Last night’s episode of “The Americans” showed us the intense psychological toll of all of Philip and Elizabeth’s role-playing. It was a great episode, with one of the best scenes I’ve ever seen on TV. (More on that scene soon.)
The episode opens with Elizabeth and Philip talking to their old handler, Claudia, about their plan to kill Andrew Larrick, the Navy captain whom they suspect of killing their colleagues Emmet and Leanne. Philip tells her that they’ve made plans to meet Larrick in an office park in Reston, Va. Claudia promises to run counter-surveillance to protect them. At the meeting, Elizabeth and Philip are in disguise as CIA operatives. They tell Larrick they know he’s been working for the KGB for the past three years and ask why he killed his handlers. But Larrick insist he didn’t kill them. “I got close,” he says. “But someone got to the bastards before I could.” (Emmet and Leanne were blackmailing Larrick because he’s gay; that’s how they got American secrets out of him.) Elizabeth and Philip are intrigued by references to operation “Marshall Eagle” in Larrick’s Navy file. Larrick hints at his operation’s importance when he says, “Whatever damage I’ve done, I’m making up for it in Nicaragua.”
It’s 1982 and Philip and Elizabeth have stumbled onto the Contra part of the Iran-Contra affair. They know this piece of intelligence is so important that they can’t kill Larrick right away. First they have to find out the details of Operation Marshall: where is the camp where the Americans are training Nicaragua contras? The American people don’t yet know about this secret operation (the details of the Iran-Contra affair didn’t come out for a few years), but the KGB certainly don’t want armed Contras defeating communists in Central America.
Meanwhile, Stan meets Oleg Igorevich Burov in the sort of dark, abandoned building where such clandestine meetings always take place on television. “Where’s Nina?” Stan demands. Apparently Nina Sergeevna has missed a few meetings with Stan. Oleg Igorevcich says he’s been “keeping her busy at the Rezidentura.” Stan still thinks that Oleg is the only person in the Soviet embassy who knows that Nina is working for him. He has no idea that she’s a double agent. So when Oleg demands that Stan change FBI surveillance logs recording Oleg’s movements, Stan doesn’t refuse. Later, he goes to Agent Gaad’s house to tell him that his “source at the Rezidentura has been compromised.” But Stan has been compromised, too. Stan is worried that Nina is in over her head. But Gaad, who has been summoned to a closed-door Congressional hearing to answer questions about the death of Vlad (the Soviet diplomat that Stan killed last season), has little patience for Stan: “Has it occurred to you that you’re the one in over your head?” he says.
To find out details about operation “Marshall Eagle,” Elizabeth enlists Lucia, the young Sandinista whom she helped earlier this season. (When Lucia was smoking crack with a Congressional aide, whom she feared would die of a drug overdose, the KGB sent Elizabeth in to sort out the situation. The Congressional aide was fine, and at the time, Elizabeth urged Lucia to “make him your boyfriend” so she’d have access to information.) Now, Elizabeth needs Lucia to help her sneak into that boyfriend’s boss’s office. “Have you had sex with him yet?” she asks Lucia.
Lucia has been playing hard to get, making him wait. But Elizabeth makes it clear that there’s a job to do here: There’s no time for romance. The young idealistic Sandinista lets the coked up Congressional Aide fuck her on his boss’s desk, while Elizabeth sneaks in to get files. Elizabeth has never looked older, or more jaded, than she does in this scene. We ache for the innocence she lost long ago, and for the innocence she took away from Lucia. “I’ve been ready to die my whole life for it, Lucia,” she says, of the cause. But she’s sounding less like a believer than a prisoner.
Back at the Rezidentura, we learn that Arkady Ivanovich knows about Oleg’s dealings with Stan. Arkady Ivanovich asks how likely it is that Stan will do what they asked (with the FBI surveillance logs). “50-50,” says Oleg Igorevich. Oleg gives Arkady the file that Elizabeth stole from the Congressman. Among its contents: a reference to the Internet, in development.
Last week, disguised as Clark’s sister Jennifer, Elizabeth learned that Clark is a “wild animal in bed” with Martha. This week, she brings up this detail in a tender moment in bed with Philip. “Isn’t that funny?” she says. And it is, at first. Elizabeth is jealous and curious. She wants the animal in bed. She wants to see this aggressive side of Philip that comes out as “Clark.” The next day in the kitchen, she asks, teasingly, if Clark would ever cheat on his wife. “I would like to try it with Clark,” she says.
Later, when Philip returns home in his Clark disguise, Elizabeth is waiting for him in bed. “I want you to be Clark,” she says. She insists that he keep wearing the Clark glasses (a funny detail since we know that Clark always takes his glasses off before going down on Martha). But even with the glasses on, Philip is the same way he always is in bed. (We assume that Martha thinks he’s “an animal” because Martha has less sexual experience than Elizabeth.) Elizabeth is increasingly frustrated; she wants the passion she thinks she’s missing out on. “I want you to be Clark,” she screams, until Philip grabs her, turns her around and fucks her from behind, in a violent way that recalls her rape at the hands of the Colonel back in Moscow.
Elizabeth bursts into tears, while a devastated Philip retreats to the bathroom to pull off his Clark wig. He’s disgusted with himself. This scene, which moved beautifully from playfully comic and sexy to desperately violent and sad, was extraordinary. Side note: Matthew Rhys deserves an Emmy for his multi-layered portrayal of Philip. Philip and Elizabeth are in love; they have a genuine connection, which has been getting stronger and stronger this season. But whatever trust existed between them disappeared in this painful moment. They’re compromised by all the roles they’re required to play. In this episode, it is clear that everyone has been compromised in the Cold War.
The newly compromised Lucia follows Elizabeth’s instructions to eliminate her Congressional aide lover. She laces his heroin with something that will kill him, and watches him O.D. in front of her. In the safe house, the compromised Stan tells Nina about his meeting with Oleg. “We’re all spies,” Nina says. And Stan asks her to take a polygraph test; it’s a “bureau requirement.”
Claudia, who confesses that she made the mistake of confiding in a lover about who she really is and what she does—“this business can be lonely,” she says— has compromised the safety of her agents. She’s worried that she’s to blame for Emmet and Leanne’s death and she doesn’t want anything to happen to Elizabeth and Philip.
The episode ends with Philip, in disguise, confronting the compromised Captain Larrick in a gay club. “You’re not CIA,” Larrick says. “I had my doubts.” There are so many doubts about so many identities on this show. “The Americans” brilliantly asks how well we can ever know anyone.