Sex, lies, and espionage. The Americans delivers the goods in the best episode of the season.
“Before you do anything you can’t undo, has it occurred to you that you’re the one in over your head?”
–Agent Gaad, to Stan
Much of the second season of The Americans has focused on the Jenningses’ divided loyalties between their commitments to spy work and the safety of their family. Ever since they stumbled onto the bodies of their murdered fellow spies Emmett and Leanne Connors and their uninvolved daughter, the threat of violence towards their own unsuspecting children has loomed large in Philip and Elizabeth’s minds (as we’re constantly reminded in the “Previously On” segment that starts every episode). So it makes sense that Elizabeth’s feelings towards motherhood would personify themselves in a new daughter-like agent that needs guidance in the covert operations game. It gives Elizabeth another opportunity to be a mother figure while also allowing her the opportunity to be open about the true nature of her business in the US. The line between family and country blurs when your new daughter figure is also a clandestine spy.
A conversation about John Belushi’s death at the Beeman’s dinner table provides us with an approximate date for this particular episode. The events that unfold have to occur either on or around March 5th, 1982. These are still the salad days of the Reagan presidency. The economy is starting to turn around, defense spending is up, and the presence of a strong president in the White House who’s willing to stare the Soviets in the eyes without blinking has the American people feeling positive again. He’s already survived an assassination attempt, and his ideological stance against communism secretly has him planting the seeds of Iran-Contra affair behind the scenes. This is the world that the Jenningses find themselves in when they finally have a meeting with Andrew Laric, the man Claudia suspects in Emmett and Leanne’s murders. Laric admits to Philip and Elizabeth (who are in disguise as FBI investigators, of course) that he did discover the Connors’ true motives and was close to killing them, but that he never had the chance as he was out of the country working on a new project called “Martial Eagle” at the time of the murders. A little more fishing reveals “Martial Eagle” to be an operation involving the training of Contra lieutenants on US soil in preparation for operations against the Social Democratic Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the future. After delivering this new intelligence to their superiors, Philip and Elizabeth ask for safety as it’s only a matter of time before Laric can discover their true identities and turn his attention to them as he intended to do to Emmett and Leanne. But it’s too good of a lead for the KGB brass to ignore, and they instruct Philip and Elizabeth to dig further and work on assassinating whatever Contra lieutenants they can find instead. Their new handler, Kate, tries to assuage their worries saying “You know nothing is more important to them [the KGB] than your safety.” But Elizabeth isn’t fooled. “Sounds like something is,” she replies. Thus, the path is laid for the Jennings’ mission in the second half of the season.
Enter Lucia the Sandinista, who Elizabeth helped out of a tight spot in this season’s second episode. Lucia’s mark/boyfriend, a congressional aide, was overdosing in a back alley, and the more experienced Elizabeth stepped in to help. Now, Elizabeth needs the favor returned so that she can gain access to a congressman’s office and gather more intel on the “Martial Eagle” operation via Lucia’s congressional aide boyfriend. Lucia is much like a young Elizabeth, green and full of idealism about her mission, and it’s obvious that Elizabeth acts as a mother figure to her. When Lucia asks how she can distract Carl (the aide), Elizabeth recommends sex in the office but Lucia balks, saying that her virginity isn’t something to be given up so easily. We know that sex is one of Elizabeth’s best espionage tools, and she pushes Lucia towards the idea. After the operation, Lucia flashes Elizabeth a fist of resistance gesture in public, but Elizabeth warns her to cut the crap and “tie up loose ends” with the mission and move on. She’s had her own experiences with youthful idealism and romance, and she knows how badly that can end (remember Gregory from season 1? Maybe not, because he’s dead now – my point exactly). Later on, Lucia spikes Carl’s drugs and asks him to think of his mother and relax while he’s overdosing. It harkens back to earlier in the conversation when she asked him what he’d be willing to die for, and he said maybe his mom. Now she’s free to skip town and work further on the “Martian Eagle” mission with Elizabeth. Sex and death – it’s an irregular mother-daughter relationship, for sure, but it still is one.
The bosses on both sides of the operation have really been the unsung stars of this season. Both FBI agent Frank Gaad and Rezident Arkady Ivanovich have had many of the show’s best lines and meaningful moments over these six episodes, so it pains me to wonder if both are on their way out. Arkady seems locked in a subtle death struggle with Oleg Igorevich over control of the Rezidentura, and the younger, well-connected, savvy science and technology officer seems to have the upper hand. Oleg also has a firm grasp on Stan Beeman, who he’s blackmailing with Nina’s safety in order to learn what the FBI has in their files about him. His job also puts him in a strong position to deal with the newly discovered American ARPANET technological project which he describes as “the future of spying.” Contrast that with Stan, who seems perplexed by the FBI’s new electronic records program when he goes to gather the information that Oleg has demanded, and Oleg seems to have everything under control. The world is passing his opponents by, and he has them just where he wants them. When Stan visits Gaad’s house to request Nina’s extraction as an alternative to meeting Oleg’s demands, Gaad seems reluctant to help him as he’s already dealing with a congressional investigation as a result of the fallout from Stan’s shooting an assassin weeks ago. He warns Stan not to say anything that he’d be forced to reveal under oath. When Stan later tells Nina that she’d have to take a polygraph test before extraction (one that she, unbeknownst to him, probably wouldn’t pass) Nina accuses him of calling her a liar and storms out claiming she’s through with her spy work and romance with Stan. Add in Stan’s fracturing relationship with his wife, and it seems like all of his relationships are on the verge of collapse. He’s a man married to his job, but if he continues on his path with Oleg he may not even have his job for much longer.
