The Americans ‘Comint’ Review: Sex and the Strategic Defense Initiative

I couldn’t decide whether to begin this week’s review by discussing all the sex contained in tonight’s episode or by giving some background on the Strategic Defense Initiative, so I’ve decided to do both: Elizabeth has scary, almost-S&M sex in a hotel room! The Strategic Defense Initiative was the brainchild of Ronald Reagan and was meant to protect the U.S. from nuclear missiles using a combination of ground- and space-based deterrents! Nina has sex with her boss! The SDI was viciously mocked in the 1980s and called “Star Wars” because the kind of technology Reagan wanted in order to blast missiles out of the sky didn’t exist yet! Stan still isn’t having sex with his wife! The SDI threw a wrench into the whole principle of mutually assured self-destruction, whereby one nation can’t attack another for fear of nuclear retaliation! Ok, I’ll stop now.

This is kind of what the episode feels like, though; a larger amount of sex than usual is interspersed with complicated national security concerns, and it all happens so fast it’s almost impossible to keep up with. It all begins with Udacha, a Department of Defense contractor who’s been feeding information to the Russians for 23 years. He’s gotten his hands on some blueprints that are apparently vital to the KGB’s goal of cracking the U.S. missile defense shield, but the FBI knows that someone has stolen them, and the KGB is worried that their agent is getting “jittery.” Elizabeth and Philip both have a job to do: Philip tries to sweet-talk Martha, the FBI secretary who thinks he works in monitoring counterintelligence agencies, and Elizabeth tries to get information out of the guy who built the FBI’s encryption radios (which allow the agency to communicate without the Soviets listening in). Elizabeth is the most successful of the duo, finding out that said radios are now portable and trunk-sized, and the FBI have been toting them around in their cars. She has to sleep with her info source, of course, and things get weird quickly. He starts hitting her with a belt, and she fake-cries her way out of it; it’s a really uncomfortable scene, but one that is handled with aplomb by Elizabeth, who I will get back to in a moment.

Meanwhile, Nina decides the only way she can get the information the FBI is leaning on her for is to abruptly sleep with her boss at the Soviet Embassy. When Stan finds out, he is legitimately upset, and is shocked that Nina thinks he would ever ask her to do such a thing. There was definitely some developing closeness between Stan and Nina this week, which I’d say is probably leading to a future affair; Stan is becoming very protective of her, and, as noted above, is not having sex with his wife because he’s staying up late at night trying to learn Russian (which he’s kind of bad at).

After finding out which FBI cars contain a trunk unit, Phil and Elizabeth make sure that one gets in a little bit of an accident and has to be taken to the nearest garage, where they somehow arrange to have their own car up on the lift right next to it. This leads to one of my favorite scenes so far from this series, in which Elizabeth sneaks out of their trunk and quietly slithers over their car and into the trunk of the FBI car while Phil, complete with requisite horrible wig, babbles non-stop about car parts in order to distract the mechanic and FBI agent. (Apparently no one else at this garage ever looks higher than head level.) Unfortunately, the FBI car gets fixed more quickly than expected and drives off with Elizabeth still in the trunk to its parking space in a restricted government lot. All turns out well, though, because Elizabeth plays the ultimate bad-ass by simply getting out of the trunk and walking out of the parking lot, saying “See ya” to the guards at the gate.

Last week I complained about how it seemed like Elizabeth was the one making all the bad decisions lately and I wished Phil would do something stupid, and I’m happy to report that for this week at least, my wish has been granted. Not only does Elizabeth keep her cool and get out of what could have been a very sticky situation, she also talks Phil out of committing an act of monstrous (although well-intended) moronicity. After Elizabeth comes back from her sexual encounter with belt marks on her back, Philip is enraged, and immediately wants to kill the man who hurt her. Elizabeth, however, points out that if she had wanted the guy taken care of, he’d be taken care of. Although she may have seemed vulnerable in the hotel room, this is a strong reminder that Elizabeth can, as she puts it, fight her own battles. She stops Philip by reminding him that he’s not her father – she doesn’t need his protection or his condescending attitude. This makes Phil a little cranky.

Just like everything else on “The Americans,” though, it’s not that simple. This episode deals quite a bit with questions of feminism, and the whole Elizabeth/hotel situation illustrates how murky everything is: while it’s true that she can absolutely take care of herself and doesn’t need her husband to rush off and be her knight in shining armor, it’s also probably true that if she had kicked that guy’s ass in the hotel room, she wouldn’t have gotten the information she needed. In a way, she had no choice but to put up with everything, an issue reinforced by Claudia’s talk about the Equal Rights Amendment, which basically boiled down to the fact that everything is different for women, and a lot of the time, it’s harder. The sexual dynamics of being a spy are wildly different for Elizabeth than they are for Philip, and there’s a nice moment near the end of the episode where they both acknowledge that this is something they’re going to have to deal with. If you want to be a successful agent, you have to do whatever it takes, and sometimes those things aren’t going to make anybody in the Jennings household comfortable.

As an added bonus to all these layers, Philip’s crankiness doesn’t last for long. Instead of creating a manufactured-feeling rift in their marriage, he decides to just deal with it, making peace by picking Elizabeth up from the FBI parking lot and bringing her a donut (if that doesn’t say “I love you,” then I don’t know what does). Elizabeth confesses to him on the way home that she hates the feeling of always being worried; it seems that the future holds some KGB-related discontent for these two, and it looks like they’ll approach it as a couple.

As if everything that has happened so far isn’t enough, Udacha comes into possession of the FBI’s encryption codes, necessitating a hastily scheduled meeting between him and the head of the Soviet Embassy. Nina, who is behind her boss’s desk (you know, just picking up paperclips and whatnot), hears the time and location of the meeting and immediately relays the info to Stan, and the FBI quickly changes their code. The implications of this are twofold: first, the time of the meeting can’t be changed, because apparently if they wait, Udacha will “go off the deep end”; and second, the FBI’s quick action in changing the code means the Soviets now know that they have a mole in the Embassy. This could be bad news for Nina, whose change in behavior vis-à-vis sex with her boss will surely be noted. Her situation somewhat parallels Elizabeth’s, except she is much less experienced. Her boss seems like a pretty nice old man for now; hopefully Nina can keep her cover and we won’t have to see a different, less nice side of him.

The meeting – the culmination of all the craziness in the episode – doesn’t go quite as expected. One of the employees at the Soviet Embassy went over Nina’s boss’s head, and instead of meeting with Udacha, he gets stood up while Elizabeth shoots Udacha in the head on the orders of Claudia. This is a wonderful callback to Claudia’s speech about women going out and doing things instead of waiting around for permission to do them; the significance of her choosing Elizabeth rather than Phil to kill Udacha leads me to suspect that she’s trying to sneakily force some female bonding with Elizabeth in order to gain her trust…but to what end?

 

Things I didn’t have room to mention:

  •   Stan’s partner gets no love from the ladies…or from his boss
  •   Stan’s wife gets a clunky, expository speech about the stuff they used to do together
  •  All in all, not a great episode for the minor characters; I would like to see Stan’s partner have some more to do
  •  Martha’s shoes are fabulous
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About the author: Sarah
Writer, copy editor, and TV watcher who sadly has no Twitter account. My favorite shows right now are Justified, Breaking Bad, Parks & Rec, the Vampire Diaries, and Archer.

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