“My mother raised me. You should have seen the way I grew up. It was just me and her and three other families in a single apartment. If the families were too loud when I was trying to go to sleep, she would go scream at them. They would scream back. She would always win. … She had a real spirit. Like yours.”
“How can I believe anything you say?”
This week’s episode of The Americans is a relatively mellow affair, but this scene between a mother and daughter sitting in a parked car in their garage is one of the more gutting exchanges on the series this season. What Keri Russell’s Elizabeth has discovered, now that her daughter knows that she is an undercover Soviet operative, is that she has pretended so much that even her truths taste like lies.
Opening up to Paige, played by Holly Taylor as someone vibrating with anger and uncertainty within her still exterior, isn’t easy for Elizabeth. It has never been easy for her with anyone. But here, sharing something about her real past, something both painful and nostalgic, she finds the memory brutally thrown back at her by a child who now considers her a stranger.
This episode, number 11 with only two more to go, is “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov,” the kidnapped scientist forced to work on stealth technology for the Soviets. The title is a reference to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the 1962 novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which shocked Russian readers by acknowledging the horrors of life in a gulag under Stalin.
We get glimpses of Baklanov (Michael Aronov) and the tentative trust forming between him and fellow prisoner Nadia (Annet Mahendru), but the story of this episode is also about people imprisoned in other ways, by the identities they’ve forged for themselves. Elizabeth. Philip, although he’s pushing back against them. Martha, still trying to rationalize the betrayal of her husband “Clark.” (Or is something else at play with her?)
The episode begins in the Jennings’ kitchen “You guys don’t have to whisper when I come into the room – unless you have some other secret you want to keep from me,” Paige says.
Their daughter, who is also still grappling with this new reality after learning about her parents’ actual histories, is full of questions:
“When you woke me and Henry up in the middle of the night for a spontaneous vacation and took us to that cabin in the woods, you were doing something, right?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth says.
“We can’t talk about this now,” Matthew Rhys’ Philip adds, just trying to quiet her.
“Are you guys really married?”
“What about the travel agency? Is everybody there a spy, too?”
“Why don’t you have accents?”
Good questions, Paige! (Someone clearly didn’t see the Pilot.) But the fact that she’s wondering about these things is bad news for Philip and Elizabeth. Paige isn’t just accepting this. She’s questioning. That’s something her mother and father never did, that no good Soviet solider does.
“What are your real names?” Paige asks.
“Nadezhda.” Her daughter struggles to pronounce this.
“Mr. Beeman?” Paige says. “He’s not really your friend, is he?”
“No, we’re friends,” Philip replies with the kind of instinctual urgency that suggests … maybe they are. It’s the first time we’ve seen that perhaps Stan means something more to Philip than a mark.This must fracture the delicate compartmentalization necessary for the Jennings’ to do their savage work. In the light of day, maybe they are just Philip and Elizabeth, middle-aged suburbanite travel agents. Maybe that’s the only way they can be Mischa and Nadezhda when duties requires it.
“Is Henry really my brother. Am I really your daughter?” Paige persists.
Then Henry enters the kitchen and the talk stops. One guesses the questions keep rising in Paige’s head.
We cut to FBI headquarters and Richard Thomas’ Agent Gaad is poring over papers in a locked, soundproof, and presumably bug-proof room. He’s asking Beeman about conversations they had long ago that might have revealed vital intel to whomever was listening on the other end of that device they discovered inside his pen.
“I’m trying to write down anything that might have been said in my office that should have been said in here or in the vault,” Gaad says.
“Taffet making you do that?” Beeman asks, referring to the counter-intelligence agent investigating the bug.
“No. Me. I could have been more careful a lot of times,” Gaad says. “That’s why we’ve got the rules. They built us a vault for it.”
The fact that Gaad is investigating himself makes me think there still may be something to him working a clandestine operation with Martha to monitor, and ultimately expose, the man posing as “Clark,” her secret husband. But Martha’s fear about being interrogated by Taffet later in the episode had me questioning that conspiracy theory. If she is the point-person on a sting, it’s one Gaad is running as a rogue.
