By Carole Avalon of PoliThink
Imagine an alternate reality in which FX’s hit drama “The Americans” is being reviewed in a modern world where the Berlin Wall came down but the Soviet Union has survived to the present time.
Join us, comrades and retro ’80s fans for a weekly review as we follow the exploits of undercover agents Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings.
Season 3/Episode 11: “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov”
“I’ve done this a long time. It does weigh on you, but then you think about what a hell this world is for most people most of the time, and you think about what it can be, and what you can do about it.”
The speaker is Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), Soviet spy extraordinaire, who’s talking to Yousaf, a Pakistani spy and asset who, earlier in the season, the Jennings helped squash into a suitcase the woman Yousaf killed in a paroxysm of panic.
Philip’s words explain what drove him to volunteer to become a spy in the first place, and why, despite his vacillations, he continues to serve his country.
The world of the 1980s seems so distant from us. We watch documentaries about that time and wonder, why did the U.S. government feel it necessary to fund the murder of civilians in Nicaragua, back white racists in South Africa, as well as train and pay for the terroristic acts of mujaheddin in Afghanistan—why did the government that a majority of Americans voted for behave as though the rest of the world should dance to our tune both financially and militarily?
In some ways, things have changed. Our two countries greatly dialed down our respective nuclear capacities beginning in the 1990s. Reagan’s vaunted Star Wars system, which would supposedly allow the U.S. to strike with impunity at the Soviet Union, turned out to be a bust.
Most importantly, Premier Tereshkova, aided by the brilliant Samarin, proved to be the right woman for the job starting in the mid ‘80s. Her skillful management of the interlinked status of East and West Germany came with her quid pro quo that West Germany provide vital technology to the Soviet Union.
That, and her decision to offer free college and post-graduate education to Western students, led to the Soviet Union becoming a tech giant in the 1990s and 2000s.
But all that lies ahead of us in the early ‘80s world of The Americans, where Philip and Elizabeth Jennings can but do their best for their family and country, and hope that the world’s hell does improve.
When last we left the Jennings family, teenaged Paige (Holly Taylor) was still absorbing the bombshell revelation that she is the daughter of Soviet spies.
The reverberations continue in this episode, which also advances several plot strings as we near the season’s end.
At one point, Paige ambushes her parents in the kitchen to deliver a barrage of questions—was their so-called vacation in the woods (last season) connected with their real job? Yes, the answer comes.
Is the travel agency for real? Yes. Why don’t you have accents? The agency trained us.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell) breaks in with, “Paige, honey—”
“Don’t call me that, don’t call me honey,” Paige retorts, then she asks for her parents’ real names.
Misha and Nadezhka, she learns. Paige stumbles over the pronunciation of her mother’s name, then barrels on.
Is neighbor Stan Beeman, an FBI agent, really your friend? Phillip says yes, then Elizabeth alerts Paige to the fact that Henry, our resident Eddie Murphy impressionist, is about to enter the kitchen, expecting Mom’s waffles. Paige reverts to her caring-for-Henry mode. She’s alert, but not hysterical.
Paige may not realize it yet, but she’s very much her parents’ child. Practical, a purposeful snoop, checking out the angles, wanting to be fully informed, but inclined to keeping her feelings in pocket. She hasn’t really been groomed to this point in the spy game, but she has already acquired several key skills.
Gabriel (Frank Langella), who is Elizabeth and Philip’s handler, finds the couple waiting for him in his apartment. They tell him that the inevitable has finally happened: Paige finally knows. They assure him that Paige hasn’t been told details.
“You did the right thing…she’s your daughter,” he remarks.
Gabriel then gives Elizabeth an envelope containing a tape recorded by Elizabeth’s dying mother. He gently tells her that there may not be anymore forthcoming, meaning that her mother is near death.
Then they’re on to discussing business, first and foremost being the Washington CIA unit handling the mujaheddin mercenary attacks on Afghanistan’s government and Soviet allies.
Philip has learned from Yousaf that the CIA is expecting a contingent of mujaheddin to fly into D.C. There, they’ll be trained in the use of an advanced shoulder-fired weaponry called stinger missiles. Yousaf told Philip that the CIA has selected the most brutal men for the training. “One of them, their men cut men’s heads off as trophies,” Yousaf said.
The Jennings have learned that the mujaheddin will be put up at a certain hotel, so Elizabeth in her sexy sales rep disguise has already made her first foray in seducing the hotel manager.
She returns to the hotel and initiates sex with the hotel manager, who’s quite the willing partner. Afterward, he shows her around his job site, with a stop at the security room.
There are a couple of security cameras, nothing like today’s all-pervasive surveillance state, but of more interest to Elizabeth is the hotel computer.
When the hotel manager steps out for a minute, Elizabeth finds the CIA operative’s scheduled reservations for the Afghanis. While she’s at it, she makes a wax impression of a hotel key then when the manager returns, she makes her slinky farewell for now.
Meanwhile in Moscow, we find Nina, our disgraced double agent, well ensconced at the research facility where her target, reluctant scientist Anton Baklanov(Michael Aronov), is gradually warming up to her.
Unlike the human sex toys he’s previously been plied with, Nina (Annet Mahendru) isn’t obviously making a run at him. She speaks English to him in a circumspect manner, so that he feels it’s something special they share.
