was still a big deal. Ordinarily, I would feel a bit bad for Oleg that her promotion might separate them, but his decision to tell Stan about the bio-weapons plot suggests they didn't have much of a future together.
* Party like it's 1983: Oleg does photo analysis of the space shuttle Challenger, which had its first mission during this season's seven-month time jump, and would tragically exploded shortly after launch in January of 1986. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Paige watch a bit of General Hospital, which was still in the midst of its Luke and Laura heyday in the fall of 1983.
Back next week with a review of the finale, plus a chat with Fields and Weisberg about where things stand heading into the final two seasons.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org