Spies R Us: Keeping It In the Family
By Carole Avalon
Last week, viewers of The Americans spent some uncomfortable time in Elizabeth Jennings’ shoes as she dealt with having to betray that most unicorn of creatures in her life-an actual friend.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell) works as a Soviet illegal, buried deep in American society as she carries out missions for the KGB. Young-Hee was supposed to be nothing more than the wife of a scientist Elizabeth’s bosses saw as a way into a top-secret bioweapons lab. A means to an end whose warmth and good humor salved Elizabeth’s wounded spirits.
Now, having vanished mysteriously, as far as Young-Hee knows, Elizabeth must move on with her life, both on a professional and personal level. Part of that process involves helping her teenaged daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor) come to grips with the knowledge that her parents are secret agents.
She hasn’t wanted her daughter to know everything about spydom-certainly not about the violence and close calls. As dad Philip (Matthew Rhys) says at one point in the episode, “we didn’t want you to worry.”
But there’s plenty to worry about one night in a rough neighborhood when Elizabeth battles two muggers (and would-be rapists) who make a grab for Paige. Seconds later, one mugger lies dead, a knife stuck in his neck, and the other has fled.
Another casualty of the night is Paige’s illusion her parents’ work is essentially peaceful. That can’t be the case, not if Mom is a Kill Bill-style badass clearly experienced in self-defense.
When Paige and Elizabeth arrive home, even computer-besotted Henry notices how upset his sister is, but he’s held off with a non-explanation that turns murder into just an attempted mugging thwarted by yelling.
Henry is beginning to suspect the rest of his family is keeping secrets from him. Given how much he’s poked around in FBI agent Stan Beeman’s house, Henry is likely to start spying on his own family any time now.
But for the moment, our focus is on Paige, who’s in her room gulping down a glass of water and quietly freaking out. She wonders why they can’t call the police.
Elizabeth reminds Paige that her parents are illegal aliens, saying, “We can’t do that, honey. We can’t draw any attention to ourselves.”
When Philip is called away on business, Paige begins processing the experience. “It was so fast, I didn’t know what was happening. I was so scared…you were calm. How could you be calm? You killed someone.”
Elizabeth isn’t deflecting or lying, nor applying her usual level of charm to the target. This is her daughter, old enough to know the truth.
“I couldn’t let him hurt you. It happened so fast.”
“Have you done that before?” Paige asks.
Elizabeth’s eyes glisten with tears she’s trying to contain. “To protect myself, yeah.”
“How many times?”
“I don’t know.”
While Paige and Elizabeth continue their unusual mother-daughter talk, Philip goes to a park to meet up with William, an acerbic long-undercover Soviet agent who works as a bioweapons lab scientist.
It turns out that Philip and Elizabeth’s joint project to learn the access code to the deadliest bioweapons research floor proved to be successful.
He tells William (Dylan Baker) the code, but the scientist is reluctant to make use of it. The current pathogen Americans are working on is a modified version of Lassa fever.
Says William, “It’s a very undignified way to go. You basically dissolve inside, then squirt yourself out your anus in liquid form. Whoosh, then a trickle.”
He doesn’t want to obtain a sample of it, and rejects Philip’s suggestion that he’s motivated by fear. “It’s not that. I’ve been doing things I’m scared of for years. This is one of the deadliest pathogens on the planet.”
And so Philip must report back to Gabriel, their handler, that the key figure in their mission is balking.
Meanwhile, at the Soviet embassy, analyst Oleg has an unsettling conversation with his lover and fellow KGBer Tatiana. She’s been working on the operation to obtain samples of American bioweapons. Mission security dictates she doesn’t share details with Oleg, but, flush with her promotion to Rezident (chief KGB officer) in Kenya, she lets slip the telling detail, “As long as I don’t kill half the Eastern seaboard in the next week or two, I’ll be happy.”
