THE AMERICANS: “Born Again”

Paige gets baptized, and the creepy James/Kimmie relationship gets a much-needed influx of humor as The Americans explores the complications of love across ideologies.

In America I had two lovers; one communist, one capitalist. I loved them both…but in the end they both loved their countries more than me.

-Nina

Back after a week away! Let’s get to it.

The Americans has always had a lot to say about love in the face of conflicting ideology. From Stan’s political systems-crossed love affair with Nina, to the Jennings’ struggle to portray something resembling a “normal” American marriage despite their differing commitments to the KGB in the early episodes of season one, the show has always presented love and relationships as obstacles for the “cause.”

Obviously, part of that is intentional. It’s an easy way to create conflict in a show that needs 13 episodes of it each year. But The Americans is also keen to show that humanity often flies in the face of political systems and ideologies. Humans are inherently complicated. Bureaucratic political systems are dogmatically rigid. And political systems aren’t the only ones — laws, social mores, and the “normal” bonds of family and friendship all represent the man-made cultural rules we follow every day. What The Americans often wants to know is just what happens when all your messy feelings cross those artificial lines in the sand?

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“Born Again,” as the title would suggest, opens with Paige’s baptism. Philip and Elizabeth have tacitly accepted Paige’s decision to officially join the church, which would seemingly represent one more obstacle to her ever knowing the true nature of their work.

Of course that’s fine with Philip, who’d rather that Paige never know that he and Elizabeth are Soviet spies. Anything to keep her from the daily dangers of spycraft is a plus. He just seems nervous to be in a church. The look of subtle horror on Philip’s face is a thing of beauty, but he always manages to flash a smile in Paige’s direction when she glances over from the baptismal pool. After the ceremony – what’s that, Pastor Tim? Oh sorry. Scratch that — after the “celebration,” Philip is the one spending time in Paige’s room congratulating her on her decision and letting her know how proud he is that she stood up for what she believes in. “You know you can always do that, right?” he asks her. It doesn’t matter what anyone wants you to believe, he says (the “even if it comes from your mother” part is left unstated). “You can always stand up for your own beliefs.” Philip is every bit the doting dad.

But it isn’t long before service comes calling, and Philip resumes his courting of an underage teenage girl in the name of Soviet service. He again assumes the guise of the creeptastic “James” and heads out to meet Kimmie. The “James” and Kimmie storyline of The Americans remains the creepiest storyline on TV in 2015. We all know it’s just acting, and a quick internet search will quickly tell you that Julia Garner is actually 21, but that doesn’t stop the storyline from having an undeniable “ick” factor. In many ways, that’s a plus. What world are we living in if we’re actually cheering for Philip to seduce a fifteen-year-old? We’re used to a certain standard, you know, with our violent, hard-boiledprestige” TV, and this isn’t it. Instead, we get to feel as uncomfortable as Philip does while he spends his time with a hormonal teenager.

It isn’t long before that hormonal teenager is taking a warm bath to “get ready” for James, giving him a chance to bug her father’s briefcase. She nearly catches him in the act, but he worms his way out of danger – at least the danger related to spy work. Kimmie seductively ushers him to the bedroom and drops her towel, leaving Philip aghast at what to do. That’s when Jesus, of all people, lends a helping hand. In a magnificent tension-breaking scene, he explains that he can’t sleep with her because he recently found religion again.

Telling Elizabeth the story later while they smoke pot together, he can’t help but laugh. “Paige might be onto something. Jesus really helped me out of a jam tonight.” It might be the only time we’ve ever seen Philip laugh in two and a half seasons of The Americans. He gives a breathy chuckle and his boyish grin all the time, but this time he really laughs. He and Elizabeth both. The Kimmie problem is solved for the time being, and he can let loose, sharing a joint with his wife. With the bug placed in Kimmie’s dad’s briefcase he’ll soon be getting the wiretap on the CIA that he needs, and he didn’t even have to sleep with a teenager to do it. It’s another in the Jennings’s long line of weird intimate moments. Just a few weeks ago we saw the tenderness of home dentistry. Now it’s the hilarity of Jesus and weed.

Elsewhere, Stan Beeman has his own hang-ups. Things seem to be going well with Tori, but when she tries to get intimate with him after a dinner party she can tell that he’s a million miles away. “If we’re going to do this, I need you here. All of you,” she says, indulging in some EST talk about intensive experience. But poor Stan can’t shake off the cobwebs of the past. He’s still thinking of Sandra. They may be separated, but they’re still legally married. She’s still his longtime lover and the mother of his child. “I’ve never been with anyone but my wife in this house,” he tells Tori. No matter. EST is all about engaging in new experiences, she points out as she undoes his belt.

