Review by Carole Avalon of PoliThink
Imagine an alternate reality in which FX’s hit drama “The Americans” is being reviewed by a Soviet admirer in a modern world where the Berlin Wall came down but the Soviet Union has survived to the present time.
Join us, comrades, fellow travelers, enemy agents and retro ’80s fans for a weekly review of this capitalistic media portrayal of patriotic undercover agents Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings.
Will they achieve their vital missions, have sex with interesting people and try on new wigs?
As if there was any doubt.
Season 3 / Episode 3 “Open House”
“There is always a choice,” says Gabriel, who is the wise handler of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, our ace undercover Soviet spies in “Open House,” the third episode of The Americans.
Gabriel, in the midst of beating Philip in a game of Scrabble, is talking about Paige, the couple’s teenaged daughter, who at some point has to find out about her parents’ true calling, but alas, not in this episode.
Instead, we’re treated to a tense car slow-chase and an intimate encounter between Philip and Elizabeth that’s all about the teeth. Painfully so.
The show is good about balancing home and career, truth and lies, homeland patriotism and the lure of a society based on “too many wants,” as Hans, a young Soviet agent, notes to Elizabeth, who is training him in observational skills.
She responds by saying that capitalism’s promise of unlimited options is tyranny by another name. It’s good to see the show acknowledge that she has an ideological core for her job-related duties, that it’s not simply run, shoot, and have sexy time with men who aren’t Philip.
We see the young man’s attraction to her, which is not reciprocated. Elizabeth has other issues on her mind, namely their ongoing project of trying to gain information about the CIA’s Afghan spy group. Soviet and Afghani government troops are dying every day so the need to undermine the US government’s support of so-called freedom fighters is crucial.
Back then, the CIA was engaged in protecting rather than interdicting the Afghan drug routes (which helped fund the fighters), turning a blind eye to the Saudi Islamists who twisted faith into an excuse to murder civilians, and funneling weapons across national borders.
From our vantage point of time, we know that the US and Soviet Union came to an informal agreement on how to deal with Afghanistan as well as with that region of the world. Observe current borders, discourage incursions by all sides, and keep military involvement at a low simmer. It’s kept the peace there to this day—although further to the west, the woes of Israel and Palestine continue, despite the Soviet Union’s efforts to support the Palestinian quest for statehood.
But that’s today, in a world of three superpowers—the US, China, and the Soviet Union—who are roughly equal in importance if not in size. The balance, while never easy, has been maintained while nuclear stockpiles steadily dwindle downward.
Back in the aggressive Reaganite ‘80s, however, Elizabeth and Philip, along with their fellow Soviet operatives, have to keep the balance on a more personal level.
Which means, for this episode, they’re attending an open house of a CIA operative by name of Ted Paaswell, who’s newly divorced and trying to sell his property. He’s part of the group working with Afghan warlords to overturn the government in Kabul.
Philip manages to plant a couple of bugs, and even though he’s seen in the study by Paaswell, the latter views him as nothing more than a prospective home owner.
Another mission well done by the Jennings, but in a latter drive-by, listening to the bug they planted, they learn that Paaswell has a teenaged babysitter of the hot-to-trot variety, and more critically, Elizabeth picks up the CIA tail. As the daylight hours dwindle into darkness, the couple drives on until Philip finds a strategic moment to roll out of the car and call for help.
Spycraft is something of an art, both for the pursuers and the pursued, for Philip told Elizabeth to expect a meet-up point for an agent to toss a walkie-talkie into her car. Thus equipped, she’s able to follow directions to a spot where agents, already confused by Soviet-caused static in their radios, land in a traffic accident. Despite their eleven tracking cars and professional training, they’ve been outfoxed.
Elizabeth takes off on foot and lands in the back of a car driven by yet another Soviet agent. The strain of the near-capture shows on her weary face when she comes home to Philip, who offers her a gentle hug.
First the hug, then the necessary snoot of whiskey, and out comes the pliers. Together in the garage, the couple practices a brutal intimacy, for that aching jaw of Elizabeth needs attention. She can’t go to a dentist because the FBI’s still on the lookout for a woman needing her specific dental work.