Oleg trained in ultimate Soviet science geekdom. He knows his country is chock-ablock with brilliant scientists, but, due to defacto Western/American blockades, not flush with proper safeguards and equipment when dealing with deadly pathogens.
Tatiana basically has told him their compatriots are dealing with the worst possible counters to American hegemony. Bugs versus bombs. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.
Tatiana does offer Oleg a powerful position at her new posting. He’s politely interested, yet that remark about the Eastern seaboard rubs him raw. He has a lot to think about, but what can he do to stop an operation when he knows so little?
Back at the Jennings home, Philip and Elizabeth are processing the night’s events. He’s frequently troubled by the moral complexities of their work. This one, though, is simple enough: his wife rescued their daughter from harm.
For her part, Elizabeth marvels over something that happened before the attempted mugging. She shares the conversation she had with Paige. FBI neighbor Stan’s son, Matthew, told Paige about his father’s dinner with Martha’s father. (Martha being the FBI informant and quasi-wife of Matthew who had to be expressed out of the country by the KGB when discovered.)
“Paige is reporting this to me,” Elizabeth says. Their daughter is behaving like a spy in training. On her own volition, without coercion. Does this mean Paige is going willingly into the family business?
To underscore the ongoing dangers of the Jenningses’ occupation, we next visit the FBI’s counter-intelligence division, where Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his partner, Dennis Aderholt (Brandon Dirden), suspect the mobile mail robot of playing a role in recent security breaches.
Silently, a computer tech finds a wire device in the robot. He reassembles the robot, wire included, then they confer with Wolfe, the division boss.
Wolfe is a bleak soul. “I don’t give a shit who’s doing it. We’ll just do the usual. Flip him, have him do his drop, pick up some idiot from the Soviet embassy with diplomatic immunity,” he says, adding that “in the end nothing changes.”
Semi-seriously, Aderholt muses, “Maybe we can shoot him.”
After setting up a security camera, the agents catch a female janitor in the act of switching out the wire. As Beeman puts it, “She met a guy at a Roy Rogers in Franconia, thinks he’s part of the mob, like we’re about to sting one of their gambling operations. Paid her $500 a week to change out the recorder.”
A certain secret enemy of the American state doesn’t have mail robots on the brain. Elizabeth is sitting with her daughter, continuing the new policy of truthfulness on a no-school day.
Paige sips her cocoa and questions her mother. “Did you know it’d be dangerous when you joined?”
“I wanted to serve my country,” Elizabeth begins, but Paige is tired of protective half-answers. She wants all of it, and all of it her mother tries to deliver.
“I grew up in Smolensk,” Elizabeth says. Her hometown was almost totally destroyed during World War II. “I was only two when it ended. Growing up there, it was…everything around me was destroyed, and the people who survived, without food, freezing, they all worked together and fought back. I guess I always wanted to be like that, no matter what. To fight back. Dangerous didn’t matter.”
Paige takes this in. The mother she’s loved all these years has a past, after all. A history of toughness, reaching for survival at all cost, combined with a powerful love of country. Her people lost almost everything to foreign invaders.
Elizabeth continues. “By the time I left, they’d rebuilt so much of it, I can’t imagine what it looks like now. I wish I could take you there, could show you where I grew up.”
Driblets of details. Paige is learning more about her heritage. She’s not all-in, not by a long shot, but she’s contributing to the family business, despite knowing it involves a deadly butt-kicking element.
Back at the Soviet embassy, Oleg is studying photographs of U.S. rocket designs for NASA’s shuttles. He’s trying to figure out whether the U.S. military has plans for it. We viewers know the space shuttle turned out to have lethal design errors along the way. And yes, there was a military aspect to some shuttle missions.
Oleg believes that the Soviets’ relative lack in technology makes them potentially poor stewards of bioweaponry. He may not know about U.S. incidents with nuclear and bioweapons, or how greater technology doesn’t automatically mean better decision-making, given U.S. use of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, for instance, and more recently, use of drone attacks against partly civilian targets.
