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The Americans: Mutually Assured Destruction

... in which Elizabeth and Philip are tasked with finding and stopping a contract assassin hired by the KGB.

“Mutually assured destruction” is the philosophy underlying the Cold War stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union. The thinking was that if each country had nuclear weapons and the ability to use them, neither side would ever launch those weapons because the other would immediately respond in kind, resulting in mutually assured destruction. “That’s the whole point. Nobody wants to use them.” (A principle that would be completely undermined if the United States were to develop that ballistic missile shield everyone is so interested in.) The main idea underpinning this philosophy is that our love for and connections to our families and friends will keep us safe; as Sting once put it, “Believe me when I say to you, I hope the Russians love their children, too.”

This week, however, 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.

This theme is most obviously on display in the Elizabeth and Philip story. Several beats --- the lost racquetball game, the necklace --- demonstrate that treating their marriage as real distracts and weakens the Jennings, culminating in Elizabeth telling Philip that they can’t do their jobs effectively if they’re emotional. Granny, of course, is the one that plants this idea in her head, purposely undermining the strengthening relationship between Elizabeth and Philip because she and their KGB overlords have a vested interest in keeping Elizabeth more loyal to the cause than to her partner. “If you start to think of your marriage as real, it doesn’t work. The men don’t think of them that way. It was an arrangement. Do you understand that? […] Better to live in reality, Elizabeth. Better for you. Better for us, too.”

(Interestingly, the FBI essentially operates with a similar philosophy. When Beeman jokes that the agents’ wives never see them, Gaad acknowledges that this is the understood price of service. “You wanted to be an FBI agent.”)

Meanwhile, Stan is allowing his growing personal connection to Nina to blind him to effective asset management strategy. His romantic feelings for her and his guilt over having gotten her into this situation keep leading him to insist that they can pull her out at any time, but Nina recognizes that these promises are just talk. The truth is that the FBI will want her to remain in place until they get every possible scrap of information they can from her. “That’s how policeman thinks, not how spies think. We want everyone to stay, right where they are, and bleed everything they know out of them. Forever.” She knows that guilt and feelings won’t keep her alive, and that she needs to give the institution the very best intelligence she can, if she’s got any chance of getting out.

On other FBI fronts, we got several examples of how exploitable and detrimental personal connections can be in the spy world. Martha serves as Exhibits A and B. Her efforts to smuggle classified information to help out her new lover are a perfect example of an enemy preying on emotions to manipulate someone into providing intel. At the same time, her personal relationship with Amador --- and the very poor way it ended --- seems likely to lead to the discovery of her illicit activities. And, as Exhibit C, we have the ill-fated FBI agent, whose desire for physical intimacy was exploited by the assassin to take out the target scientist and several other federal agents. Empathy, love, and sexual desire make you weak, and will only lead to your own destruction or the destruction of those you seek to protect.

Other Thoughts

Philip: “Oh, so all we have to do is find a highly trained killer we know nothing about before he hits any one of fourteen American scientists.”
Elizabeth: “But doesn’t it sound fun?”
Philip: “I’ll call the sitter.”
So they do use a sitter!

Granny knowing about Irina and Philip suggests that the KGB did purposely set up the New York operation as another test for Philip. Irina must have gone back to them and reported on what happened between them. This development makes me think the son might be real. I could easily believe Irina would remain a “good soldier” to keep her son safe.

Martha so thoroughly enjoying sex with Clark was rather delightful. I loved her joyful smile as she laid in the bed after their first time together. I don’t expect things to end well for Martha, so it was nice to see her getting some happiness in the moment.

Stan: “I don’t think I should’ve gotten you into this.”
Nina: “So now guilt?”
Stan: “I have a job to do.”
Nina: “Just think how you will feel looking at me dead one day.”

The contract assassin’s final repose --- so to speak --- was rather revolting. I pity whoever has to clean up that bathroom.

Stan: “You didn’t have to tell me that.”
Nina: “I cannot lie to everyone. Too dangerous.”

I can’t help wondering if Nina made the move on Stan, in part, to exploit his feelings and ensure herself some additional measure of protection. Is she actually giving in to fear-inspired feelings with the only person who understands what she’s going through? Or is she just employing sex as a weapon, now that she’s learned how to do it? I lean towards the latter. She sees Stan as a protector, and possibly her only lifeline, and she’s going to use every weapon in her arsenal to ensure her safety. Maybe she can lie to everyone.

So where do Philip and Elizabeth go from here? I doubt Elizabeth will opt for separation. It would make their job coordination more difficult, and I don’t think she would want to put her kids through that. But the question remains whether the Jennings can now make the cover work after trying to turn their “arrangement” into something more. Has briefly opening the door to the idea of love between them weakened their professional partnership to the point where it is unsustainable?

So, is Amador tailing Martha because he’s a crazy stalker ex, or because he suspects she’s up to something?

Final Analysis: A very engaging episode that flips the idea behind “mutually assured destruction” on its head.

Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.


  1. Fantastic review, Jess! The multiple layers in this show and the continuing exploration of each character's light and shadows is what I am finding so fascinating. Even the relatively minor characters like Martha and Amador are interesting and complex.

  2. Great review! I am continuing to really enjoy this show. The acting is strong, not only from the main actors but from the supporting actors, too. Loved hearing some more 80's tunes, too.

  3. I worry about Martha. I don't know why, but I really care about her. She's so into "Clark" and it makes me sad because Philip is just using her. Sigh.

    Amador is really creeping me out. I hope he's just suspicious of Martha and not stalking her or something.

  4. She sees Stan as a protector, and possibly her only lifeline, and she’s going to use every weapon in her arsenal to ensure her safety. Maybe she can lie to everyone.

    Great comments on Nina. I was not seeing it like that, but that’s an interesting take on her behavior.

    This series is truly fascinating, like a fine meal you want to enjoy slowly.

    Terrific review, Jess.


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