The Americans S1 E8: Mutually Assured Destruction

A bit shorter this week because I’ve been consumed by my NCAA picks, and my bracket is about to go to shit once Pitt loses in eight minutes, so clearly it was time well spent. I was a bit disappointed by this episode but think the show’s setting itself up well for its denouement, as you’ll see:

I wasn’t sure if I was watching The Americans or a Cold War-era prequel to Boogie Nights because it sure as hell seemed like everybody was doing it. I suppose espionage and the steamy throes of passion go hand-in-hand, what with James Bond and David Petraeus, and it seems like The Americans is no different in its manifest desire to appeal to your most prurient interests. Now I don’t fault The Americans for including a sex scene every week—like I said, it comes with the territory, and The Americans is definitely at one with its genre, because every episode to date has also included some sort of fight sequence or exploding gizmo. I also get that the writers tried to use the sex scenes this week to further the story, but getting people in room only to have them making out ten seconds later is a bit lazy and also means there’s less time to focus on the actual themes of the show. The result is that “Mutually Assured Destruction” felt like a YouTube mashup of every episode that’s aired to date.

I could go on further about sex scenes in movies and TV, but it suffices to say that most of the time they’re something you have to do but serve whatever you’re watching best if they’re over quickly. Obviously James Bond has to order a martini and get it on with the Bond girl; I’d be disappointed if he didn’t, because to do otherwise would be to fuck with tradition. But when the love-making is without any romantic or sensual resonance (i.e., it’s lacking in the love department), it’s the rare sex scene that succeeds. Unfortunately, I’ve found these scenes to be formulaic compared with the rest of The Americans, which I’ve found to be layered and filled with innuendo. They’d be best suited to keep it to once a week.

This wasn’t all that felt rote about last night’s episode; I found that this weeks “mission” had less at stake, too. I never felt any tension similar to the episode where Elizabeth and Phil were kidnapped (which nicely paralleled their children’s run-in with a stranger) or the sequence that saw them murder the security guard who had the misfortune to come across the pair while they were staking out a Cabinet secretary. Even though Elizabeth and Phil barged into the German’s hotel room with silencers cocked, there was never any doubt who was surviving and who was not.

That’s a bit of a shame, because I felt the plot took a few steps forward in the episode’s final minutes, as we can now reasonably expect Chris (Stan’s junior agent partner) to run across a bewigged Phil outside the apartment of the co-worker who’s just spurned him. (The lingering zoom on the filing cabinet, done from Chris’ perspective, suggests that Chris isn’t only thinking about unrequited love.) This development had a two-fold effect: On one hand, I was glad that Chris wasn’t just serving as the buddy-cop foil (heretofore he’s been used mainly for comic relief or a way for us to learn more about Stan, either by asking him questions or prodding him to get laid) but as his own character with some nuance and some emotional depth, but on the other it reinforced my slight disappointment with the decision to forego a more intricately plotted episode. Ideally this new development will hope the plot’s momentum in the coming weeks; it should benefit the show that Elizabeth and Phil will be chased not only by their KGB superiors (for “botching” the hit on the German; they were right to note that it was all the KGB’s fault but also that some of their comrades will want to place the blame at their doorstep) but the FBI as well.

One thematic note that did work for me, I should add, was Phil’s proposal that Elizabeth divorce him if she’s unwilling to make an effort to love him. I forget the year that Elizabeth and Phil arrived in the States according to the show’s chronology, but it was definitely before 1968 and the feminism movement laid waste to the Eisenhower-era ideal of two kids, two cars, and a white picket fence. It’s little layered details like this that The Americans has done well so far: We know that a divorce would upset Phil, who has bought into what might be a more Western conception of marriage (apologies for not being able to cite a study of social norms in the USSR here), but we also know that a divorce would not hinder their cover, because there’s less stigma attached.

Finally, I just wanted to respond briefly to something Alan Sepinwall touched on last night—that he confused the hooker paid by the German as part of his ruse with Elizabeth. I definitely thought at first that it was Elizabeth sitting in the hotel bar, just with a new wig on, but by the time the character spoke it was clear that it was somebody else (Elizabeth and Phil have a couple different wigs, but unless I’m missing something they don’t disguise their voices), so I wasn’t confused for very long. My guess is that this was a purposeful casting choice. Why else hire somebody who looks like Keri Russell if not to give off the first impression that it’s Elizabeth?

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