The MVP of this episode is Frank Langella’s Gabriel, the patronizing patron of the KGB, who finds the Jennings’ waiting for him in his living room. Gabriel strikes me as the kind of man who is waiting someday for retirement by way of a bullet in the back of his brain. The vibration in Langella’s eyes betrays a hint of worry. Then the couple breaks the news: “Paige knows.”
Gabriel’s reaction: a sigh of relieve. “All right. Good.”
He asks for an update about Elizabeth’s efforts to gain access to the hotel where the CIA is bringing members of Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen freedom fighters. She has made good progress seducing the hotel manager, and Philip is going to meet soon with Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), the man he helped cover up a cold-blooded murder.
“Elizabeth I have another envelope for you,” Gabriel says, and slides a package from her ailing mother across the table. As she reaches for it, he places his hand over hers. “I’m sorry. They told me there may not be many more.”
We finally get to Anton Baklanov’s gulag, where he’s still talking about how much he needs photographs of the American stealth planes to complete his research. This part of the conversation is in Russian, but when they start talking a little more personally, they switch to English – presumably a language few listeners around them can speak.
“I thought you were just the next one. Inducement. They’ve been sending me women,” he says. He has begun rejecting them. “Waking up next to strangers that they chose for me….”
“I understand,” she tells him.
“You have children?”
“I have a son,” Baklanov says. “He doesn’t know if I’m alive or dead. That’s the one thing I can’t take. “
Back in the U.S., Elizabeth turns up in her “Michelle” disguise to meet with Lisa, her AA buddy and the Northrop Grumman employee whose promotion she engineered by way of cultivating her as a future source on military technology. She has already told Lisa that she leaks information to a rival engineering firm, and now Lisa (Karen Pittman) and her drunk, abusive husband Maurice (Thaddeus Daniels) want in on the action.
“Maurice hasn’t had wok for a while and workman’s comp hasn’t come through,” Lisa explains. They’re about to lose their house.
Elizabeth’s “Michelle” offers to loan her money. It’s remarkable how Elizabeth knows the best way to get people to follow her lead is to tell them not to.
“We want a piece of whatever you’ve got going on with your friend, the consultant,” Maurice interjects, grim and blunt. “He would love to know what’s going on at Northrop. We want in. For double whatever you’re getting.”
Lisa is embarrassed, but her husband knows her worth. “You have higher security clearance. Lisa can go to jail for giving up info. Bigger risk, more money.”
Lisa goes to make coffee, and Maurice reveals he’s not as naïve as we think.
“I’d like to meet your friend. What’s his name, Jack?” he says, and Elizabeth (“Michelle”) remains silent.
“But his name isn’t important, is it?” Maurice says. “You’re the real head of this operation. Aren’t you?”
Careful, Maurice. You know what happens to nosy fellows, don’t you?
Back at Martha’s, Philip has Hans the KGB intern run surveillance on her apartment before showing up. Like me, he isn’t sure Poor Martha is being upfront with him, and the last thing he wants to do is walk into a trap.
Martha is pleading with him for help. She’s about to be interrogated by agent Taffet, and is worried sick. “His job is to make you feel as if he knows. He doesn’t know,” Philip (“Clark”) explains, telling her to look at the tip of his nose when she answers questions, so she seems confident.
“Think about the fact that you’re in control,” he says.
“I’m not,” she says.
“But you know more than he does, so that puts you in control.”
Does Martha maybe know more than Philip, too? This episode made me doubt whether she is working to snare her fake husband, but I’m not yet ready to quit that theory just yet. Read on …
Philip also meets with Yousaf who reveals something about the Mujahedeen partnership with the American government. “The CIA has a new weapons system. Light. Easy to use. Powerful enough to knock helicopters and airplanes out of the sky.” This would be the Stinger missile program.
Yousaf also gives him information about the Afghan fighters being brought to D.C. “There are some reasonable men among the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. But not the ones we’re sending here. One of them, his men cut people’s heads off, Soviet soldiers, with a pulwar. Just one more dead Russian, so Langley has no idea.” It may take 20-some years, but the U.S. will be at war with those allies eventually.
Back at their home, Elizabeth finds Paige sitting alone in the car and has her painful conversation, revealing a little about her true past, and finding it spit back in her face.