The scene is played in near silence as Philip pulls the first tooth. In close-up, their eyes meet repeatedly as yes, one more tooth must be pulled. Elizabeth hangs on to him, in agonized courage and trust, enduring the final excruciating yank.
It’s a reminder that despite their ongoing deep debate over whether to reveal their true lives to their daughter, this is a couple who have never been stronger in their partnership. It lends added emotional heft to their argument over Paige.
Philip has another marriage to attend to, that in his guise as Clark, an American government official keeping track of the FBI, who, in the course of digging up information, had ended up married to the clueless yet kind Martha.
Martha’s trying to interest Clark in their fostering a teenager, but he’s digging in his heels. He does appear to mellow, if only to assuage Martha. It’s been something of an Internet guessing game as to when Martha ends up dead if she gets too close to the truth, but every episode the woman hangs in there. A true survivor, for now.
The episode manages to shoehorn in our battered trio of FBI agents, Supervisor Gaad (Richard Thomas), Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and newcomer Adahalt (Brandon J. Dirden).
Cast in a supporting role to the effort to capture the anonymous Soviet agent aka Elizabeth, they’re eager to do more. Gaad sends Beeman, less sadsack than of late, and Adahalt to join the pursuit.
The next day, they’re reflecting on how difficult it is to catch the woman, who, if Beeman was ever to twig her true identity, could be captured by simply walking over to the next yard. Neighbors–I’m telling you, they can be tough to deal with. If they’re not letting their tree grow onto your yard, they’re trying to spy on your government.
Beeman shrugs and goes off to be Zinaida’s minder at a series of media appearances, one of which is a talk show where she’s spouting off lines that make Beeman begin to wonder if she’s a fake defector and maybe not so entranced with Milky Way bars after all.
Meanwhile, over at the Soviet embassy, the Rezidentura spy-in-charge, Arkady, is talking to Oleg, our resident Nina partisan and a man with major daddy issues. Turns out that Oleg’s father has pulled strings to get Oleg reassigned to Moscow. In a way, that’s good because it would bring Oleg closer to his beloved Nina, but in a major sense, it would be a terrible move, because Oleg thus far hasn’t been able to get her out of prison. He’d be near, but oh so far.
These days, with electronic tracking bracelets the usual method of detainment in the USSR for nonviolent offenders, he’d have more chances to see her, but then you can make the same statement about smart phones, the Internet, and other modern innovations uniting/dividing peoples.
Handsome Oleg, stuck in the Air Supply ‘80s (the horror of it all), knows that at least if he’s in America trying to pry out information about the US Stealth bomber specs and program, he’s building up his street cred and being his own man. Arkady seems to understand when Oleg says he’s not going back home.
We have our first extensive sighting of the Jennings’ other child. No wonder they’ve kept Henry seated and seen at a distance to this point in the season. Henry’s grown to being eye to eye with Paige. He has a deepening voice and suspect laundry.
Why does he possess a bikini shot of Stan Beeman’s hot ex-wife? Really, Paige, do you even have to ask?
Philip and Elizabeth, undeterred by their close call with the CIA tail or by Gabriel’s sober warning, are back in range of the Paaswell house listening to the bug Philip planted.
Before they can get started with another quarrel over Paige, they pick up a conversation between Paaswell and his hottie babysitter. Said hottie strikes out with trying to get with Paaswell but not before Philip and Elizabeth learn that the teenaged babysitter happens to be the daughter of Breland, the head of the CIA action group minding the Afghan fighters.
Their quarry is that close. Philip and Elizabeth head home, secure in the knowledge that they’re getting closer to secrets that might save lives overseas, but unsettled on a personal level by their continuing impasse over Paige.
There’s always a choice, Gabriel said. It’s always true that someone or something’s got to give. It’s the stuff of TV dramas, family strife, and our 21st century story of the shrunken but proud Soviets versus the US with its struggle of too many wants versus a small but powerful coterie of interests.
Tune in next week to see if Martha hangs in for another show, Paige finally learns what’s keeping her parents out late at night, and what on earth’s going on with that supposed Soviet defector. Who cracks first?