Oleg is hostage to what he knows at that moment, and to the grief he’s experienced since the combat death of his brother in Aghanistan, and the execution of his traitorous lover, Nina.
That’s why he sets up a secret meeting with his frenemy, Beeman. Oleg tells him, “We have the best scientists in the world, but not much money. It’s not a good combination. I get so worried.”
In broad strokes, Oleg lays out that the KGB has an agent in place at a military bioweapons lab. He says nothing more, but that’s plenty actionable for the FBI.
In his desire to save lives, Oleg is sympathetic, yet we know his good intentions could put other lives in jeopardy, and once the FBI pulls the string, who knows what else may unravel.
As for Paige’s earlier reporting about Martha’s bereaved father-via Stan’s son-Philip has a response. He’s lined up Gabriel to use a public phone to call Martha’s parents. As they listen, Gabriel tells them, “She’s being taken care of by people who respect her very much. She’ll always be taken care of. She wants you to know that she loves you and she thinks about you. We’ll be in touch with you when we can.”
Another grieving parent is contacted in the next scene, for an agonized Oleg decides to call his mother. She’s still a wreck over her younger son’s death.
“You gave me such a start,” she says. “I thought you were Yevgeny. It’s strange, but I think I see him on the street sometimes.”
“I see him, too.”
“Your little brother is in America.” A mournful laugh shared. She asks when Oleg will come home, which he tries to deflect. He’s trembling when he gets off the phone.
Time for Gabriel’s heart-to-heart with William, the undercover scientist. William shares his misgivings, then Gabriel responds, “It is hard to believe in things that kill people. You haven’t seen the people you’re defending for far too long. I promise you, what you’re doing matters. You do this one last thing and when you go home all your loved ones and all our people will be safer because of it.”
William leaves, his mood lightened by a certain belief he is reaching the finish line but elsewhere the FBI is plowing through employee records and getting closer to finding out William isn’t who he says he is.
Paige at least has legitimate American citizenship, yet that won’t insulate her during what more and more is looking like a spy internship. When Matthew gives her a ride back to their neighborhood after school, she continue to carefully question him about his father.
She learns that the elder Beeman hasn’t been home in two days because of work. Then comes a different kind of exploration, when the two of them kiss. It’s more experimental than passionate, then afterward, Paige says briskly, “Okay, I should get home.”
She reports to her parents about Beeman being gone for two days. “Is that important?”
Elizabeth, concerned about more than espionage, asks her daughter about Matthew.
“Oh my god, I’m not dating him,” Paige says in pure teenager mode.
“You have to be careful,” Philip responds. “Don’t get me wrong, you can have friends, we want you to have friends…You want to be Matthew’s friend, be Matthew’s friend. You don’t have to do anything because of us.”
When Paige cites her having to report on Pastor Tim and Alice, her parents point out that was due to Paige blabbing her parents’ secret to the minister.
Paige isn’t done. “You wanted me to be close to them, that I had to do that no matter how shitty I felt about being around them…You always say we’ll get through this but you never say how.”
Then Philip takes a call. Paige senses the message has to do with her parents’ real work.
When he gets off the phone, Paige points out, “You killed a man in front of me, and you said you wouldn’t lie to me anymore. Do you trust me or not?”
Philip and Elizabeth look at each other and come to the same decision. “I’m going to meet with a man who’s going to hand something over to me,” he says.
Elizabeth continues. “It’s part of a weapon our military will use if our country is ever attacked.”
“Great,” Paige says. There’s some sarcasm in her voice, but also the recognition that yes, she just got what she wanted. Now what?
The season finale likely will conclude the bioweapons arc for this season, but the family’s journey is scheduled to last two more years, as FMX has signed a deal with the show’s creators. Given how the real-life Soviet Union was damaged irreparably in the late ’80s, one wonders how the show will end their story.