On a particularly slow shift at my day job (well more like night job as I work the third shift) I fell into one of those debates that can only come up when a group of co-workers is desperately bored. The subject was: if you’re in a scenario where you can only save the life of your spouse or your child, who do you choose?
I have neither a spouse nor a child but felt the answer was obvious enough: your kid. Special, Midwestern, middle-class snowflake that I am, I just assumed that my parents’ worlds revolve around me and my happiness and safety. I also just naturally assumed that everyone else would agree with me. Of course, you prioritize the children. They’re the next generation! They’re your DNA! They know more about pop culture than your spouse! Two of my co-workers argued differently, however, they said marriage is a special bond and the vows you take during marriage supersedes your genetic obligation to your offspring. Regardless, it was a pretty useless debate as none of us is going to come across such a scenario. I had forgotten all about it until tonight’s episode of The Americans, “Baggage.”
“You guys look after each other, you and dad,” Paige tells her mother. “More than us. It’s ok. I’m glad you guys are…it’s a good thing.”
In the moment, Elizabeth is taken aback. Philip has just called her for help with “a lot of files to move,” or more accurately: breaking the bones of a diplomat’s dead wife so she can fit in a suitcase. She never expected such an answer from her daughter. Regardless of what the answer would be to that silly debate: child or spouse, Elizabeth would like to think that Paige thinks she’s a priority. Paige, however, is picking up on the fact that her parents aren’t quite like other parents.
This is why The Americans is knocking its Paige storyline out of the park. So often on television, children are used as props for the adult actors. The emotional drama is derived from choices the adults must make regarding the children, not choices the children themselves must make. The Americans is subverting that by accepting it. Paige is just as much a passive actor in her own parents’ drama – Philip and Elizabeth for the second time in as many episodes have an impassioned debate of their own on whether to bring their daughter into this dangerous life. The difference is that while Paige, the concept has become a political football in the Jennings marriage, Paige, the person is growing. She is picking up on thing like her parents’ peculiarly strong relationship, her father’s strange work habits and most dangerously to Philip: the front page of the newspaper. Philip witnesses his daughter developing her own political opinions and instead of reveling in the growth of his daughter, he thinks about the young woman he just shoved into a suitcase. In my world, that parents or children debate was absurd because it would never happen. In Philip’s world, however…
Speaking of that women in a suitcase – wow. Television has turned bloody brutality into an art form but I’d never actually watched something with my hands over my eyes until that. Elizabeth comes to Philip’s aid in disposing of Annelise’s body. The only way to transport it from the hotel is via luggage so Philip, Elizaebth and Yousaf begin the process of Tetris-ing her bones into a baggage-friendly pile. It’s brutal. But it also means that Yousaf is completely under Philip and Elizabeth’s control now as Elizabeth snaps a photo of Yousaf in the process. Soviet God taketh away a Swiss honeypot and giveth an Afghan diplomat.
Meanwhile, good old-fashioned American God taketh away Nina, and giveth a Milkway-obsessed Soviet deserter from the Institute for US and Canadian Studies. “Baggage” reveals that Nina is still part of The Americans plans, but offers little else. She’s in a Soviet prison with nothing but her thoughts and an increasingly panicked Belgian girl for company. Oleg’s father, the Minister of Transportation finally visits her but doesn’t offer her salvation…yet.
In her place, the C.I.A. has gained another powerful source of intelligence: Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya. She worked for the Institute but the grim situation in Afghanistan left her disillusioned and wanting to change teams. It’s interesting that she seems so taken and charmed by American life. She loves vending machine candy, happily parrots back facts about Newsweek’s circulation and wants to see the Washington memorial. Contrast this with Philip and Elizabeth, who despite spending most of their lives ingrained in U.S. culture still fight for the Soviet cause. She observed American culture from afar and came to idealize it, while Philip and Elizabeth live it every day and still have no issue with trying to tear it down from the inside.
Like Zinaida, Stan is also keen to idealize institutions from afar. He was a terrible husband and father when he and Sandra were still together. But after a near-death experience with Oleg in a back alley*, he seems eager to reconnect with…something?
*The Washington D.C. of The Americans universe has more dimly-lit back alleys per capita than any other city.
“Hi, it’s Stan…Beeman. Calling for Matthew Beeman. It’s dad,” he whispers awkwardly into a pay phone. His near-death experience doesn’t inspire him to be a better man. It’s almost like it reminds him that the concept of “Being a Better American Man ™” is something he’s supposed to want. He tells his story to Sandra because she’s the “only person” he wanted to tell. But his sincerity can’t be trusted anymore than Philip and Elizabeth’s.
If deciding whether to introduce their daughter to a life of espionage weren’t enough, Philip and Elizabeth still have to do, you know, espionage. Getting Yousaf was a coup but he’ll only be as useful as the number of C.I.A. agents working on Afghanistan as he can get. Elizabeth is still smarting over losing the list of agents – literally and figuratively, as she still can’t drink her Miller Light without wincing when they track some C.I.A. agents to a bar rendezvouz with Yousaf.*
*Though that might have a lot to do with Philip choosing Miller when the waitress clearly said they had Yeungling on draft. That should have outed him as a Communist right then and there
The KGB wanting Philip and Elizabeth to start grooming their daughter to become a Soviet agent was the perfect ending to season two but it remained to be seen if it would be an appropriate beginning for season three. So far, The Americans has handled it deftly. It’s a persistent question that influences every moment that Philip and Elizabeth are onscreen but it also have not overwhelmed the central, Afghan plot. And should things get too Paige-centric, maybe the KGB will order Philip and Elizabeth to get Henry to put down his baseball glove and pick up a hockey stick.