Review: 'The Americans' - 'Safe House': A bird in the hand
A review of tonight's "The Americans" coming up just as soon as I burn my hand on a potato...
"You're gonna lose this war. You know that, right?" -Chris
Though "Safe House" is ultimately about Chris's death and the way it turns the cold war between the FBI and the KGB into something very, very hot, it starts out — like so much of "The Americans" does — as another story about the intersection between marital trouble and spy trouble.
The Jennings marriage isn't "real," but they've lived together for 15 years and have two kids together. And their separation is very, very real — one based on emotion and not professionalism, but in a way that actually enhances their cover. (As Stan's wife notes, divorce is nothing to hide in 1981 America.) When Phillip leaves his family's home, he heads straight to have sex with another woman,(*) but it's not an affair — nor the woman who prompted this split — but a work assignment that Elizabeth knows and approves of. And though Chris is following Martha out of professional suspicion after witnessing her filing cabinet freak out in last week's episode, ultimately the impulse that seals his fate is that of a jealous ex-boyfriend taking advantage of his badge to give the new lover a hard time.
(*) Okay, at this point we have to assume that KGB scientists in 1981 were spending most of their time perfecting wig (and wig-attachment) technology, because not only does Phillip have vigorous sex with Martha while wearing the Clark wig without it coming off (just as all of Elizabeth's wigs have stayed in place during her assignations), he actually spends the night sleeping in it without discovery.
It's just horrible timing for all concerned. And like the aftermath of the Reagan assassination attempt, an example of both sides leaping to faulty conclusions based on the limited information they have. Of course Stan and John-Boy would assume Chris was taken as part of the KGB's war on the FBI; the idea that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and only somewhat acting on FBI business at the time he was taken, would never occur to them. And Nina, Arkady and Vlad have no idea what Phillip and Elizabeth are up to; the undercover operatives typically report to Grannie, rather than the embassy. It's a massive snafu from every angle, and one that proves fatal to both Chris and Vlad.
Chris has largely existed as Stan's partner, and there's an attempt here to use flashbacks to make him seem like more of a character we'll miss. I don't know that it entirely works, but it certainly sells us on why Stan would be so worked up about losing his partner — and why, in snatching Vlad and then coldly executing him, he's willing to go from the cop Nina recently described into the spy he probably needs to be. He starts the episode off declining to participate in an assassination attempt that's been unofficially sanctioned by the White House; he ends it putting a bullet into the head of a kid who knew nothing about how Chris got killed.(**)
(**) Earlier, Stan scares the snot out of poor Vlad with his speech — delivered in a chillingly understated tone by Noah Emmerich, who continues to be incredible — about how dogs pick up birds with their mouths. In Vlad's last moment on this earth, what does he have in his mouth, which the gunshot prompts him to spit out? A chicken sandwich.
The script by Joshua Brand (who created or co-created some of the best dramas of the '80s and '90s, including "St. Elsewhere," "Northern Exposure" and "I'll Fly Away") does a good job of drawing parallels between the Soviets and their American counterparts. The Jenningses talk about putting their marriage on pause in front of the kids, and one of the Chris flashbacks has him explaining that Vietnam taught him life doesn't come with a pause button. Stan gives his dog monologue, and Elizabeth later says she wouldn't treat a dog the way they're treating Chris.
And ultimately, the information gap doesn't matter. Chris wasn't targeted for assassination by the KGB, but he was killed by a KGB agent nonetheless. Vlad died because his boss burned his hand on a potato, but he's still dead. And as we head into the final quarter (or so) of this first season, I expect things to get uglier, whether between the Americans and Soviets or between the fake married but genuinely separated Mr. and Mrs. Jennings.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org