Games without frontiers: "The Americans" revisits Vietnam -- and Peter Gabriel

The Cold War gives way to the battles of the 1960s in one of the most stylish episodes yet

By Elliott Holt
March 13, 2014 4:15PM (UTC)
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“The Americans” is about the Cold War, but in this episode, it’s the Vietnam War that casts the biggest shadow. We learn, via a flashback to 1967, that Elizabeth and Philip conceived Paige during Vietnam (“This war, they’re killing everyone. They’re never going to stop,” the young Elizabeth says of the Americans); that the World Bank employee who walked into the Soviet Embassy, in the last episode, promising secrets, is a troubled Vietnam Vet; and that Agent Gaad, Stan’s boss in counterintelligence, served in Vietnam, whereas Stan did not.

“The Walk-In” begins with a flashback to 1966, when Elizabeth and Leanne (her fellow “illegal, who was killed in the second season premiere), are sitting in Silver Spring, Md. (conspicuous as brownstone Brooklyn), discussing parenthood. Leanne is a new mother, rapturously describing the way her husband, Emmet, sings the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” (that song’s title could be the KGB’s theme) to their baby son, Jared. In 1966, Elizabeth was ambivalent about motherhood. When she confesses that she’s not sure she wants kids, Leanne says, “I wouldn’t tell the Center that.” After all, producing children is part of their assignment as KGB agents posing as Americans: To blend into enemy territory, they are supposed to replicate the American dream.


For Leanne and Emmet, that dream was shattered at the beginning of this season, when they were gunned down, along with their 14-year-old daughter, in an Alexandria hotel room; 17-year-old Jared survived the slaughter because he was swimming in the hotel pool at the time. Now Elizabeth can’t stop thinking about Jared. When Philip tells her that he is living with friends of Emmet and Leanne, Elizabeth says, “If this happens to us, who’s going to take our kids? We don’t have any real friends.”

Elizabeth is enjoying a new intimacy with her husband. Their relationship, with each other, is no longer a pose. But their relationship with their teenage daughter is fraught: Paige knows they’re keeping things from her and she’s determined to find out the truth. She ditches school and catches a bus to Pennsylvania, to the address of the “Great Aunt Helen” with whom her mother was supposedly staying during her two-month absence. (In fact, Elizabeth was recuperating from a gunshot wound in a KGB safe house.) On the bus to Pennsylvania, Paige bonds with another teenage girl named Kelly. When Paige tells Kelly that her parents are “private” and don’t reveal much, Kelly says, “Like all parents?” But Paige senses something more complicated: “It just feels like there’s always something going on,” she says. “I just want to know.”

This is one of the questions that “The Americans” poses so well: Is it always better to know what really happened? Or can the truth be more harmful than helpful?


Paige has never met her Great Aunt Helen, and Helen claims not to recognize her, though a photograph of Elizabeth, holding the infant Paige, on the wall confirms that there is some kind of relationship between Helen and her mother. Paige returns to Falls Church disappointed. She’s concocted a story to explain her absence -- she was auditioning for the debate team, she tells her dad -- but Philip has already received a phone call from Helen. He’s already called Paige’s school and learned that she called in sick. “Lying,” he tells his daughter, “will not be tolerated.”

Unless, of course, you’re a KGB spy who lies all the time.

Philip and Elizabeth tell plenty of lies in the factory they visit in Newport News, Va. Alerted that a classified military plant -- full of information they need about Reagan’s defense initiatives -- is being moved to a new location, the Jennings pose as moving company representatives with the required security clearance. The machine they need has already been moved, but Elizabeth subtly threatens a factory employee named Derek with a crowbar; he then tells Elizabeth that the blades that are ground by that machine are still on site. Derek is smart enough to know that his life is in danger; he appeals to Elizabeth’s sympathy by opening his wallet and showing her pictures of his three young sons.


The classified plans for the machine are right there on the blades, and it doesn’t take long for Philip to photograph them with his crafty spy camera. But before he and his wife leave the plant, Elizabeth opens Derek’s wallet and takes the photograph of one of his three sons. She isn’t going soft on the job, even though she’s worried about losing her own children.

Back in 1966, Leanne told Elizabeth that she and Emmet had written a letter to their son. “I want him to know the truth, who we are, where we come from,” Leanne said. And Elizabeth promises to deliver that letter to Jared “if it comes to that.” Now it has come to that, of course. Elizabeth wants to uphold her promise, to tell Jared the truth about his parents.


But when, in disguise as an employee of Child Advocacy Services, she visits Jared and hears him talk about his parents, she realizes that telling him the truth would mean shattering his entire life and sense of trust.

Meanwhile, back at the FBI, Stan makes up for not serving in Vietnam with some heroism. He catches the troubled walk-in on the roof, ready to shoot the World Bank executives who are assembling for a meeting at the hotel. (The vague World Bank subplot has been the weakest element of this otherwise stellar season, and the show’s low production budget proved distracting in the showdown scene. The roof and hotel were too obviously not Washington, and it’s impossible to believe that the World Bank would host a meeting on such a grimy street.)

Later, in bed with Nina Sergeevna at the safe house, Stan says that the FBI wants to give him a medal. Nina says, “All my life they tell us terrible things about you: that you oppress your own people, that you want to destroy us … Then I meet you. I’m proud of you, Stan.” And Stan, who probably hasn’t heard his wife say that to him in years, says, “I love you, Nina.”


In the Soviet rezidentura, Nina Sergeevna types up her report about her latest rendezvous with Stan. “Are you writing a novel?” asks Oleg Igorevich flirtatiously. No, she tells him, it’s a report. But in this world, where fact resembles fiction, reports read like novels. And the “the truth” doesn’t always come out.

Elizabeth burns Leanne’s letter to Jared. The newly rebellious Paige sneaks out to see her new friend Kelly. And Philip hides in the darkroom, developing images of classified military plans. And the episode closes with Peter Gabriel’s voice singing the fitting “Here Comes the Flood.”

Elliott Holt

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