One of the hazards of being a spy is that you never know who you can really rely on – even if it’s your own people. Philip learns this lesson the hard way this week when after arranging to meet up with Martha, he is immediately kidnapped and taken to a warehouse to be roughed up. This is the kind of thing that doesn’t seem like it should be happening mid-season, since not only do the kidnappers know Philip’s name, they also know everything about him, like how he spends a lot of late nights out of the house, his history before 1963 is somewhat shady, and that he’s currently wearing a disguise. This is the kind of thing you’d expect the show to do for its season finale, or maybe the episode before that – because if people exist who know that Philip and Elizabeth are spies, one thing is absolutely certain: either the Jenningses are caught or their captors are not leaving that warehouse alive. The noose only seems to close in tighter when Elizabeth is taken from the house and brought to the same warehouse for a session of husband and wife questioning.

This is the kind of situation I’d been expecting/dreading from the show, because this is the exact type of clichéd situation in which an enemy could easily figure out that Philip and Elizabeth love each other and use them against each other to get information. Thankfully, this episode completely subverted that trope by having a bruised Philip see Elizabeth threatened with torture and then tell his captors that they’ll still get nothing from him. Elizabeth is quick to agree, even with Phil all bloody and tied to a chair. In what may be one of the top five badass moments on “The Americans,” the Jenningses inform their kidnappers that they’ve been trained for this and will not be giving up anything. In fact, they’ll die before they talk.

Luckily, they don’t have to, because it turns out Claudia set the whole thing up to find out if one of them was the mole. I’m sure that after hours of being tortured and having his kids and wife threatened, Philip was really happy to find out that it was his own side doing the torturing. (Want to inspire employee loyalty? Just beat the crap out of someone and accuse them of being a traitor. They probably won’t hold a grudge or anything.) Elizabeth, of course, is furious, and demands to know if General Zhukov approved this. After finding out that Claudia went “far above” Zhukov’s head, Elizabeth completely loses it and shoves Claudia’s face in the tub of water used on Phil, then punches her a few times and threatens to kill her. There is a lot of weight to this scene, and not just for the reason that Elizabeth and Philip will most likely not have a good relationship with their boss in the future; as we saw in the very first episode of the series, General Zhukov is like a father to Elizabeth, and any infringement on his authority is an infringement on her worldview, as well as on her view of the mission. As far she is concerned, she knows and trusts the man at the top – but if he’s not at the top, who is, and how can she work for people who would do something like this? On top of which, Elizabeth is a loyal soldier, and having that loyalty questioned is deeply wounding to her. Rather than confirming the Jenningses’ allegiance, the KGB probably just made some angry enemies.

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After they leave the warehouse, Elizabeth tells Phil that she wasn’t physically harmed at all and that they only asked her a few questions. Phil’s slow realization of the reason why – because they suspected him, not her, due to her long-ago comment about him liking the American life too much – is pretty heartbreaking, and both actors nail the scene with their expressions alone. Elizabeth feels awful about something she said before she started falling in love with him, yet still justified in saying it, and Philip of course feels betrayed. When he drives their car into a tree so they have an excuse for the kids, it’s a little bit of an obvious metaphor for the relationship, but still works because of Phil’s steely resolve and the abruptness with which it happens. This marriage, and now their professional partnership as well, is so tenuous that it doesn’t take much to crash it, but it’s not completely destroyed.

Things do seem pretty bad, though, and Phil doesn’t make them any better by going to see Martha to make up for missing their date earlier. He even asks Elizabeth if she has any jewelry he can take, which seems unnecessarily dickish. Elizabeth gives him her heart necklace, which Martha is thrilled to receive. Although we don’t get much time with Martha this week, her few scenes are quite affecting; she obviously has a huge crush on Phil/Clark and doesn’t want to throw herself at him, but is really happy about his supposed “feelings” for her. Since we’ve seen no evidence of genuine affection on Phil’s part, I get the feeling this is going to end badly, especially if Phil keeps pushing the fake relationship just to get back at his wife.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, meets up with Gregory and asks him to keep an eye on the kids and Phil (for different reasons). She’s unsettled by the thought that she might not be able to trust her own country anymore, and although I don’t think she suspects Phil might betray her, he’s definitely ready to go off the rails in some way.

