“Look at his nose and think ‘I know more than he does,’” Clark tells Martha midway through “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov.” Martha, who is firmly on her husband’s side despite knowing he is not who he presented himself to be, thinks that she is bad at lying. She is worried about her upcoming questioning with Walter Taffet*. So Philip-as-Clark is giving her the most overt instructions on lying The Americans has provided yet.
*I’ve been fascinated by Walter Taffet’s appearance since he appeared and I think I’ve finally concluded that he looks like Mitchell Hurwitz if he were cast in a Coen Brothers film.
The Americans has always been about lying and the very premise of the show is built upon a lie: that Philip and Elizabeth are normal American citizens who own a travel agency. They’re naturally adept at lying and have been trained to be even better. But everyone on this show is an excellent liar, whether they’ve been trained or not. Stan and Oleg are actively committing treason against their respective countries and no one is the wiser. Zinaida is lying about her defection. Hell, even Martha, despite not being perceived as a good liar, is lying to herself about her own marriage. Then with a little training, she passes her “test” against Walter Taffet with flying colors. Everybody on this show excels at lying. It’s when it comes time to tell the truth that they begin to struggle.
“One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov” deals with the fallout of “Stingers” in which Paige finally learns the truth about her parents. Philip and Elizabeth are terrified by this but also a little relieved, as best evidenced by Philip hopefully asking Gabriel if this will get the Center off their backs about Paige’s induction into the program. Regardless of whatever level of relieved they may be, Philip and Elizabeth are unprepared for the responsibility of teaching Paige about her own family – or in other words are unprepared to simply tell the truth.
Paige asks what her parents real names are. “Mischa” and “Nadezhda” they reply. Later on she walks into her parents room* and asks what they’re talking about while they lie in bed.
*And she actually knocks this time! She’s learned well.
“Your grandmother in Russia,” Philip replies.” “She’s very sick and I want your mom to go see her.”
“Can you?” Paige asks.
“No, I can’t,” Elizabeth says.
So Paige storms out, disgusted that the life her parents chose is already interfering with their familial obligations. Philip and Elizabeth are completely open with Paige now and “doing the right thing” as well as they can by telling her the truth. But they speak lies better than the truth…and English and Russian combined.
This new truth-telling mindset is already having its effect on Elizabeth, however. In the Center’s plan to infiltrate the hotel that the Mujahedeen will be meeting with the C.I.A., Elizabeth bears most of the burden. After successfully seducing the hotel manager last week she must return to seal the deal (I had to borrow an Arrested Development reference after linking to a picture of Mitchell Hurwitz earlier). She does so effortlessly, obviously, but there is a moment during her sexual encounter with the manager where her body almost exposes her lie.* She powers through and then later on in the control room completes the mission of finding the room where the meeting will be held via computer with an assist from Philip.
*If nothing else, The Americans will always be remembered as having the best sex scenes on television. Not only are they stimulating and shot perfectly, they are almost always a character-building moment. You can drop in to any sexual encounter in the show’s history and know exactly what the plot is trying to communicate.
Still, she can’t bear to me there a moment longer after completing the mission. The hotel manager is eager for a second round of sex but Elizabeth says she has to go. Sure, she’s completed the task but it would undoubtedly be less suspicious and all-around more strategically-advantageous to keep the guy on the string a little longer. But she turns him down and hurries home to wake up her sleeping husband. Elizabeth Jennings, Master Liar, is already softening due to the sheer strain of having to tell the truth to her daughter.
Then there’s Nina, who has earned a reputation as one of the show’s best liars by not really lying at all. The Soviet Union has dispatched her to learn the truth about whether Israeli captive scientist Anton Baklanov is really working on the stealth technology as he says he is. The Soviets are starting to see Nina as a real asset as she somehow gets people to trust her without failure.
Anton Baklanov falls for her charms immediately. He even knows what she is: an “inducement.” Still he trusts her and cares for her more than any other of the women thrown in front of him to date. The Soviets assumed that Nina is a master liar but truthfully she’s just a sensitive, conscientious person. She really did fall in love with Stan and Oleg. She will likely learn to care about Anton soon too, if not romantically. Anton doesn’t view her finding out about his son Jacob as a betrayal. He’s just glad he finally has someone to talk about his family with.
Ultimately, Nina will secure the information the K.G.B. needs because she wants to be free. And she’ll do it through sincerity. The Americans is a show full of liars, and Nina, who largely tells the truth, is somehow a better spy and more useful asset than most of them.