While setting up intriguing future plot lines, “Cardinal” tries to amp up the emotional drama, but doesn’t quite have enough material to remain thrilling throughout.
“I’m a feminist, Nina. I only work for Mother Russia,”
Uh-oh. Say it ain’t so.
Just last week I was praising The Americans’s premiere episode while hoping that season 2 didn’t fall into the same good episode/bad episode rut as season 1. Well, here we are one week later, and I’m worried that such a rut is exactly where we’re heading. There’s nothing wrong with “Cardinal,” per se, but it’s nothing to write home about either.
This week’s episode finds our characters dealing with the fallout from last week’s shocking murder of Soviet sleeper-cell agents Emmett and Leanne. Fellow spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings have a lot on their plate, both emotionally and operationally. Philip is forced to investigate the murdered couple’s contact for the KGB while Elizabeth stays close to home hovering over her children and concerned for their safety. If there’s a target out on unsuspecting KGB agents, can you really blame her?
The murders are big news in the Washington DC area, and everyone is on edge. Sure, the unsuspecting public doesn’t know that the victims were KGB agents, but the threat of seemingly random violence is worrisome enough. It’s enough to make Martha, Philip’s other wife, want to buy a gun for protection. After all, the last thing she wants is to be a victim. Oh, poor sweet Martha. If only it were that simple. In reality, a victim is exactly what Martha’s been all along. Unbeknownst to her, her marriage to “Clark” is a sham, with Philip in disguise using her position as a secretary in FBI counter-intelligence to milk her for information about the FBI’s affairs. It’s a useful intelligence-gathering method that’s in danger of drying up when Martha expresses a desire to take a job in a different department for career advancement, and Clark/Philip is stuck convincing her to try to move up in the counter-intelligence office instead.
While Philip deals with their unsuspecting intelligence source, Elizabeth Jennings is staying close to home. The murders have left her shaken and worried about the safety of their children. Every paper delivery boy or road repair worker might be a waiting assassin, and Elizabeth can’t seem to escape her concern. At a time when her oldest daughter, Paige, is maturing and seeking freedom, Elizabeth wants nothing more than to keep her safe at home. It’s a recurring theme for the show; the angst of parenthood is sharply magnified under the pressures of the spy game. While other kids her age might be out at the mall, Paige is kept at home under the hovering care of her mother. But Elizabeth is just worried about her kids – the irony that they’re playing a game of LIFE while Elizabeth worries about assassins around every corner. But Paige is up to games of her own. She calls an operator and gets the phone number for Helen Leavis, the Aunt that Elizabeth was supposedly with while she was actually recovering from her gunshot wound sustained at the end of season one. It seems like only a matter of time before Paige calls that number.
Meanwhile, Philip checks up on the murdered couple’s American contact – the one who passed Philip a coded message in the previous episode. Posing as a repair man, he taps his phone and then breaks into his house. He eventually finds a metal stash box concealed in a fake floor panel, but the box is booby trapped, and Philip is knocked out by an electric shock. He comes to with Fred, the contact, frantically pointing a gun at his head, and Philip must convince him that they’re on the same side while digging for information about if Fred inadvertently blew the cover of the two agents. Fred doesn’t realize that the murdered couple is Emmett and Leanne, and that news only shakes him more. Once Philip is finally able to assuage Fred’s fears enough to get out of danger, Fred reveals that the coded message was about the planned move at a plant that manufactures a new secret propeller for the navy, and the Soviets can’t miss this opportunity to investigate the propeller during the move. It may be their only chance. It seems to set up for a future episode, much like Elizabeth’s quick encounter with a scared Central American agent who runs into trouble in with her coked up congressional aide “boyfriend” (read: target). The Americans is always great at setting the stage and enforcing its themes. See, as worried as Elizabeth was about her children, she still left them alone when duty called. In the battle between family and service to the cause, her Soviet loyalties seem to have the upper hand.
The other third of “Cardinal” touches on the FBI and the Soviet embassy. The embassy station chief, rezident Arkady Ivanovich, seems as in the dark and shaken over the murders as the Jennings family. When an unexpected man walks in to the embassy to aid the Soviet cause, Arkady is suspiscious and scared to meet with him. He’ll only speak with the man via the intercom. When Nina gives this information to FBI agent Stan, he uses surveillance footage to determine the identity of the man, an employee at the World Bank and puts him under surveillance. Nina continues her own double agent reports on Stan while brushing off the flirting advances of the embassy’s new affairs and technology worker, Oleg Nicholiavic. Surely, a Stan-Nina-Oleg love triangle is looming later this season with Nina forced to choose between a new romantic interest and the man she’s sleeping with the gather information for Arkady.
It’s an episode built much more around the emotions endured by its characters than by any huge plot developments, and it serves to remind us that the show’s characters are all fighting the same enemy: their fears. The spy game has you always checking behind your back for people in the shadows and people listening on the phone line. It doesn’t matter if you’re a low on the ladder field agent or the head of the KGB in the United States. That fear is an enemy that you can’t wrap your arms around no matter how hard you try. In theory, that’s a great idea to wrap an episode around, but “Cardinal” doesn’t quite pull it off. There’s only so much window checking and hand wringing that Elizabeth can do and still keep my attention. It’s not a failure of an episode, but it’s not a success either. It’s right in the middle of the road – the most dangerous place to drive.