The early frontrunner for best episode of the season showcases the sexy, intimate side to home dentistry.
Not everything is worth the risk, Philip.
A week after The Americans took viewers through the nauseating process of breaking a corpse’s bones so it would fit in a suitcase, the show offered another potentially graphic scene.
Elizabeth is still dealing with pain from the broken tooth that she got while escaping from the FBI in the season opener. She suspects (correctly) that the FBI is watching local dentists’ offices, and looking for a woman matching her description that needs emergency dental work. When the pain from the broken tooth grows ever worse – bad enough that she jerks back in pain when Philip tries to kiss her after surviving a dangerous mission – Philip decides to take matters into his own hands and pull the tooth himself. He leads Elizabeth down to the basements, gives her a drink of whiskey, and pulls a set of pliers from the household tool kit.
Viewers can relax, though. Despite what you may fear, The Americans isn’t trying to turn viewers’ stomachs two weeks in a row. This isn’t a horror scene, despite the unsettling subject matter. Make no mistake: this is a sex scene.
I always try to highlight the emotional signifiers that pop up in The Americans, and they’re often misleading from what appears visually. Contrast the basement dentistry scene with one that appears early in “Open House:” The Jennings settle into their bedroom after a long day of work; Philip is sitting in bed while Elizabeth walks around the warmly-lit room telling him about her day, slowly disrobing as she talks. It isn’t long before she’s completely naked with Philip waiting in bed. But this scene isn’t romantic — despite all the usual romantic signifiers, this is a fight. Philip is still angry at Elizabeth for talking to Gabriel about their daughter’s potential recruitment without him, and he’s completely closed off. He ignores Elizabeth, answering her questions with brusque one-word answers, and it isn’t long before the two are in the midst of an angry showdown.
The real intimacy comes later in that dank basement laundry room, as Philip prepares to rip Elizabeth’s broken tooth out with a pair of rusty pliers. But for Elizabeth and Philip, and it’s all about trust. The scene is wordless, filmed as a series of understanding looks between husband and wife. It’s also shot incredibly tight, making great use of close-ups on Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell’s faces — right into Philip and Elizabeth’s eyes. And the one thing that’s readable in every one of Elizabeth’s glances is trust. These two have been together a long time, working together and learning one another’s signs and rhythms. Elizabeth needs her tooth out, and she turns to the one man who will get it done. The one man who knows all of her deepest secrets. The one man who she can trust: her husband. It’s an incredibly intimate moment.
It plays even better coming on the heels of a tightly-wound car chase that dominates the first half of the episode. Elizabeth and Philip realize that they’re being tailed while on a drive, and the couple set off on a low speed pursuit through the suburbs of Washington D.C. Who’s following them? It’s hard to say at first because the show isn’t keen on telling us, preferring instead to let us wrap ourselves up in paranoia just like our characters. What we do know is that Elizabeth is an expert on surveillance. That’s what she’s been teaching new asset Hans in their scattered scenes together, so we have reason to believe her when she’s thinks she’s being followed.
Philip bails out of the passenger door once night falls, recognizing that he can best provide help by activating a Soviet net designed for exactly this type of thing. After telling Elizabeth that he’ll meet her at home, in a voice that sounds more hopeful that confident, he slips out to a payphone where he calls for aid. Soon, the streets of suburban Washington become a tangle of cars as Elizabeth, her safety net, and her pursuers – now unveiled to be CIA men – make a crawl across town that would make the first half of the Bullitt car chase seem downright speedy. Director Thomas Schlamme avoids identifying who is behind the wheel of any of the cars except Elizabeth’s until the pivotal moment when the Soviet cars spring their trap, forcing an intersection wreck and springing Elizabeth to safety. It only adds to the scene’s sense of paranoia, winding the ball tighter and tighter until the much-needed moment of release. It’s no wonder that Philip desperately wants a kiss when Elizabeth somehow manages to make it home safe and free hours after he leaves her on her own — cue up that “sex” scene!
