This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 2
The best thing The Americans ever did for itself was to get its biggest mistake out of the way early.
That mistake was separating Philip and Elizabeth back in season one. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings marriage must be stressful. All marriages are. With the divorce rate hovering around 40-50% for “normal marriages” one can only imagine what the divorce rate for arranged marriages between KGB spies living in America would be.
It logically makes sense that a real world Philip and Elizabeth would run into some issues and want to split up. And dramatically, asking a room full of writers to write a show about a complicated marriage without separating the partners for an extended period of time is like placing a steak on a dog’s snout and telling him not to eat it.
Still, it wasn’t a dramatically interesting or creative plot line when Philip and Elizabeth were apart. The show is fundamentally about making something incredibly difficult and borderline impossible work. By moving Philip into a hotel room for a period of time in the first season, the writers seemed to be admitting that they either couldn’t crack how to make the relationship work or just couldn’t pass up the low-hanging fruit of a plot line that would at least get a few episodes in the can quickly.
In a way, I’m glad they did it, however, because now they can never do it again. The Philip and Elizabeth separation in season one is like The Americans’ dramatic chickenpox. A real-life couple could certainly live happily for a few years after a separation and then decide to separate again but on The Americans it’s no longer dramatically viable. Been there, done that. They cannot do it again.
The dramatic chickenpox is part of what makes the post-season one seasons so fantastic and we can see the effects of it right from the jump in season four, episode two: “Pastor Tim.”
Following Stan’s throttling of Philip in the garage, Elizabeth can’t help but notice that the interaction seemed quite intense. Philip has no choice but to come clean about what happened. He tells her that Stan thinks he is seeing his ex-wife Sandra, when in reality he is really just attending EST meetings with her. For Philip, admitting to something as vulnerable as seeking out third-party help for his psyche is far worse than an actual affair. Elizabeth patiently asks why he’s been still going to EST.
“I don’t know,” Philip says. “There’s something about it. You learn things. You learn how to deal with things.”
“Like what?” she asks.
“Life…I guess. That you can feel something instead of seeing something.”
Elizabeth then softly asks if Philip would ever want her to go to a meeting with him to which Philip responds “sure.” That level of emotional intimacy and patient regard for another human being is almost unheard of for even the greatest television shows. Matthew Rhys deftly portrays Philip’s embarrassment with needing outside spiritual or psychological guidance and Keri Russell is somehow even better at just listening, taking in what her husband is saying, processing it, empathizing – all without saying a word. And this is just the first five minute scene in an episode that ostensibly serves the narrative by just filling in another character as to what happened last week.
The Americans is able to effortlessly plunge into these emotional depths because its taken for granted that its two main characters are forever a team in every possible way. Good thing for Philip and Elizabeth too as Team Jennings has a lot to deal with in “Pastor Tim.”
First things first is getting rid of that damned glanders. A plague-level super virus has no place in the Jennings household. Gabriel sets up a way to smuggle the virus back to the U.S.S.R. that leads to another absolute classic Americans murder scene.
There has to be a term now for this type of action that is unique to The Americans and that the show is able to continually, deftly pull off. For now I’ll go with “low-key stylized violence.” Philip (wearing what might be his best wig yet) approaches a Czech pilot in a bus on an airport tarmac to execute a handoff of the glanders. The Czech pilot is freaking out, however, under the pressure of this latest assignment. He’s clearly not a KGB spy, just some schmoe who really likes money. The pilot is so noticeably distressed that a TSA agent on the bus takes notice and has to do his job and double-check that the guy is ok to fly.
Philip tries to concoct a story that the pilot’s son is sick but it’s not going to be good enough. Philip’s cover story is solid but the pilot is just too visibly messed up. And yet again, Philip Jennings is forced to kill an innocent person. Poor, poor Philip.
This season has set up through flashbacks that he has not been a stranger to violence from the time he was young, killing the two bullies who harassed him as a child. But violence and murder seem to have a much stronger effect on him than Elizabeth. Maybe it’s because his first experience killing was in retaliation as a child while Elizabeth’s was in service of a greater cause. She can be removed from it, but he cannot. And just like how cats are always attracted to people who hate cats, violence and murder seem to follow Philip around like the universe knows he hates it and is just fucking with him.
Philip kills the poor TSA agent to a diegetic soundtrack of “Tainted Love” that the only other passenger on the bus is blasting through her cell phones. He stuffs the dead body next to him on the seat, out of sight and the Czech pilot runs off sans glanders. The glanders is coming back to the Jennings household yet again.
Back at the homestead Elizabeth is dealing with a potentially even greater issue than the glanders: Pastor Tim. I love that this episode is named “Pastor Tim” and he doesn’t even appear in it outside of a dream sequence in which he is carbon-monoxide poisoned to death. That’s because to the Jennings, Pastor Tim the person does not matter. He’s only Pastor Tim: the threat. It’s no coincidence that the first two episodes are named “Glanders” and “Pastor Tim” as though are the biggest issues confronting the Jennings family and not necessarily in that order.
Elizabeth knows that Paige has tattled to Pastor Tim but it doesn’t make Paige’s confession any less brutal or heartbreaking to her. Elizabeth loops Philip in and they begin the process of dealing with it. They have three options: kill Pastor Tim, turn him or run away. Philip investigates Pastor Tim’s office and discovers he writes his sermons in a remote cabin and Elizabeth scopes it out to see there is a defective space-heater. Plausible enough deniability they suppose. Still, Paige is too smart.
“When you try to get Paige into this job, and she gets a whiff of the shit we really do, she’ll figure out we killed him,” Philip tells Elizabeth.
“You’re getting what you wanted,” she responds.
“None of this is what I wanted.”
Marriage is undoubtedly one of the big themes on The Americans so it’s a pleasant surprise to find out Nina was once married in Russia. Per usual, Nina’s interactions with the scientist Anton in a Russian prison-camp lags behind Philip and Elizabeth’s version of American Gothic, as does Oleg learning of his brother’s death. Still it’s interesting to know that Nina was at one point married to a man named Boris who she left for America and now he has two sons and al life of his own.
It’s telling that she just now entrusts him with an important task – getting a letter out to Anton’s sons letting them know he’s alive. This fails and it’s like the show is passing a narrative judgement on Nina if not necessarily a moral one. One of her big strategic mistakes in America was trying to go it alone.
Contrast to the Jennings. When Philip comes home at episode’s end, weary from his latest kill, Elizabeth has nothing but bad news. Paige told Elizabeth about Pastor Tim and Gabriel also informed Elizabeth that her mother died.
“We’re in trouble,” Elizabeth says. At least they’re in trouble together.