“The Americans” is at its best when its plots aren’t too complicated. This week’s episode, the fourth of the second season, was top-heavy with exposition: There were a lot of new targets and confusing elements that needed explaining.
There’s a Jewish physicist named Anton Baklanov, who escaped the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union and who lives happily in Washington, where his research is vital to American defense technologies. The Soviets have assessed him and determined him impossible to recruit; he won’t turn on America, so they decide to “force his repatriation.” Philip and Elizabeth’s official mission in this episode is to “take the scientist.”
But their unsanctioned mission is one proposed by Claudia (Margo Martingale), their old handler, whom we haven’t seen since the first season. Claudia returns with a request for vengeance: “You have to help me find Leanne and Emmet’s killer,” she says. (Leanne and Emmet, in case you’ve forgotten, were the KGB agents who were killed in the second season premiere.) The fact that they were murdered suggests that someone knows about the Soviet illegals posing as Americans. Philip and Elizabeth are obviously invested in finding the killer — their own position as illegals may already be compromised — but Elizabeth, who has never trusted Claudia, is wary of pursuing an operation that was not ordered by the Centre.
In the murder of Leanne and Emmet, Claudia suspects a man named Andrew Larrick, who ran Special Ops in Vietnam and is now building some kind of operation with Navy SEALs and teaching at Annapolis. “Emmet and Leanne were blackmailing him,” Claudia says. “He’s homosexual.” Andrew Larrick, Claudia further explains, is the only agent that Leanne and Emmet were running who might have been on to them. She tells Philip and Elizabeth that they’ll need an airtight cover to get to Larrick. She suggests going through a man named Brad Mullen, a classical music-loving Navy man in Newport News. It’s up to Elizabeth, disguised as a shy woman hovering in a classical record store, to seduce Brad. (“The Americans” is generally a minor-key show, but this week’s episode is named for Mozart’s popular “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” a major-key serenade. Another major-key hit that appears in this episode: “I’ll Melt With You” by Modern English.)
Philip, in disguise as Clark, picks a fight with his fake wife, Martha, in order to get away from her apartment — and her desire for a lazy romantic morning — so he can get back to work on the operation. It’s clear that “Clark’s” marriage to Martha isn’t tenable. How long before she discovers that the man she is married to is an impostor? She’s useful because she works for Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas), but Gaad has just been demoted. The FBI is conducting an inquiry into the death of Vlad (the KGB agent whom Stan shot last season) and has brought in someone over Gaad to run counterintelligence. Martha may not be so crucial anymore. But in the meantime, she spends much of this episode trying to reach her husband, “Clark,” who — for reasons that will be revealed — isn’t answering his phone.
Stan confesses his affair with Nina Sergeevna (“a woman I work with,” is all he reveals about her identity) to Philip, in a bar. Meanwhile, at the Soviet Rezidentura, the suspicious Oleg Igorevich has used his family connections in Moscow to get top security clearance. Now he has access to Nina’s reports about Stan. She’s a double agent; is Oleg Igorevich a double agent as well? He’s always flirting with Nina and one senses that there is more to Oleg than meets the eye.
At home, Philip and Elizabeth are distressed that Paige has discovered religion. Elizabeth catches her reading the Bible and finds out she’s been sneaking off to a church youth group with her new friend Kelly. “Opiate of the masses,” is how Elizabeth describes religion to Philip. She fears that her daughter is being indoctrinated by Americans. “This is how they get them,” she says. (The USSR was not tolerant of religion of any kind, but now the Orthodox Church in Russia is an arm of the Kremlin; Putin uses religion as a tool for cracking down on dissent.)
Philip and Elizabeth decide to take the scientist after he leaves his mistress’s house, but as soon as they chloroform Baklonov and get him into their car, his mistress, along with another mysterious man, attack. At the end of the violent scuffle, the mistress drives off with the scientist in the car, while Philip and Elizabeth are left in the street, with the man they clobbered.
This week, “The Americans” established a lot of intricate subplots: physicist Baklonov and the Jewish diaspora; Brad Mullen (whose classical music is a different kind of opiate for the masses) and Andrew Larrick; Martha’s inevitable doubts about Clark; Oleg Igorevich’s mysterious motives. There were a lot of events, but less rich storytelling (and fewer finely textured moments) than in the first three episodes of this season. But this episode set up a lot of juicy story lines for the rest of the season.