It’s man vs machine in this week’s episode, “ARPANET.” Are our resident spies up to the challenge?
You have no armor, nothing to protect you — except your wits, your courage, and your beauty.
-Oleg, to Nina
One of the interesting things about The Americans has always been the integration of real historical events into the plot line. The first season included John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan and allusions to the development of the “Star Wars” strategic defense initiative, and Season Two has already included plotlines focusing on developing American interest in training rebel Contras to intervene against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. They’re plotlines that anyone with an understanding of history in the 1980s will be able to latch on to for context about when exactly the show is occurring, and just what the eventual effects of these covert projects may be. So it only makes sense for our resident spy couple to receive a mission investigating ARPANET in this week’s episode. ARPANET, short for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was a real American technological packet-switching network, grown from infancy in the late 1960s to its major heyday in the 1980s that would eventually evolve into the backbone of our current global internet. It’s the kind of project Al Gore was referencing when he claimed that he helped invented the internet during the 2000 election. It’s a real thing, not just a convenient plot device dreamed up by the writers, and it’s the kind of technology that would eventually open up the dissemination of information across the globe – in opposition to the type of closed-fisted secret hording of the Cold War era. So it seems right that an episode focusing on this technology, “an interstate highway system through which all information flows,” as a scientist on the show calls it, would be one of the more mechanically-inclined episodes in the show’s history.
I say mechanical, in part, because both of this week’s storylines involve our characters facing down seemingly all-knowing “god-like” machines. For Nina, that’s a polygraph. Thank goodness that Nina finally gets something to do. I’ve been lamenting her demotion to a side character for much of the season, but this week the writers put her front and center after a long absence. Her superiors Oleg and Arkady tell her that she has little option but to take and pass Stan’s FBI-administered lie detector test. Oleg, the new, young techno-master in the Rezidentura tells her it’s doable with a little training, before admitting to Arkady (once Nina has left the room) that it’s merely a possibility. In the first of two lie detector tests that she will take over the episode’s duration, Nina is strapped in during a training session with Oleg as he guides her through the process of how to beat a polygraph: Deceiving her own body, not merely lying to the machine, remaining calm when they reference “ambiguities” in her answers in an attempt to provoke a nervous response, and, to Nina’s shock, clenching her anus when lying (yes, that’s exactly how Oleg explains it). It’s an emotionally charged moment, as scenes dealing with lie detectors often are. There’s a lot riding on the results of this test, and not just for her. For Oleg’s reputation. For Stan’s trust in Nina. For the Rezidentura’s desires to keep an agent on the inside with the FBI. The camera draws us in tightly with close-ups on both Nina and Oleg’s faces as they sit facing each other almost nose to nose. Find an empty corner in the room, he tells her, and know that I’m there watching over you. It’s borderline intimate for the two agents as he guides her through her early frustrations towards an eventual confident competence. There’s a real need for trust here if Nina has any hopes of passing.
Much like the idea of working through your fears during the dress rehearsal before exuding an assured confidence during the full production, I found Nina’s actual test to be much calmer than the training sessions. She knows what she has to do now. The production is just a formality. It gives the camera free reign to explore her emotions other than fear throughout the duration of the test. It follows her gaze from a seated position over to one of the apartment’s quiet corners when she’s lying. We’re getting to experience her newfound trust in Oleg through her glances to the corner from which he swore he would be spiritually guiding her through the test. When the test administrator asks her if she knows who killed Vlad, a murdered agent at the Rezidentura, she stares Stan straight in the face before answering in the affirmative. She’s cold now, mechanical, and walking through the motions that will get her the result she wants. Stan ought to be worried by that last answer. The stoic calmness of her response might be a true indicator of her true allegiances, despite what the lie detector claims to reveal. If he were as perceptive as he believes, he’d realize that she knows he’s responsible for the murder. Instead, he’s as relieved as she is when the results come back in her favor, and the two declare love and affection.