So much of what works in this episode is reliant on director Schlamme, who is well-noted for his work on Aaron Sorkin’s shows. He’s a master at subverting expectations, from the intimacy of at-home dentistry to the tension of a car chase that plays out at a snail’s pace. The master of the “walk-and-talk” technique even gets a chance to do one of those on The Americans when Elizabeth and Hans discuss the art of surveillance during a single-cut stroll down the sidewalks of a busy intersection. What’s even better is how subtle Schlamme’s camerawork is. He does all of these things and more, but none of it is ever thrust in the audience’s face. None of it ever distracts from the storytelling.
Elsewhere around D.C., agent Stan Beeman finally makes a friend. After weeks focusing on the FBI man’s loneliness, he finally seems to be bonding with new agent Aderholt. Aderholt appears to look up to Stan, admiring his years of undercover work with dangerous white supremacists. We only get a few hints at the burgeoning relationship in this Jennings-heavy episode, but I have to wonder if Aderholt will eventually become Stan’s partner – a role that hasn’t been filled since Chris Amador was killed in Season One. It’s worth keeping an eye on.
Also of note in the Aderholt file is his flirtation with Martha. Her marriage to “Clark” is still a secret, and she doesn’t wear a wedding ring at work. The two share some coy conversation over the mail robot (of all things), and I wonder if this relationship will soon test the bonds of the Martha-Clark marriage. Their flirtations were mirrored by yet another apartment conversation where Clark stressed to her that he wasn’t interested in having kids. How long before all the limitations of a relationship with Clark turn into the possibility of open love and children with another man? Now, that’s just speculation, but the show has juggled the Martha-Clark relationship for three seasons now. How much longer is Martha going to stand for it?
We only spent a few scenes in the Rezidentura this week, just long enough to see the office picture of now-deceased General-Secretary Leonid Brezhnev replaced with one of Yuri Andropov. That’s the typical, subtle way that The Americans marks that passage of history. We also get a chance to see the growing bond between Arkady and Oleg, a man he once viewed as a rival. Oleg’s powerful father requests his return home, but Arkady gives Oleg the option to decide his own course. If he wishes to stay in America, Arkady will deny the transfer home, which he does. It’s interesting to see Arkady take a risk and stand up to Oleg’s powerful father for a man he was once wary of even trusting. I hope this storyline develops more in the coming weeks. Oleg’s decision to make his own way is a nice mirror to Philip’s constant assertions that Paige should get to chose whether or not she joins the KGB.
The episode ends with Elizabeth and Philip realizing that the babysitter (and possible underage mistress) of the man they’ve spent the episode spying on is the daughter of the head of the ISI program that they’ve been attempting to infiltrate. Can they use this relationship to bring her under their wing? They’ve already realized that Yousaf can only get them so much information. A direct line into the ISI leader’s home would be infinitely more helpful, but is it a risk worth taking? The car chase in “Open House” indicates that someone is already on their tail. How many more risks are they willing to take? Maybe it’s time they listen to Gabriel’s advice and take a short break from spy work. “Not everything is worth the risk, Philip,” he says.
It’s a nice thought, but I have my doubts.
In short, built around a pair of exquisite scenes, “Open House” is the early baton-holder for the title of best episode of The Americans in Season 3.
The Dead Drop
-I know I was wondering where Henry Jennings was last week, but I can’t say I was expecting him to show up hiding a picture of a bikini-clad Sandra Beeman in his room. The (now braces-wearing) youngest Jennings child has obviously entered the Bran Stark/Walt Lloyd realm of accelerated aging. Maybe he and Philip need to have a sit-down talk about what happens when a man and a woman have feelings for each other – he can feel free to leave the part about whiskey and pliers out until Henry is older, though.
-How is it that the KGB had a doctor who could save Elizabeth from gunshot wounds in Season One, but don’t have a simple dentist now? It’s just the magic of TV writing, and it doesn’t bother me, but I do have to wonder.
-What is the long-term purpose of Hans? Right now he seems to be around a fair amount, but he never really does anything.
-I could spend hundreds of words going into deep Martha speculation. All I’m saying is that I know what I’d do with her character, and I wonder if the show will do the same.