The Americans: Safe House

“Tempus fugit.”

If your DVR cut the last few minutes of “Safe House,” you can watch the rest of the episode online at fxnetworks.com. I recommend watching the entire episode before reading this review—quite a bit happens at the end.

In spy games as in life, there are no do-overs, no time-outs, no hitting the pause button. Inaction is the same thing as action. Both lead, inexorably, to the next link in the chain of events. All that is true, but it’s an odd perspective for a show about the Cold War, which seems in retrospect to have been based on both sides cautiously waiting, but doing little else. The Cold War as we learned it in history class (for those of us my age or younger) is one thing. The “secret war” portrayed in The Americans is another.

Although the previous episode made Elizabeth’s and Philip’s marriage problems clear, I was surprised that they decided to “hit the pause button” and take a marital hiatus. That trial separation must have felt, at least at first, like really hitting the pause: Elizabeth and Philip wanted to achieve perspective on their relationship and how it was affecting their spy work, and vice versa.

But not to the kids, who both have a child’s natural fear that “trial separation” is a lie, and assume doom is the only thing that can follow. I’ve always had pity for children who are shocked by their parents’ problems; although my parents divorced when I was around Paige’s age, I knew it was coming, and that made it easier. In fact, it made perfect sense, and was a huge relief. Neither Paige nor Henry could say that about their lives right now.

Really, no one can: both family matters and spy games were all based on misunderstandings, screw-ups, and waiting so long that no choices were left—it would be possible, minus some blood, to turn this episode into a wacky sitcom full of hijinks. Agent Gaad wanted to hit back at the KGB for last week’s bombing, even though that bombing was basically an accident. Instead, from the FBI’s perspective things went from bad to worse: Chris Amador was captured, Arkady seems to have figured out they were calling in a hit, and the secret war is escalating.

The KGB, on the other hand, had its own set of problems: you can’t call up the FBI and say “whoops!” If only. Instead, Philip was forced to take down Amador, who at best only suspected Martha was doing something a bit odd. I think Amador was mostly throwing his weight around over jealousy. Clearly, he was a bit of a chick-magnet: the messages on his answering machine made that clear. They also made clear that he had a full life that was happy for him: his poor mother and Aunt Lyla (“you know how she is”) will never see him again.

But that situation snowballed so quickly, and ended so tragically, that I would say it was foreshadowing if the Cold War had ended differently. For Philip and Amador—just like for Henry and Paige—all they know about the future is that it looks grim indeed. The series of misunderstandings (and I didn’t even mention Philip and Elizabeth not overhearing the plans to kill Arkady at the Beemans’ party) has led to a true escalation: Stan killing Vladimir, a nobody in the KGB/Rezidentura hierarchy. To Stan, it feels like payback. To the KGB? Who knows? After all, I’m not clear on how much the higher-ups know. Elizabeth said she called Granny, so she must have explained what happened with Amador. Will they take the threat against Arkady seriously, or will Granny dismiss it as Philip and Elizabeth did?

And what does this mean for Stan? Nina told him that FBI agents are like cops—they want the bad guys to go away for doing bad stuff. Spies are different: they want to bleed people dry. I think she missed a part, though: spies also get bled dry. Not always for information (which is what Stan wants from Nina), but rather a more existential loneliness. Stan isn’t enough of a cop, and the secret war isn’t open enough, to bring anyone into the precinct and throw ‘em into a cell. It’s a game of waiting, right up until the moment when someone decides kill a nobody, just to even the odds in a game no one understands.

Last week, Jess explained that “The Americans argues that, in the spy world, the exact opposite is true. Our emotions and need for connection make us weak and exploitable, and will inevitably lead to our destruction. Or, at the very least, a spy investing in personal loyalties and connections runs counter to the interests of our spy institutions.” It’s a prescient comment in light of Stan’s actions. He defied orders to bring Vladimir in, he let emotions overrule the logic of war in killing him. And maybe that’s why inaction is so ineffective in this world: hitting the pause button only means that once someone finally hits “play,” all hell breaks loose.

I’m going to go with a four out of four microwaved potatoes, because The Americans continues to impress me with the way it builds tension (even though we know the way the larger story ends), creates emotional connections to nearly all of the characters (I liked Amador even though I don’t like guys like Amador), and includes a lovely theme in each episode without hitting us over the head with it.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

5 comments:

sunbunny said...

I hated Amador. He was creepy and I'm sort of glad he's dead.

I'm really shocked Philip actually moved out. From a relationship perspective, it makes sense and is probably healthy, but from a tactical sense doesn't it make everything harder? In a weird way, by moving out Philip is showing how, for the first time, he and Elizabeth care more about their marriage than their job.

Martha just breaks my heart and I'm not quite sure why. Elizabeth and Philip use and manipulate everyone around them, but it seems so much worse with Martha.

Jess Lynde said...

I definitely felt the echoes of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' hanging all over this episode. Even before Amador and Stan took things too far over personal feelings, I found myself wishing I had mentioned Gaad's final promise that "this will not stand" as Exhibit D of emotions getting in the way of institutional interests.

This was a really outstanding episode. Noah Emmerich was absolutely riveting, both in his "bird hunting" monologue and in those final haunting moments. I was equally devastated by the opening sequence. The look on Paige's face as she began to understand what her parents were telling her absolutely crushed me. And Henry's quiet sadness got to me, as well. I'm surprised Phillip and Elizabeth decided to go this route, but the show sure is getting emotional mileage out of it.

CrazyCris said...

The moment they showed Amador stalking Martha's house in the previous episode I knew he was a goner! It was simply a matter of time before he suspected Philip of something... but I did not expect it this soon or for it to be a simple matter of jealousy!

Sunbunny is right, the "separation" shows they care more about their fake marriage than their mission... I wonder how the "higher ups" will take it...

Billie Doux said...

Noah Emmerich gets my "performer of the week" award. I didn't think Amador was that interesting or compelling a character, but he was Stan's partner, and I totally got that he was emotionally distraught and felt he had to do something about it. This show actually shocks me.

ChrisB said...

Fantastic review, Josie. This show continues to move me in ways I don't expect. Like Jess, the kids this week really got to me. I'm not sure who much these kids know or intuit about what is really going on around them, but I'm beginning to suspect it is more than Philip and Elizabeth realize.

RIP Amador. Not my favorite character, but the effect his disappearance and death had on Stan was riveting to watch.