Anton says to her in the cafeteria, “I have a son; he doesn’t know I’m alive or dead. That’s the one thing I can’t take.”
Later, Nina snoops in Anton’s room. She finds a letter that’s more like a work in progress, addressed to his son, Jacob. After she reads it, she returns it to the hiding place.
When she and Anton eat again in the cafeteria, she deliberately mentions Jacob, which tells Anton that she’s supposed to be spying on him, since he had not to that point said his son’s name.
She tells Anton, “Your story is beautiful and hard. You should keep writing it. I haven’t told anyone.”
“Why not?” he asks. She says she doesn’t know why.
Whether deliberate or not, Nina is playing the situation perfectly. She’s been tasked with getting inside Anton’s head, finding out what makes him tick, and see if he can be motivated to work harder on the task of understanding how the U.S.’s deadly Stealth bomber works.
Thus far, she’s been Anton’s comrade in misfortune. Can she now become his confidante?
Their countrymen at the Soviet Embassy’s Rezidentura (spy central) in Washington, D.C. are currently knee-deep in paperwork since English language transcripts from the roving FBI office mail robot’s bug are accumulating rapidly.
Boss Arkady reads agents Oleg and Tatiana into the ongoing mail robot operation so that they can filter through the immense amount of intel.
Tatiana subsequently learns that someone quoted in the transcripts doesn’t like the USFL. Oleg, our expert on all things American, is able to clarify that the USFL is a football league (a failed capitalist start-up, as it turned out).
They’re eventually a bit punch-drunk from the slog, for there are even pages devoted to noting the beep sound that the mail robot makes.
“Beeeep,” Oleg and Tatiana say with a grin at one another. A little levity never hurts.
Another ongoing operation has hit a snag, for Elizabeth, in her guise as fellow AA member Michelle, finds Lisa—she of the rough home life and prime security clearance at Northrop—has allowed her husband, Maurice, back into the picture.
Maurice, a canny if greedy operator, tells Michelle/Elizabeth that he and Lisa want more money for the information provides. When drunk, he’d been something of a hard case with Lisa. Now apparently sober, he may turn out to be even more dangerous for Elizabeth.
Another asset, Martha (Alison Wright), is up in arms over her impending second questioning by Taffett, the interagency investigator.
When Clark/Philip comes home to their apartment, he tries to calm her down by giving her tips on how to handle Taffett’s questions.
He’s helpful, calm, even kindly, with his faux-wife. The advice is sound: believe that you’re in control of the situation, because you know more than he does. Instead of looking at Taffett’s eyes, look at the tip of his nose so it appears that you’re making confident eye contact.
By the time Martha deals with Taffett again, she’s ready. “I have no idea who put that thing in Agent Gaad’s pen.”
As for her love life, since her relationship with the late Agent Amador, nope, nothing going on currently.
And like that, the interview is over.
Is Martha truly in the clear? After all, she has to continue to change out the tapes on the mail robot. She’s proven herself to be capable both at her job and at her current level of spying. She hasn’t asked Clark/Philip who he works for, but as her involvement grows, so must her curiosity. However, so far, so good.
Gabriel’s next appearance is on a chilly park bench with Philip, who tells him that Elizabeth needs to see her mother. Gabriel is sympathetic, but turns him down.
Gabriel sizes up his charge and asks, “Are you falling apart? Can you handle what comes at you next?”
Phil irritatedly says he’s fine. Really? We the viewers ask. Doesn’t look like it.
Back at home, Elizabeth finds Paige sitting in the driver’s seat of their car. Paige says she’s hiding out from Henry’s wannabe comedy act. Elizabeth seizes the moment to try and reach out to her daughter.
“We never ever meant to hurt you. You’re our daughter, Henry is our son. We love you more than you can ever imagine,” she says, but cautions Paige not to bring up the spy business when someone else could be around.
Elizabeth talks about her own father, a soldier who died in the war when she was two years old. “You should have seen where [my mother and I] lived. There were three other families in the same apartment. When they were too loud, she’d scream back at them. She’d win, too. She had a real spirit, like yours. I haven’t seen her since I came here.”
It’s a heartfelt conversation, the most honest one she’s ever had with her daughter, but Paige isn’t ready for it.
“How can I believe anything you say?”
The next morning, Philip and Elizabeth wake up in bed together. First on his mind is a family matter. “I think I found a way for you to see your mother,” he says.
As they talk, Paige bursts in, both paranoid and eager to know what her parents really talk about.
Philip tells his daughter, “Your grandmother is very sick. I want to find a way for your mother to see her.”
Elizabeth demurs painfully, “No, I can’t.”
It’s too much truth for Paige to take. A grandmother she’s never met, parents who aren’t space aliens but certainly aliens of another kind.
Confused, Paige leaves the room, but the door’s been left ajar. She comes back to close it, and the episode ends.
Paige’s last action is to close the door, to in effect shield her parents from being seen. Just as she’s been protective of Henry, will she now be the same on behalf of her parents?
As we near the end of the season, many of the pieces that have been laid out are coming together—and in the promo for next week, we finally see our favorite middle-aged Soviet handler, Claudia, played by the magnificent Margo Martindale. There’ll be a scene between her and Frank Langella. Talk about an acting team.
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