THE AMERICANS: “The Walk In”

Littered with suspenseful moments, “The Walk In” is a sharp reminder that there’s several cat and mouse games being played here from a wide array of angles.

Lying will not be tolerated.

-Philip Jennings

Elizabeth Jennings isn’t f—ing around. When we first see her in a 1966 flashback, she’s sitting on a park bench with fellow spy Leanne Connors discussing the recent birth of her son, Jared. Leanne glows, talking about the experience of motherhood and what a wonderful father her husband, Emmett, is. She asks when Elizabeth and Philip are planning to start a family of their own, and Elizabeth admits that she’s unsure whether she really wants kids. Leanne cautions her not to tell the Center that controls the imbedded spies, before the two women spot the mark they’ve been waiting for and follow him down the street. In the show’s chronology it’s a moment that’s been lurking in the past for fifteen years, presented now for viewers who know the stark reality of the situation: Leanne and Emmett are both dead, killed by parties unknown, and Jared, the only survivor, is living with family friends. Elizabeth and Philip did eventually start a family, and the murder of their comrades has them on edge trying to protect their family while still carrying out their orders from their Soviet bosses.

But if Elizabeth’s mind is troubled by the idea of parentless children, she’s not letting it stand in the way of her job. When she and Philip are dispatched to get information on the Navy’s new propellers, she isn’t reserved about intimidating a mill worker who finds her snooping. Though there’s never any explicit threat towards Derrick, the mill worker, Elizabeth’s menacing demeanor and her relentless grip on an ominous crowbar provide all the incentive he needs to give her the desired information. An encounter with Season One Elizabeth might have ended very differently for Derrick; she used to rebuke Philip for not being committed enough to the cause and his reservations about going all the way. Now she’s content to let Derrick live, but not before taking a picture of his children as insurance. She might have softened into a more sensitive mother, but she’s not about to let her pawn know that.

It’s the kind of scene that really works for The Americans. The show can be so tight when it wants to be. We get every implication of a threat to Derrick’s life – the dead-eyed Elizabeth, the omnipresent crowbar, Derrick’s need to plead for his life – without having to actually hear Elizabeth voice her intent. A Cold War spy thriller needs its tension, and director Constantine Makris brings the goods.

After leaving the Mill, Philip heads home while Elizabeth goes on to the deceased Connor’s new residence, and retrieves a letter that Leanne intends for Elizabeth to give to her son in the event that anything were to ever happen to her and Emmett. She takes the letter to Jared’s foster parents and meets with the grieving boy, but eventually chooses to burn the letter. Maybe she’s just protecting him from dangerous information. Maybe she can’t bring herself to break the rules of the spy game. Either way, in the showdown of family vs country, country wins again.

Meanwhile, Stan Beeman continues to investigate the man who walked in to the Soviet embassy looking to pass on information in last week’s episode. What could he possibly have to give to the Soviets? As it turns out, nothing. Walk-in Bruce Dameran is just a war veteran with an axe to grind, against the fat cats who he deems responsible for ruining America with its wars in a joint conspiracy with the US government. His recent employment at the World Bank was just a front to get him close the men he wants to assassinate. Stan tries to talk the man down, but ultimately ends the threat with several shots to Dameran’s chest. He’s hailed as a hero – “They want to give me a medal,” he says – and in the afterglow of his triumph he tells Nina he loves her. Nothing like a little gunfire to stir up the emotions!

This is the moment Nina (and her boss, rezident Arkady Ivanovich) has been waiting for. Stan’s feelings for Nina are deepening, and, as his relationship with his wife crumbles, he continues to become more and more involved with a woman who he’s supposed to be monitoring as an asset. How long is it before his emotions, apparently blind to the fact that he’s being played by Nina, lead him into a corner that he can’t shoot his way out of? The episode subtly implies that Arkady may have had a hand in the whole Dameran affair. Could he possibly have planned the threat to make Stan appear a hero, and elicit the emotional response towards Nina that he’s desired? I wouldn’t put it past him. It’s a cat and mouse game that the Soviets constantly seem to have the upper hand in.

While Arkady informs Nina that she may be finding her way out of the trouble that she found herself in before turning double agent, looming new love interest Oleg seems to be digging a similar grave. He gives Nina a hockey ticket as a date invitation, and tells her that she can scalp it if she decides she doesn’t want to go. Selling American goods for cash and personal benefit is the exact thing that got Nina on the FBI’s radar in the first place. Is Oleg making the same mistake? Or does he just know more than he’s letting on in the first place?

Finally, the Jennings’s daughter, Paige, skips school to investigate her mother’s story about nursing her sick aunt while she was really away recovering from a gunshot wound. When she arrives in Harrisburg, PA, she goes to her “aunt’s” house (apparently breaking and entering is an inherited gene in spy families) and finds a elderly woman who seems to confuse her for her own daughter, while suffering from dementia. There’s even a picture of Elizabeth on the wall. Philip arrives home just in time to answer a phone call from “Aunt Helen” about Paige’s visit, who suddenly seems perfectly lucid. Those Soviets, man. They’re one step ahead, and the deck is stacked in their favor. Even their cover stories are backed up by still more layers of agents.

The confrontation between Philip and Paige is incredibly menacing. Every child knows the fear their parents can evoke in them, and I wouldn’t have been shocked to see Philip lean across the table and strike his daughter. He’s a terror, every bit the ominous counterpart to Elizabeth at the propeller mill. His direction to Paige that lying will not be tolerated is an incredible irony coming from a covert agent. Lying is his life’s work. Matthew Rhys is always great, but he does some of his best work here. It’s easy to forget that the actor is Welsh because he completely disappears into his role. His imitation of an American is every bit as much a fabrication as the lines he delivers in Russian, but he pulls it all off flawlessly. Much like with Hugh Laurie, it seems our best new “American” actors are really just imposters from the British Isles.

The seemingly innocuous episode title is really a wonderful sign post for a lot of events in the episode. Sure, we’ve got Stan Beeman’s focus on the walk-in to the Soviet embassy, but it’s also an equal allusion to Paige’s unexpected visit to “Aunt Helen’s” home, and Elizabeth’s visit with Jared. Those are the little instances that show just how sharp The Americans can be, and it’s the reason why their “okay” episodes stick out like a sore thumb. Merely good is a massive step down from what this show can do so well.

Grade: A-

Theories:

Let me take a moment to advance two theories I have for the current season.

– With Season 2’s focus on family and the impact it has in the spy game, it seems likely that Martha’s recent bouts with illness are an indication of a looming pregnancy. It’s the kind of thing that would throw the Jennings’s currently calm (by spy standards) family life into complete upheaval. It’s supposed to be a sham marriage, but an unexpected baby could make it all the more (and unintentionally, by Philip) real.

-The previous episode’s title, “Cardinal” was seemingly enigmatic. There was only one reference made to it – when Arkady Ivanovich tells someone on the other end of the phone to get all the information on the Connors’ murders that they can gather from the aforementioned “Cardinal.” Is that a project? Is it a person? My guess (and hope) is that it’s a code name for The Jennings’s ex-handler, Claudia. Margo Martindale is confirmed to return for a handful of episodes this season, and if she were revealed to be the Connors’ handler at the time of their death, it would be perfect. Elizabeth never trusted Claudia, and she always held reservations that she was placing she and Philip in harm’s way. It’s a bigger stretch, but it would be great.

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