THE AMERICANS: “Baggage”

The battle over Paige continues in a bone-snapping second episode. It’s not for the weak of stomach.

Propaganda is more important than anything.

-Tatiana Evgenyevna

The Americans has always made it clear that people are just cogs in the spycraft machine. As much as we in the audience may love Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, they’re probably just two of many Soviet agents working in the US. Their work is “important” to the home office, but only in the same way that every incoming e-mail is important at your daily job. It’s more correct to think of them as conductors of information. They’re useful through what they can provide. Everything else is just extra baggage.

So it might be a little heavy handed for the show to depict Soviet defector Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya arriving in the United States in a box, and for no one in the FBI to refer to her by an actual name until the closing minutes of the episode, but that’s the way this business works. The US government is more interested in having a prize in Zinaida than they are in letting her have an American experience. If she were to leave the tightly controlled confines of the FBI offices to see the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, then something might happen. Zinaida could die, sure, but the real tragedy would be that the FBI’s long coveted asset would be gone – and that’s a tragedy no matter what her name was.

It’s a message that’s reinforced through Annelise’s disposal. After being strangled by Yousuf last week, the Jennings set about removing her corpse from a hotel room in the show’s opening minutes. The dead woman is dragged onto a tarp, and we watch as the spy couple fold her into a square shape so that the body will fit into a suitcase. It’s not a pretty sight, and Philip, Elizabeth, and Yousuf snap several of her bones in the process. Alive, she was Annelise, a female agent for Swedish intelligence who used her sexuality to gather important information from Yousuf. But dead? Dead, she’s just a woman in a suitcase. She’s baggage in the most literal sense.

*I want to take a moment to say that I do have a big problem with this storyline. Annelise was never a major character in The Americans, only appearing in 3 of the show’s first 27 episodes. I feel like we never got to really know her. It almost feels like she existed solely for this moment – to be grotesquely stuffed inside of a suitcase and dragged out stage right. I find this incredibly troubling. Like the comic book women in refrigerators, was Annelise just a plot point waiting to be murdered and mutilated? It’s extra troubling if you think that Philip may have anticipated this outcome all along. I’m calling out showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg. You can do better than this.*

It’s not hard to see why Philip is so eager to keep the KGB away from his daughter, Paige. The KGB doesn’t really want Paige Jennings. They want a natural-born American who can get them access to the interiors of the American government. Who she is doesn’t really matter. She’d be just another asset, and we’ve seen time and time again – Gregory, Lucia, Kate, Annelise – just how badly being an asset can go.

For the time being, however, the Jennings seem to have Yousaf firmly in hand. With an incriminating Polaroid of him with Annelise’s body for collateral, Philip convinces Yousaf to arrange a meeting of the CIA’s top guys on Afghanistan. But these aren’t rookie CIA officers, and they know better than to walk into a trap. Instead, they take Yousaf to their own safe place for the meeting, leaving Philip and Elizabeth to follow them into a local bar. It’s always a bit comical to see Philip drinking Bud Light in a 1980s Tom Selleck mustache while on a mission, but the stakes are deadly serious. Agent Gaad’s team has just assembled a sketch of Elizabeth from the night she beat the snot out of him. It doesn’t look especially like her, but, then again, neither did the sketches of Philip and Elizabeth from Season One. As Stan tells Gaad, “they are good with the disguises.” But if you put enough inexact sketches together over time, eventually the recurring similar pieces will form an accurate picture of our two protagonists. Yet here they sit, gathering intel in the lion’s den.

Meanwhile, when he wasn’t chuckling about his boss’s broken nose, Stan had a dangerous encounter of his own. Leaving a video store, he’s confronted in a dark alley by Oleg, who pulls a gun on Stan and tells him to get on his knees. Oleg has done everything he can to save Nina, to no avail. He and Stan’s former lover is still on trial back in the Soviet Union, and there’s nothing either of them can do about it. With his efforts to save her exhausted, Oleg turns to the next best thing: revenge.

