Even a pot-boiler like The Americans has to let off a little steam sometimes.
And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again
-Fleetwood Mac, “The Chain”
If the final sequence of this week’s episode of The Americans seems foreign, it’s because it is. Frantic, tightly shot action sequences are the type of thing that this show often stays away from. We’re much more likely to see an episode that ends with a smoldering talk around the Jennings’ dinner table than a shootout in the streets of Washington, DC. The Americans is all about the simmering pot, not the explosion. But every once in a while, even this show has to let off some steam.
And, boy, did we have some.
“Walter Taffet” opens with Philip listening to broadcasts of the Soviet war in Afghanistan while secreted away in the basement. The battles may be far away, but the news that his son by a former lover is fighting there has brought the war home for Philip, further complicating his feelings on fatherhood towards Paige. Despite his struggles to keep Paige out of the spy game, it appears that another one of his children has found himself in the line of fire – this time literally. So it’s easy to understand why Philip makes his way to Paige’s room once he finished listening to the broadcast. He longs for physical closeness with his children, and if he can’t hug his Soviet army son (whose name I have struggled to pick up – sorry), he can at least hug Paige.
But Paige is changing right before his eyes, too. Just last week she was pulling down her Rick Springfield posters and replacing them with scenic views of Paris. Paige isn’t a little girl anymore. She’s a young woman who spends her time planning church-backed protests and reading about the Civil Rights movement, and she wants to know why Philip never told her that he was involved in that movement before she was born. Of course, this comes as a shock to Philip because he wasn’t involved in the movement. It’s a story concocted by Elizabeth as a way to open Paige’s mind to the idea that her parents are freedom fighters – and an avenue to the eventual revelation that they’re Soviet spies.
Elizabeth is making a move on Paige despite Philip’s reservations, leaving the couple (again) at odds. “Is that how it’s going to work?” he ask his wife. “Am I going to come home one day and Paige is going to know who we are?” It’s possible. Paige actually seems to be taking to the early stages of the idea, commenting on how there are poor and desolate sections of Washington, DC that she didn’t know about and wondering aloud if there’s more she can do to help. Maybe Elizabeth’s idea that spy work can bring her and Paige closer together isn’t that far off?
I always love seeing Philip and Elizabeth forced into playing characters that represent the exact opposite of their current married life. The couple has a dinner with Lisa, the Northrup Industries worker that Elizabeth is working on turning, and they’re forced to play fresh new lovers the whole time, laughing, giggling, and flirting through the dinner as Philip drawls about how much he loves his new girlfriend. It’s so uncomfortable, knowing that there’s anger and mistrust lurking right beneath the surface of Philip’s playful “Jack” exterior. Philip doesn’t even get out of the car once they get home, preferring to depart the rough seas of his wife for a night with the normally calm bay that is Martha.
How wrong he is.
The Walter Taffet of the episode’s title turns out to be an internal investigator sent to determine the source of a bug found in a pen in Gaad’s office. Yes, after two and a half seasons they finally found the bug hidden in an FBI director’s office. Nothing gets by these guys! After Dennis Aderholt discovers it in Gaad’s pen (seriously, does he do this kind of stuff everywhere? Probing office supplies for listening devices?), Taffet’s men sweep the office for receivers that the bug could have been transmitting to. Thankfully Martha destroyed parts of the receiver, and hid the leftover pieces in her purse while hiding in the bathroom. This is actually one of my favorite scenes in The Americans history. The continued focus on Martha’s nerve-wracked face while she fumbles with the receiver is fantastic. Alison Wright does what’s probably her best work on the series while portraying a woman who suddenly realizes how in over her head she’s allowed herself to become. When another woman come in to use the restroom, we never see anything but her shoes. She represents a faceless, but ever-present danger – just the type of thing that Martha now has to avoid. The investigative team is going to pull out all the stops to figure out who planted the bug in Gaad’s office, and Martha will have to watch her every step.