Sex and espionage have always gone hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that it’s the other focus of “Behind the Red Door.” However, The Americans isn’t here to reinforce clichéd ideas that the exciting frenzy of the spy life makes for a wild, heightened sex life. Rather, they want to dispel that notion. Sex, even for spies, has consequences. We’ve seen Elizabeth use it to gain information and advantage over several targets over the course of the show, and we’ve also seen her raped by a KGB superior in the show’s premiere episode (a man she later killed). After seeing the way she’s been reluctant to get romantic with Philip after the Connors’s murder, it was a little strange to hear her talking about “Clark’s” sexual prowess in last week’s episode and recommend it as a tactic to Lucia this week. But now we see the point of her interest in she and Martha’s talk last week: she’s turned on by the way Martha described “Clark” as “an animal” in the bedroom, and now she wants to role-play with Philip in Clark’s disguise – an idea that Philip is NOT interested in. When the act finally happens she’s disappointed when “Clark” doesn’t fulfill her expectations, he’s just a creation of Elizabeth’s imagination meshed with Martha’s overzealous description. When a frustrated Philip finally becomes too forceful with her, she breaks down in tears as a result – maybe it brings back memories of her former rape? Philip retreats to the bathroom to rip off his Clark disguise in disgust. Just how much it damages the Jennings’ relationship remains to be seen, but it’s a very uncomfortable moment, and only one of the instances in the episode that draws a connection between sex and disaster. Lucia’s decision to finally have sex with Carl ends in his death when she has to “tie up loose ends” once he’s served his purpose to her mission. Philip approaches Andrew Laric outside a DC-area gay club immediately after Laric has just finished an anonymous sex session under an outdoor staircase. Philip tells him that they have to work together on the “Martial Eagle” project while Laric admits that he’s discovered Philip’s true allegiances. Imminent danger looms for both men.
But perhaps most important is a revelation from Claudia. When Elizabeth asks who they should investigate for the Connors’s murder next after the Laric lead comes up empty, Claudia admits that the only other option is Claudia herself. It seems that Claudia had taken a man as a lover in her loneliness, and she eventually revealed the truth about her work to him. She’s unsure if he betrayed her, but she sees no other options. It’s a damning moment for Claudia who is usually a reserved, professional warhorse. Could this signal her ultimate exit from the show (Margo Martindale has full-time commitments to The Millers on her plate)? She may soon be the one contemplating what it is that she’s willing to die for. We can only wait and see, but all told it’s just another wrinkle into the show’s densely layered, wonderful writing.
Again, The Americans excels with their episode titles. “Behind the Red Door” is both a surface reference to the inner workings of the collapsing Beeman family who now reside behind a red front door thanks to Sandra’s new paint job. Matthew Beeman even remarks that Asian cultures view red as a symbol of luck. It also alludes to the Soviet dealings that comprise much of the show – a “behind the iron curtain” alternative. Furthermore, there’s the red decorated interior to Agent Gaad’s house and the revelation that his wife is a Buddhist Asian woman, most likely Vietnamese due to Gaad’s service in Vietnam. What impact will that possibly harmless, but potentially damning information have for Gaad’s future if Stan finds himself needing a way out of a tight spot? There’s also a connection to the famous 1970s porn film “Behind the Green Door” due to the sexual themes of the episode. The writers never seem to disappoint on this front.
This is the tight, dense episode that I’ve always known The Americans can produce, and it sets a very high bar for the second half of the season. Episodes like last week’s aren’t bad per se, but they pale in comparison to the dizzying heights that we saw this week. The writing is top notch. The performances are wonderful as always. The scene is set for a wide array of interesting stories in the coming weeks. Tensions are high, and the results will soon have life and death consequences for our characters. I’ll sum it up compactly: I think this is the best episode of the season thus far. The show has settled into a comfortable, productive groove, and we’re reaping the benefits.
-I realized that I’ve been misspelling Stan Beeman’s last name as Beamon all season. I’ll fix that from here on out.
-The show’s only big problem is its relegation of Nina to a side character. She exists as little more than a pawn in Stan/Oleg/Arkady’s games at this point, and that’s sad. It makes me wonder if she was originally intended to die as a result of her spy activities at the end of last season as a parallel to the danger of Elizabeth’s gunshot wound, but then the producers decided they could use her for a few extra storylines this season. She only had one short scene this week.
-We’ve now seen Oleg standing in front of a giant picture of Lenin a few times. Does it symbolize an eventual leadership role for him in the Rezidentura? A revolution in the spy network?
-I may be the only person who watches The Americans who just doesn’t really care about the vast array of wigs worn on the show. There are much, much better things to discuss.
-Yeah, there were a few minutes of Paige’s church dealing activities in this episode, but I just don’t care. SHE QUIT THE VOLLEYBALL TEAM FOR CHURCH!?! That story needs to actually go somewhere. You could forget it, but Philip and Elizabeth actually have another seemingly absent child.
-The looming specter of death is really haunting the show right now. Someone is going down, but who and when? I don’t want the show to devolve into a weekly guessing game of Who Dies This Week?, but I think the writers have thus far been really good about not letting that happen. When something does happen it will have enormous consequences for the remaining characters.