He tells Stan that his diplomatic immunity will save him from prosecution if he’s caught, but Stan still tries to dissuade him. “They’ll get you, Oleg,” he says. “Oh yeah?” the gunman retorts. “Like they got you?” It’s a cutting blow, referencing Stan’s murder of Vlad back in Season One. Stan was never arrested for the cold blooded murder, much less prosecuted. Why shouldn’t Oleg take his chances? Director Daniel Sackheim does some excellent work in “Baggage,” and this is a perfect example. He ramps up the tension as Stan dares Oleg to shoot him in the back and walks away. Logically, I knew that Stan couldn’t die at this point in the season, but that didn’t stop me from fearing it any less.

Just last week, Stan heard the presenter at the EST conference say that nearly dying is one of the things that makes a person feel really alive. Instead, Stan feels scared and lonely, and he finds himself reaching out to Sandra and Matt in his sorrow. We all know Stan and Sandra are over. Everyone in the world knows it. Everyone, that is, except for Stan. When he inadvertently goes for a kiss while Sandra is comforting him and Sandra pulls away, it’s perhaps the saddest I’ve ever felt for him. After years of neglecting his family for his job – not how he identified himself when he left a phone message for his son: first by his professional name, and then as “Dad” – he now finds himself utterly alone. Still, the Sandra ship has sailed. Even though Stan needs comforting right now, she’s never coming back. He already betrayed her once with Nina. What if Nina hadn’t been sent back to the Soviet Union at all? Who would Stan be turning to in his grief now? Speaking of…

We finally get our first glimpse of Nina this season. Confined to a cell in Lefortovo prison in Moscow, we get to see her meet her new cellmate, a (supposed) French-speaking Belgian woman who claims she’s there by accident. She just needs the Belgian Embassy to know she’s there so that she can be rescued. Nina has her doubts. “This isn’t a prison for innocent people,” she scoffs. Two years ago we were just meeting a sweet, idealistic Soviet girl fascinated by American goods. How things have changed. Nina’s a hardened woman now, prepared to deal with a harsh world. But is she ready for the twist that comes next? She’s led into a detainment room where she meets the often mentioned, but never before seen, Igor Pavlovich: Oleg’s father. To be continued.

The line of the episode goes to Tatiana Evgenyevna, the new female officer at the Rezidentura, who tells Oleg about why the defecting Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya’s statements about the USSR’s operations in Afghanistan pose a real threat to them. “Propaganda is more important than anything,” she tells him, and she’s right. The power struggle of the Cold War is defined by the idea of mutually assured destruction. The US and USSR possessed the ability to destroy each other a hundred times over, but knew that doing so would result in their own demise. Thus, the Cold War became a stalemate. Economic wars aside, it was largely a series of battles fought for the minds of the people of the world – system against system. And the key to that war was propaganda: the illusion of a perfect world behind each nation’s political system.

It’s something Philip and Elizabeth should know a lot about, constantly maintaining the illusion of a functioning American marriage. It’s the misleading illusion that’s important. They can’t win their private war against American intelligence if the charade falls apart. You learn more about your parents as you get older. Suddenly, they aren’t perfect people. Paige is beginning to suspect that everything isn’t kosher with her parents’ marriage. Philip spends enough late nights out of the house to make her suspicious of an affair. Elizabeth laughs it off. Of course, we all know better.

But Paige does suspect something is wrong with the way her parents act. How much longer can Philip and Elizabeth hold it together? The charade won’t be necessary if Elizabeth gets her way and Paige is recruited into their world. Philip still wants to keep her in the dark. She won’t ever find herself stuffed into a suitcase if she never enters the game, and, to Philip, that’s the most important thing. She needs to stay in the dark. “The Propaganda is more important than anything,” he might say.

The Dead Drop

-We’ve seen Henry Jennings for all of about 2 minutes this season. All this talk about Paige — Elizabeth and Philip remember they have another child, right?

-I kind of suspect that Elizabeth and Philip order Miller Lites in the bar as an excuse for product placement using Miller Lite’s throwback bottle design.

-I’m suspicious of Nina’s cellmate. Surely she’s not just an innocent Belgian prisoner, as she claims. Maybe a test for Nina? That, or she dies in the cell and Nina goes full Count of Monte Cristo.

-I also suspect Gabriel. Is he lulling Elizabeth into a sense of comfort to help get Paige to commit? What can I say? I anticipate rather than participate in The Americans. It’s a chess game and I want to stay a few steps ahead.

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