That’s what “Clark” finds himself walking into when he arrives at Martha’s: a suddenly scared and suspicious woman who suddenly realizes just how much she’s endangered herself for a man that she doesn’t really know that much about. “Are we ever going to be normal?” she asks her husband. “Why haven’t I ever been to your apartment? Let’s go there now.” Philip suddenly finds himself scrambling to find answers to Martha’s unexpected (but totally legitimate) questions. She’s even begun carrying around that very Chekhov-ian pistol when they’re together. The existence of a real apartment that “Clark” claims is his quiets her worries for the night, but Philip knows something is up. Poor, poor Martha. All she ever wanted was to be loved, and she went out on a limb for a man she barely knew. Now it may cost her her career, her freedom, or even her life.
Meanwhile, Stan is dealing with the fallout from the discovery of the bug. He’s long seemed like Gaad’s closest ally, but even he will be under scrutiny from Taffet and his task force. Making matters worse, Sandra has finally officially asked him for a divorce.
Stan doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time this episode, but Noah Emmerich makes the most of his scene talking with his Stan’s son, Matthew. With the death of his friend still on his mind, and his relationship with Sandra as strained as it’s ever been, Stan needs someone. Thankfully, Matthew is spending the evening with him, and the two get a chance to talk, even if it’s just at the kitchen table over a can of Chef Boyardee. Stan’s past suddenly comes pouring out of him, talking about the dark days of his undercover work when he was constantly surrounded by truly evil men. His now dead coworker was the only person he had to turn to.
With all the time spent on Philip and Elizabeth’s subtle battling over Paige, it’s nice to see this moment between Stan and Matthew. Stan wants Matthew’s affections, not because of an ideological battle, but because he needs his family right now. He wants to spend time with his son, making up for the time he lost when he was undercover. It’s touching.
The Martha situation does lead to a nice moment between Philip and Elizabeth when he slides into bed with her early the next morning. He finally tells her about the existence of his son by Irina, and she even pulls him close and jokes a little, comforting him. How the revelation that Philip already has one child fighting for the Soviets will affect their movements with Paige is yet to be seen, but the Jennings again find themselves cuddled together for another night. Maybe it can’t be all bad.
Or can it? “Walter Taffet” ends with a surprising operation where Philip and Elizabeth help kidnap South African Todd and Eugene Venter when the former tries kill the latter. Honestly, I’m still a little confused as to what’s exactly going on with this operation. It’s not new for the spy work to be the most confusing part of The Americans, but it sure can be frustrating. Thankfully, the spycraft always comes second to the characters on this show, and Philip and Elizabeth both stand out in their 1970s rocker wigs for the operation.
The whole frenzied scene plays out over a soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” one of the most deliciously dark pop songs of all time. Sure the guitar, methodic drum beat, piano and harmonies are all gorgeous, but “The Chain” is definitely a dark breakup song. It works note-perfect here, highlighting the discord between the Jennings as harmonies of “damn your love, damn your lies” play out over a kidnapping operation. It just works. Like I said, The Americans doesn’t do this type of scene often, but when they do it’s often incredible.
I won’t be the only person to remember that Fleetwood Mac’s own “Tusk” played a pivotal role on the soundtrack in the pilot episode, back when Philip and Elizabeth were trying to make a sham marriage work for real. If The Americans really runs for five seasons as planned, then “Walter Taffet” would mark the halfway point. Does “The Chain” possibly mark a coming change in the Philip and Elizabeth relationship? And is that relationship doomed?
Damn your love, damn your lies
And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying
You would never break the chain.
Damn. That’s ominous.
The Dead Drop
- Can Gaad possibly make it out of this situation with his job intact? He was nearly gone last season. Surely he can’t survive the revelation that the Soviets have been stealing secrets from his own office.
- Noah Emmerich did an excellent job directing this episode. The man obviously loves his gorgeous framing – there were a couple standout visuals. As David McGinnis says, “Emmerich’s directing is as calibrated as his performance.” The “The Chain” sequence and Martha’s bathroom receiver destruction were both standouts. Emmerich definitely knows how to up the tension. He needs to get another go behind the camera at a later date.
- On that note, how in the world did a first time director end up with what may be such an important episode?
- Fantastic wigs in this episode. Philip’s wig in the final scene sort of made him look like a pouty emo kid.
- Seriously, guys, PLEASE spend a little more time explaining the spy operations. I know Joe Weisberg worked for the CIA, but your viewers didn’t. Throw us a bone.Until next week!