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The Americans: Duty and Honor

“You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a cover by its cover.”

In the spy world of the 1980s, no one ever seems to believe anybody else, perhaps because all the spies are most comfortable when they’re lying. Everything is a cover, especially where men and women are concerned. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the only truly honest conversation occurred between Granny and Elizabeth—even though Elizabeth asked that Granny use her cover name, because the honesty of her “real” name makes it hard for her to keep her wits.

Take Andrzej Bielawski: Irina/Anne assumed that his conversion to religious celibacy wasn’t real, that it was just a cover for his attempts to overthrow Soviet communism in Poland. The Soviets originally planned to use lust against a man who publicly denies it. When Anne realized Bielawski’s celibacy was genuine, she didn’t bat an eye. Faking rape, in the days before forensic DNA, doesn’t require actual sex. And a man’s devotion to celibacy can become a weapon just as easily as a man’s loneliness and sexual desire.

Anne played Philip just as easily. She wanted him back and used a (real? fake?) son to do so. I think we’re supposed to suspect the son isn’t real, but I also think we’re supposed to realize the fact of him doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it is entirely plausible that Anne was lying, and equally plausible that Philip thinks she was lying.

Philip’s face when he came home said everything: his children weren’t excited to see him, because they knew he would return. They knew him as a father who was always there. Their bored, familiar reaction to him showed the beauty of family and the simplicity of a relationship that is (more or less) honest: they trust him, and after he got over the momentary disappointment of not being greeted with shouts and accolades (for not running away with his former flame), Philip seemed to derive genuine pleasure from all of the lovely implications of children being bored by their stable, loving father.

Stan’s family doesn’t feel the same way. Son Matthew is all too aware of his father’s absence, and wife Sandra kept repeating “national security” like it was a talisman. She wants to believe what she is saying—that what Stan is doing at work is more important than marriage—but it’s not what she really believes, and certainly not what she wants.

I wish Elizabeth could let herself go just long enough to talk honestly with Sandra. Not about being a spy (that would be a sudden, awkward end to the show), but about how her marriage isn’t as simple as it looks—because no marriage is. Elizabeth needs someone to trust, someone out of the spy games.

Without an outlet, though, Elizabeth and Philip are stuck with the consequences of Granny’s actions. What fascinating symmetry: untrusted, however momentarily, by those above them, Elizabeth and Philip now can’t trust each other. They came so close to making it “real”—I wonder if they’re destined to always be slightly out of step, with one of them wanting it to be "real" just as the other is having doubts.

Sandra and Stan seem to be completely out of step. Stan is supposed to be back to normal now that he’s no longer living with the white supremacists. But maybe he can’t live without a cover: he cheated on Sandra, which means that now he’s acting the part of dutiful husband, but not fully inhabiting it. And sleeping with Nina probably felt honest, in the moment.

In the same way, Philip felt sleeping with Anne was an honest, “real” choice that counteracted the violence he had to commit to further their spy goals. Whereas Elizabeth wouldn’t let Granny use her “real” name, Philip/Mischa and Anne/Irina slipped right into their real names as soon as they could. But even that was just Anne’s attempt to get Philip to do what she wanted, which is to pile deception on top of deception as she runs away. “Duty and honor” may be the only “real” things, according to Anne, but she’s giving up both of those to flee.

Swords and Ploughshares:

• Elizabeth: “You know there’s no TV on during the day unless it’s boring.”

• Amador: “Nobody listens to what anybody says in a bar.”

• Nina: “You Americans think everything is white and black. For us, everything is gray.”

• I enjoyed the return of Charles Duluth, fake conservative. (I sort of imagine him as an early-eighties David Horowitz, and I like the idea of Horowitz as a secret Soviet spy.)

• I liked Keri Russell’s hard-edged alias this week, although I didn’t feel like that plot did as much, emotionally, as the other stories this week.

Three out of four bar guys.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I love watching these complex characters every week.

    I believe that TPTB still distrust Phillip. There are dozens (one assumes) of female agents. Why choose the one that he had loved to work with him, especially twenty years later. I didn't trust the son thing from the moment I saw the photo. If Irina is in Canada, why is her son still in Russia? Why wouldn't he be part of her cover and why would she leave him?

    Last week, when Phillip and Elizabeth were fighting, he shouted at her that he had never lied to her. Interesting that, at the moment she tells him that all she wants is some semblance of the truth in their relationship, he lies. All I could think of in that moment was that the consequences of that choice are going to be severe.

  2. I wondered if Irina was really going to run away or whether it was just another test they were putting Phil through. If he said yes to her, it would have proved his disloyalty. She was lovely to look at and seemed genuine until you saw what she did to Bielawski. That was cold.

  3. As Irina pulled out the photo of "their" son, warning bells started ringing in my ears! I figured she'd ask him to go away with her... but I was very sure it was another test of Phil's loyalty. Since he "passed" I guess we'll never know if the offer was genuine of a test.
    And yeah, very painful to see him lie to Elizabeth right at the moment they're pledging honesty! :o(

  4. I didn't think that the 'run away with me' thing might have been a test! Interesting theory and it would explain the extreme coincidence of Philip being forced to work with his ex-girlfriend.


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