"The Americans" recap: Defenses go down

Philip buys a new Chevrolet, Elizabeth breaks down, and they are more vulnerable than ever

Published April 17, 2014 1:04PM (EDT)

Anyone who lived in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s remembers the local commercials for Jhoon Rhee karate school. The low-budget ads always concluded with a little kid saying, “Nobody bothers me!” At the beginning of this episode of “The Americans,” that commercial appears on the TV that Clark (Philip in disguise) and Martha watch in bed. It was my all-time favorite period detail on the show because it captured my childhood in D.C. And it was appropriate for “The Americans” because despite the tough guy posture of those ads for self-defense, this episode was about defenses breaking down. (Near the end of the episode, Elizabeth watches Reagan on TV.  The President says, “the Soviet Union outspends us on defense” and insists that he would rather “restore America’s defenses” than balance the budget. Reagan might as well be saying, “nobody bothers us!”)

Philip buys a new Chevrolet convertible, much to the delight of his son, Henry, and much to the dismay of Elizabeth, who remains contemptuous of American consumer culture. “We have to live this way for our cover,” she says. The American way of life is “easier” but “it’s not better.”

This mirrors what Anton Baklonov, the Jewish scientist who was repatriated against his will, is told in a Moscow lab. The older lab director, who was also forced to return from America, concedes that “Mother Russia is not easy,” but assures Baklonov that their country is “good in the end.” The Soviets need Baklonov; they’ve learned about the Americans’ plans to build stealth bombers (planes invisible to radar) and need his expertise to help them design their own invisible planes.

The Soviets have learned about the Americans’ Arpanet (the precursor to the Internet) and stealth planes, but they also learn, in this episode, that they’ve gathered faulty technology intelligence. The propeller plans that Philip and Elizabeth stole from a military plant turned out to be fake, planted by the Americans to foil the KGB. The Soviets used the false plans to build a submarine, which has sunk, killing 160 men. Arkady Ivanovich feels responsible for the disaster (“160 young comrades died because of our sloppiness,” he says) despite the fact, as Oleg Igorevich points out, that the Soviet navy failed to sufficiently test the equipment. And Philip and Elizabeth feel guilty, even though they were just following orders.

Meanwhile, Lucia, the passionate Sandinista, breaks into Naval Captain Larrick’s house, intending to torture and kill him. But Larrick outsmarts her. He signals Elizabeth, who arrives (in disguise, of course) to find Lucia bound and gagged. Larrick promises to release her in exchange for his freedom. He wants nothing more to do with the KGB. “I’ll get you into the Marshall Eagle camp,” he says. “I’ll send reports from Nicaragua when I’m there. Then I’m done.” He promises to give Elizabeth the password and hand signal for the Marshall Eagle camp (the training camp for Contras on American soil) as soon as he knows them. Despite her sympathy for Lucia, Elizabeth has to agree to Larrick’s demands. He’s too valuable an asset, and the Soviets need to expose the secret Contra-training plan to hurt the Americans. Larrick lets Lucia go, as promised, but the passionate, irrational Lucia attacks him again. Elizabeth can’t save Lucia without destroying the KGB operation and hurting her country. So she lets Larrick kill Lucia right in front of her. At home with Philip, she bursts into tears.

Stan puts himself at risk when he hands over the FBI’s surveillance reports on Oleg Igorevich Burov. Oleg asked for them in exchange for Nina Sergeevna’s safety. In the safe house, Nina is touched that he would do such a risky thing for her: “If someone at the FBI founds out what you have done to protect me, you will go to prison.” She may seem to have genuine feelings for Stan, but it’s hard to know where Nina’s real loyalties lie. She’s equally convincing and cozy with Oleg Igorevich, with whom she flirtatiously plays video games at the Rezidentura. Arkady Ivanovich congratulates Oleg and Nina on their work with Stan Beeman. The fact that Beeman handed over surveillance reports indicates that they have begun to turn him. And turning a high-level counterintelligence officer is a huge accomplishment.

Meanwhile Stan is trying to get the DOJ to authorize his investigation of Oleg Burov. Stan tells Justice that he’s convinced that the KGB kidnapped a scientist, but without “code word clearance,” he can’t pursue the matter.

Last week, Philip and Elizabeth’s young son Henry let himself into a neighbor’s house to play video games while the family was out of town. This week, he gets caught. To his parents, a tearful Henry swears, “I’m good, I’m good, I’m good. I know the difference between right and wrong, I swear.” He tries to rationalize his actions: he didn’t hurt anyone, he didn’t steal anything. All the characters on “The Americans” may have a similar monologue in their heads. They’re all trying to justify their actions and convince themselves that they’re good. Their defenses are down; all of them—Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Nina, and Arkady—are more vulnerable than ever.

By Elliott Holt

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