Although the Jenningses are in a very precarious position, they don’t get the entirety of the episode’s screen time this week. Nina gets a fair amount as well, since she’s in a sticky situation of her own; her boss, Vasili, has promised to find the mole and put a bullet in his or her head. She wants out, understandably, but Stan asks her to trust him and just do one more thing: smuggle a camera into the Soviet Embassy and photograph some files – any files at all, as long as they’re classified. The scenes of Nina casually walking around her office with stolen files and photographing them in the bathroom were so fantastically tense that I didn’t even catch on to Stan’s plan until after he was finished making his phone calls to the Embassy. It turns out that everything involving Nina in this episode, from the camera to the phone calls to the mysterious something (which turned out to be diamonds) slipped into Vasili’s loose tea at the coffee shop, was a set-up leading to Vasili’s arrest and deportation to Russia. This was really great to watch – the various threads all came together perfectly, Nina is safe, and on top of this, we got to see a rare moment of success for Stan. Although he’s a good agent, he never seems to get to wrap anything up; his work is an endless, thankless slog of spying, inside information, and conspiracies. It was kind of touching to see how happy he was to do this one thing that actually worked out; his sense of responsibility toward Nina has saved her from being found out, and their mutual trust in each other paid off. It even led to a moment of closeness between Stan and his wife, which contrasted well with the Stan and Nina scenes, showing how even when Stan and his wife are talking, they can never really talk about anything except in the most vague and general terms. Can you truly be close with someone when you can’t tell them anything about what your life is like every day?

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Paige and Henry also get their own side story, which serves mostly as a massively creepy reminder that even though they’re completely uninvolved in their parents’ world of espionage, they still shouldn’t trust people. After Elizabeth is late picking them up from the mall, the kids try to hitchhike home – something that pretty much never turns out well for any fictional character ever. The guy who picks them up takes them to an empty park (apparently he just has a bag of bread and a sixpack handy in case an occasion such as this should present itself), where he proceeds to give Paige a beer and say a lot of skeevy things about how she’ll be a knockout someday and how you shouldn’t trust anyone who picks up hitchhikers. Nothing he says is overtly threatening, but my God is this scene creepy; the guy obviously means them harm, but approaches it in such an unsettling way that Paige isn’t sure what to do until Henry hits the guy over the head with a beer bottle so the two kids can run away.

There’s some welcome character development in this scene; we didn’t really know much before about Paige or anything about Henry, but now we get to see how Paige has perhaps inherited some jumping-into-situations-without-thinking genes and how Henry is quiet, but can surprise them both with his bravery. They’re both resourceful in their different ways, though; it’s a sobering reflection of their parents, whose situation is much more complicated. By the end of the episode, Paige and Henry are home safe and have agreed to trust each other and keep their mouths shut. Philip and Elizabeth, however, have no idea if they’re safe, and they can’t even trust each other anymore.

One more random thought:

  •  The FBI knows that the man Elizabeth shot last week was working for the Defense Department on the SDI. When first mentioned, this just seemed like a small detail to get Stan reinvolved with the Jenningses, but after seeing how abruptly Elizabeth and Phil burned their bridges with Claudia – one of the few people who can completely blow their cover and expose Elizabeth as the killer – this may be a bigger deal in the weeks to come.
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.
  • junasie14

    Great recap of the show. I also thought they did a good job of tying together the three separate threads of the story, especially the plot to set up Vasilli. I might have felt sorry for him if it wasn’t so disgusting to watch him getting off on Nina while she was obviously grossed out by what she had to do.

    I began to suspect that the kidnappers might be KGB when they brought Elizabeth in to see Philip, because if the Jennings had killed their captors and escaped, they would have had to somehow assume new identities, either as KGB or defectors. Like you pointed out, it was way too early in the season for such a major upheaval in the story.

    I was very surprised to see Elizabeth acting out her aggression against Claudia like that, given that she was her superior and there are bound to be repercussions for her loss of control. Great blend of tension and drama throughout the episode!