The last time we see Nina in the episode, she’s lustily unwinding after passing the test – by bedding her polygraph coach, Oleg. I’d given up on the idea that the two would be lovers a few weeks ago, just a few weeks too soon it seems. She purrs in his arms, self assured in her ability to beat the machine. But how real is it? We just saw her manipulate Stan for her own means. Is Oleg just another man she’s using for safety? The show’s problem with Nina is that she never seems to have any propulsion of her own. She’s always drifting and directed by the men around her. I’d like to see her develop her own ideological drive, but we’ll have to see what the writers come up with. It’s not too late!
The time that the show gives Nina is time that’s taken away from Elizabeth. This might be the least she’s ever appeared in an episode. Her only appearance is to rendezvous with Laric, who tells her that his plans have changed and he won’t be there to let her, Philip, and Lucia into the camp where the Contra lieutenants are being trained while Philip watches from the roof with a rifle trained on Laric’s head. It’s news that Lucia doesn’t want to hear. She was planning to go rogue and kill Laric as soon as they were inside the camp. She fumes like the symbolic teenager she is to Elizabeth’s stand-in mother when Elizabeth tells her that such a move would get them all killed, and that Laric is an asset to them, no matter how hard that may be to hear.
Philip’s mechanical showdown comes with the titular ARPANET machine itself, which he’s instructed to bug with the help of Soviet sympathizer Charles Duluth (remember him from season one? I didn’t either. He’s a journalist with some limited access to the Reagan administration). The two men have a meeting with a scientist to learn about the machine and give Duluth a plausible reason to revisit the office later (leaving his glasses behind). The scientist explains how that machine works to Philip and Duluth as well as the audience. It’s okay if we don’t entirely understand how it works. Neither do either of our characters. It’s best described by the professor as “sort of like God” before the camera ascends heavenward through the floor to look upon the machine as it hums and spins in its alcove.
Philip’s biggest problem is Duluth, who he needs for the project, but who is an untrustworthy alcoholic. He swears to Philip that he’ll be off the sauce for the mission, but Philip can only hope. This is a mission he needs help with, and as a spy imbedded in a foreign country, he doesn’t get to pick and choose his associate. Of course, Duluth fudges the mission, smudging the code numbers on his hand and failing to get everybody out of the lab where the ARPANET machine is. Is his sweating just a sign of nerves? Or is it withdrawal from alcohol? Duluth’s incompetence results in Philip having to kill an innocent man who stumbles upon him bugging the machine in the lab. Philip calmly wheels the body out in a trash can as he leaves the lab disguised as a janitor, but he makes sure to let Duluth know his displeasure when they meet up afterwards. I’m curious as to why Philip is so pissed. He had no qualms killing an uninvolved bystander in the season’s first episode. What’s the difference here? Is he just pissed that this murder came as a result of Duluth’s incompetence rather than pure coincidence? When the two men reunite at a bar after the operation Duluth seems calm and relaxed again. Is it just subsided nerves? When Philip pulls his own lie detector test and asks the bartender to make him the same drink he made for Duluth, the bartender fills a glass with cranberry juice, seemingly vindicating the incompetent spy, but after a moment in thought, he eventually adds vodka to it. Duluth’s returned calmness came from the alcohol, not the endorphin flush that came with the end of the mission. He’s not the kind of man you’d want to trust with your life on the line.
Man still has mastery of machine, for now. Both of our protagonists defeat their mechanical challenges in this week’s episode, and Deep Blue wouldn’t beat chess master Garry Kasparov (a historical signifier of the rise of machines) for almost 15 years in the show’s timeline. But technology is gaining. It won’t be long before our spies are carrying around tiny recorders and tracking beacons. For now it’s still a game of wits, and our spies seem up to the challenge. This episode marks the halfway point for the season, (there’s 13 episodes, so we’re just a little past halfway) and the show has laid numerous fertile plot points for the second half. Now it’s time to put up or shut up. They haven’t dropped the ball yet, and there’s no reason to expect that they will. We should be in for some tight, smart, tense television.
-Oleg seems impossible to figure out. Two weeks ago he was selling Nina’s safety out to Stan. Now they’re sleeping together. He’s a complete wild card, and I suspect he’s got something big up his sleeves for the second half of the season. He’s been a great addition to the show.
-No Paige this week, but we did get a Henry sighting. He broke into his vacationing neighbor’s house to play video games. Lying and breaking & entering for both kids this season. It’s like this kind of thing runs in the Jennings family.