The Americans S1 E9: Safe House

I think this week’s episode Safe House had many peaks, but also some valleys. After last week’s mediocre episode, they came back in full force this week with significant events that will help build the show towards the first season conclusion.

First, the positives:

As usual, the writers do a good job of paralleling Stan’s storyline with Philip and Elizabeth’s. This week–a case of mistaken kidnappings. First Philip is forced into kidnapping Chris after assuming that Chris has him ‘made.’ This might be true, but the much more likely story is that he is a jealous ex-lover who is flexing his FBI muscle to strike some fear into his love’s new man. Stan also assumes that the reason Arkady isn’t on his afternoon run is because the KGB found out about the planned assassination, but rather than abort the mission he decides to take matters into his own hands. While we know that once Philip has Chris in his car he is likely not long for this world, I think this episode is really a showcase for Stan Beeman.

While the nominal stars of this show are Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, clearly Noah Emmerich should be included when talking about ‘main characters.’ Emmerich represents the spies’ counterpoint, and in Safe House he is given his most emotional storyline yet–worrying about his missing partner and then coping with death. I completely agree with Alan Sepinwall that the flashback scenes used in this episode are supposed to give the audience a stronger connection to Chris than we may have had otherwise, but that we haven’t really spent enough time with him for it to be that effective. However, Emmerich convinced me that Stan was deeply hurt by the loss even though the audience was not. Stan hits numerous high notes in this episode: he starts with the moral high ground by refusing to participate in a questionably legal operation, but later has an intensely worried rendezvous with Nina (following Chris’ disappearance), and finishes with a powerful speech given to an innocent Russian diplomat. His motivation for the murder of Vlad is pure vengeance, and he does it in such cold-blooded fashion–from behind–that it excites me for what this character is going to do the rest of the season (and if there will be any fallout from this; we already know he hijacked an aborted mission in order to kidnap Vlad in the first place).

I thought the Jennings family interactions this week, while a little stereotypical in what parents tell their children when going through a separation, hit all the right notes. Although I am fortunate enough to come from a two-parent household, I can imagine that if my parents told me they were getting separated when I was as young as Paige or Henry I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. I thought Paige was very brave in confronting her father at the Beeman party about wanting him to come home rather than internalizing everything going on. She also spoke in an accusatory tone to her mother when Elizabeth brings home a wok to make Chinese food–questioning the kinds of superficial changes she is trying to make. We know the family well enough at this point to know Philip is the preferred parent and we see Elizabeth struggle with being the one to shoulder the blame of the separation. Henry is younger, and more silent in his depression. I laughed/cried at his social studies paper on the Revolutionary War, and felt so bad for him. I thought it was a nice touch when Elizabeth said to Philip that Paige slept in Henry’s room the previous night, as we know the siblings have become very close. Obviously the kids are not the major characters in this story, but I think they do a great job on a week to week basis with the material they are given.

On a more general note, killing off a regular character such as Chris I think bodes well for the show in general. While we know that Philip and Elizabeth are in for the long haul (and Stan for at least the time being), this demonstrates that no one is safe and things can change fast. Last week’s episode suggested that Chris was perhaps going to follow the breadcrumbs from his ex-lover to eventually catch ‘Clark’ looking at documents he shouldn’t have access to. However, that setup is quickly thrown aside as the story and the tension continue to build and move faster. This in many ways reminds me of the buildup towards the end of Season 4 of Breaking Bad, which I would argue is in consideration for best season of television of all time.

I did have a couple bones to pick with this episode:

Elizabeth insisting on a separation from Philip to me is her not taking her own advice. We know that she wanted to do this following her conversation with Claudia in which granny reminds her that they aren’t a real married couple. It doesn’t work this way–they are agents with jobs in an arranged relationship. Claudia drives the wedge between them by revealing that Philip slept with Irina while he was in New York. That’s all fine and good, but isn’t taking the step of separating from Philip demonstrating that she has developed an emotional attachment to him, rather than staying with him but refusing to be intimate? It seems to me like Elizabeth is speaking out of both sides of her mouth. On one hand she is telling Philip that they have a job to do, but on the other she is saying we can’t live together anymore because you cheated on me.  I’m going to chalk this up to her simply being emotionally confused, but I would like to see some consistency in their relationship week to week rather than the ridiculous roller coaster it has been so far.

My other main gripe is with the metaphors used in this episode–they are too heavy handed. Chris even says in one of the flashbacks that he is using a metaphor (describing pussy as ‘the whole enchilada’) and that itself is a problem. Rule #1 in creative writing is you “show, don’t tell,” and I think this episode did a poor job of that. I liken Stan’s triumphant speech at the end of this episode to Walter White’s “I am the one who knocks” speech, in that both characters were trying to impose fear via a metaphor. However for all the reasons why Walter White’s speech works I felt like Stan Beeman’s speech fails. Walter White is by this point a scary and formidable guy in Breaking Bad. This was a short speech given to his wife (who the audience also knows very well). He was also right–he is the bad guy; he is the monster who goes bump in the night; he is ‘the one who knocks.’

In contrast, Stan is not the bad guy. This long description about being a dog with a bird in its mouth just didn’t work for me. It takes him far too many sentences to get to the point that he has Vlad in some undisclosed location and can do whatever he wants with him. Then when he does finally kill Vlad, after breaking him down and getting him to admit that he is KGB even when he isn’t, he shoots him from the back. I think this is a cowardly move because he knows he can’t face this man head on who doesn’t deserve to die. Walter White would shoot this guy in the face. From the other reviews I’ve read everyone is praising this monologue as potentially his best moment on the show so far, but I have to disagree. This was a classic example of the writers jerking themselves off while writing what they think is a juicy speech.  It was trying too hard.

Overall can I say I’m unhappy with the hour of television I just watched? Absolutely not. This is one of the finest hours on TV every week (although with GoT and Mad Men back it will likely go down some pegs). Buckeye, I’m definitely curious to hear your thoughts.

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