Even so, the past isn’t done with Stan just yet. The next day at work he learns that one of his former partners was killed in a crash. When Sandra brings their son Matthew over for the night, the news leads to a caring hug between them, and Stan finds himself asking Sandra to attend the memorial service with him. When he needs an emotional crutch he still finds himself turning to Sandra, despite their separation. I’m sure Tori would go along with Stan if he asked, but it’s still Sandra he wants in his dark moments. The bonds of marriage and family are hard to overcome.

Gabriel always seems to be the bearer of bad news, but I guess that’s just part of the job when you’re a KGB handler. He breaks it to Philip that he will need to retrieve the information from Kimmie’s dad’s briefcase every week, not monthly as was previously thought. That means Philip will need to find a reason to spend more time with Kimmie, and Gabriel suggests that Philip make their relationship intimate. Philip looks horrified.

Gabriel also has another piece of news: Irina, Philip’s former lover from years past, was captured trying to escape the KGB in Brazil and is returning to the Soviet Union in chains to face prosecution. He reports that her son, however, is doing well in Russia and is at the top of his class in the Soviet Army. That child is probably Philip’s – the fruit of their long-ago affair.

In a separate meeting with Elizabeth, Gabriel tells her that the KGB still intends for Paige to join the program whether Philip wants her to or not, and Elizabeth nods in agreement.

Thus, our protagonist spies end the episode in opposite places. Philip goes to meet with Kimmie again, apologizing profusely for having not made a move on her the previous night. “I want you so bad,” he says, “but I’m really messed up right now.” He works the real world story about being an absentee father to a long forgotten son into his story and asks Kimmie to pray with him. It’s a testament to how far Philip will go to avoid having sex with this young girl. He asks God to help calm his urges for Kimmie, but then Kimmie surprises him by asking God to help “James” find peace with his son. It’s a touching moment for Philip, though Kimmie has no understanding of the incredible complexities involved. Philip honestly wants to be a good father, and he wants to be such to all of his children.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, picks Paige up from school unexpectedly, offering to give her a ride home. After detouring into a downtown neighborhood, Elizabeth tells Paige about her past fighting for civil rights and the man (Gregory – remember him?) who helped her learn what it was like to fight for oppressed people. It’s a mixture of fact and fiction, and the first beads of truth about what Philip and Elizabeth are really doing in the United States that Paige has ever heard. Paige is understandably confused, but Elizabeth quiets her fears. “It’s not all about the travel agency for your dad and me,” she says, praising Paige’s fight against oppression and the Reagan administration. “You and I are more alike than you know.”

Cut to black.

Next week marks the midpoint of season three, and the truth is upon us. We’re all little Paiges at heart, though. The truth is coming, but is that what we really want to hear?

The Dead Drop

  • Nina finally got the info she needed out of her cellmate Evi back in Russia, and Evi was turned over to the secret police. Or is it the “even more secret” police? It’s always hard to figure out what exactly is going on in the Russian prison cell. I just wish that the Nina plotline didn’t feel so disconnected from the rest of the series. It’s hard to shoehorn into recaps, which is too bad because that five minutes of screen time offered up some excellent quotes this week. I used one as my epigraph for this week’s article.
  • Despite the short screen time, the scene where Evi asks Nina what she told the guards while Nina refuses to meet her eyes and heavy footsteps approach in the background might be the best scene in the episode. Perfectly directed.
  • Hopefully Nina’s sentence will be commuted and she’ll find a way to reenter the story for good. I’m sure Stan and Oleg both miss her. I know I do.
  • The Mail Robot has been reworked! It no longer carries classified files. Yes, the same files that she’s been stealing and giving to “Clark.” If her usefulness to him is greatly reduced, is it finally curtains for her?
  • I’m glad to know that Henry doesn’t entirely grasp what EST is either. At least he didn’t bring up Stan’s ex-wife at a dinner party this week.
  • I don’t think FX could afford the rights to any Pink Floyd songs, so headphones were required for Kimmie to listen to their music. It had to be “Dark Side,” right?

I’ll see you for next week’s mid-point episode directed by Noah “Stan Beeman” Emmerich himself. Good luck staying out of the gulag!

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