This review of The Americans contains spoilers.
Lying is awesome. Fellow FX-er and all-around uber-mensch Louis C.K. has a recent stand-up bit about teaching his nine year old not to lie. Of course good parenting dictates that you teach your kids not to lie, but as C.K. puts it “how do you tell a kid not to use a thing that just solves every possible problem like magic?”
Philip and Elizabeth have been lying for as long as they can remember. Their whole existence is based on a lie. They aren’t suspiciously attractive American travel agents. They’re suspiciously attractive Russian secret agents. But season three has introduced one big deviation: telling the truth about their lives to Paige back in episode 10, “Stinger.” And much like the first time a child tells a lie and sees immediate results, so do Philip and Elizabeth during one of the very first times they tell the truth.
We knew this would have big repercussions in Paige’s life. As hard as it is to accept that her parents are spies, it’s even harder for her to accept that so much of her own life is fraudulent. One morning she went from her childhood photos being important talismans of her past to propaganda. Naturally she does not respond well. “I Am Abassin Zadrad” sees Paige finally acting out in the way only a mature, honor student can: by heading to her pastor’s house.
Philip and Elizabeth case the Pastor Tim’s and promptly take Paige home. Later Paige throws those childhood photos in front of her parents face as evidence of how much damage they’ve done to her. Her fury is so palpable and she’s getting so loud that Elizabeth reflexively throws her hand over her mouth causing Paige to cry out “don’t touch me!”
The truth has been devastating for Paige, at least in the short term. But for the people who have been living the lie for so long, it seems pretty damn cathartic, even if it’s turned the teenage girl they live with into a ticking treason-revealing time bomb. Philip, in particular, whether he’s aware of it or not, is now starting to use the truth as a strategic problem-solver. For so many years, secrecy and lies were necessary to do his job. Now, like a perverse example of that childhood lying as problem-solving Philip is discovering that stuff is just easier when he simply tells the truth.
He helps defuse the Paige situation with more of the truth – this time, actual physical evidence of it. He presents Paige with pictures from her and Henry’s childhood. Later he convinces Elizabeth to invite Paige to come see Elizabeth’s dying mother in Russia with her. The band-aid has been ripped off for Paige and Philip is the best equipped to help her with the healing, even if he’s the one who caused the damage in the first place. Meanwhile Gabriel senses that Philip might be close to something drastic. In his meeting with Claudia* at what must be D.C.’s busiest diner, Gabriel tells her that he’s beginning to have doubts about the Center’s plans for Paige. It’s driving Philip and Elizabeth apart.
*Always nice to have you back Margo Martindale. I don’t mind The Americans bringing Martindale back for largely thankless appearances because A. It keeps the world of characters the show is building intact and B. Martindale is awesome.
Based on Philip’s actions by episode’s end, Gabriel may have every right to be concerned. It’s possible that Philip may be going too far on his truth-telling spree. Take his other wife, Martha (“I mean – please take her!” Philip yells from the stage in Rodney Dangerfield make-up.) She’s been a dutiful soldier for Clark in this most recent crisis. “I Am Abassin Zadran” finally pushes her to her limit, however. It’s only a matter of time before the C.I.A. finds out she planted the pen in Gaad’s office. She could ignore this fact when she was having spaghetti nights with her husband but now Agent Beeman is paying her house calls and a weird South African man is picking her up in a car to take her to visit Clark under a bridge.
After a brief but revealing phone call with her parents*, Martha packs her bags and prepares to lead Clark forever. So Philip does his new favorite trick and tells the truth. Or appears to. He removes his glasses and wig (which is a much longer process than I would have guessed) and looks into Martha’s eyes. The Americans is not necessarily known for its cliffhangers but this is a stellar one.
*I can’t say enough about Alison Wright’s performance on this show and this episode is an example why. Witness how much she’s able to communicate with one side of a phone call.
One thing that The Americans is undeniably good at, however, is believable espionage. At first glance, it can seem like all of Philip and Elizabeth’s various missions are unrelated and don’t build off of one another. To a certain extant, that’s true. It’s believable that a lot of espionage would constitute throwing sources, bugs and missions at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s why Arkady and Oleg’s conversation about Operation Zephyr rings true. The KGB has been blessed with almost too much information to the point that it’s become useless. This is also evident by Elizabeth’s Northrop Grunman operation. She discovered Northrop employee in AA a year ago, then she was able to get that employee a job at a plant the KGB wanted her to work at and only now is it beginning to pay dividends, with Lisa agreeing to take snapshots within the factory.
But when one mission succeeds it can lead directly into another and eventually lead into something big. Enter Abassin Zadran. The events that lead to Mujahedeen agent Zadran killing his two comrades in a hotel room began way back in episode one when Yousaf strangled a Scandanavian diplomat to death in his hotel room (lots of hotel room violence on this show). This led to Philip blackmailing Yousaf to call a meeting with C.I.A. agents, which led to the discovery that one agent has an impressionable young daughter, which led to a listening device in that house, which led to the intel that the C.I.A. is meeting with the Mujahedeen. Only then are Philip and Elizabeth able to pose as C.I.A. agents and convince Zadran that his partners are not loyal enough to the cause and that only he should be meeting with the C.I.A. And Zadran responds to this news with the famous understanding and restraint that the Mujahedeen are known for.
Like Abassin Zadran, himself, “I Am Abassin Zadran” ruthlessly accomplishes its goal: setting up next week’s finale. Maybe someone will make it out of a hotel room unscathed.