“We never ever meant to hurt you. You’re our daughter. Henry is our son. We wanted you more than you could possibly know,” she says, before making Paige promise: “We will only talk about this when we know no one else can hear. Okay? I need you to tell me that you understand that, Paige.”
“I understand,” her daughter says.
Over at the Rezidentura, Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) is given the dull chore of analyzing the recordings gathered from the mail robot Elizabeth and Philip bugged two episodes back.
There’s no much that’s usable, just office small talk and lots and lots and lots of “beeps,” all scrupulously transcribed. This shifted me back to thinking the mail robot was bait planted by Martha, who revealed that it would be out of the office for service after Agent Gaad kicked the hell out of it in a rage.
Again, I’m still thinking Gaad and Martha are running an operation here.
Elizabeth has meal with Neal, the hotel manager, and things get steamy fast. (Lots of screen time for Elizabeth’s garter here.) It’s all part of getting access to his office and computer system, where she can see who the CIA is sending to this hotel from Afghanistan, and make a copy of the key to that room – all while Neal slips away to deal with a customer problem at the front desk.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S.S.R., Nina snoops around Anton Baklanov’s room back at the science gulag and discovers he has stuffed his mattress with letters he has been writing to his son.
“Maybe I died,” Anton tells her later. “He doesn’t know. Maybe I abandoned him. I live most of my life here [Russia, presumably], but I never knew anyone who would do something like this.”
“I did,” Nina tells him. “They traded me, too. Back and forth. You forget what it’s like to have your own life.”
“I’m not letting them do that to me. I won’t let them decide who I am.”
“Jacob would be proud,” she says.
Baklanov gives her a look of ice. “You know my son’s name. I never told it to you. I never even said his name since I’ve been here.”
Was this a slip-up … or a shrewd ploy by Nina? Either way, she spins it to her advantage with (what seems like) honesty. “Your story is beautiful. You should keep writing it.”
She says she hasn’t told anyone about the letters, and promises she won’t.
“Why?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” she says.
Back in D.C., Gabriel and Philip are on a ferry, and Philip has a request: “I want to arrange a trip for Elizabeth to see her mother one last time.”
“I wish it were possible, but we both know that it isn’t,” Gabriel says.
“I know it’s against the rules, and I know it’s hard. But we do hard things. That’s what we do.”
“Do you? Do you really understand?” Philip says. “I haven’t seen it in a long time. Since you’ve been back, I hear a lot of things being asked of us, of me. Like Afghanistan, like South Africa, like the future of my daughter, whether I like it or not.”
Here, Langella earns that MVP status. “Lower. Your. Voice. Philip.”
He hits his increasingly combative agent with two witheringly calm questions. “Are you falling apart? Can you handle whatever might be coming at you next?”
“I’m fine,” Philip says. Like Paige, he doesn’t believe anything Gabriel says. “But I don’t want to keep hearing no from you. One of these times, I’m going to need yes.”
At FBI headquarters, Agent Taffet is grilling Martha, but she holds up well under scrutiny – maybe better than we would have come to expect. Alison Wright is playing Poor Martha with so many more levels now. I’m not sure what to think about this character. She may be guileless, or she may be a total player. (Well done, Ms. Wright. You have kept viewers guessing.)
Back at the Jennings home, Elizabeth returns from an excursion and disrobes, then crawls into bed with Philip.
The next morning, Paige knocks and enters their sunny bedroom, ending the show the same way she opened it: By demanding to know what they’re talking about.
“Your grandmother in Russia,” Philip says. It’s the truth. He says he wants Elizabeth to be able to go back and visit her.
“Can you?” Paige asks.
“No,” her mother says. “I can’t.”
As a daughter who longs only to see her mother one last time, Elizabeth watches helplessly as her own child turns her back on her.
1980s Watch: Henry is still obsessed with Saturday Night Live and his relentless Eddie Murphy impressions is a torture the KGB training apparently did not prepare his parents to withstand.
Oleg also has a chuckle over the mail robot transcripts when he reads that “Agent Samuels” is not a fan of the USFL, the United States Football League that for a few brief years in the mid-‘80s tried to usurp the NFL.