The Americans: Salang Pass Review

Gabriel has the sweet Afghan kush hook-up in a particular espionage-y episode of The Americans.

The Americans is a very good show. It’s smart, eloquent and has something to say about the American dream and nature of mankind, like all high-minded art should. All its intelligence would mean nothing, however, if it didn’t know how to nail down the particulars of spy-dom.

News broke this past off-season that the C.I.A. is “closely watching” The Americans to make sure ex C.I.A. agent and co-creator Joe Weisberg isn’t revealing any crucial tricks of the spy trade for an hour-long drama that literally dozens of people watch*. “Salang Pass” is a perfect example of just how well he knows the spy game.

*Seriously people: tell your friends to watch this show. 

Witness Elizabeth’s long con with Northrop employee Lisa (Karen Pittman). Elizabeth has posed as Lisa’ AA sponsor since last season and just re-connected with her in last week’s episode. I don’t even recall mentioning Lisa in my review last week as I didn’t see the significance. That’s part of the show and Elizabeth’s brilliance. Elizabeth’s re-integrating with Lisa at a dark moment in her life is subtle enough not to trigger anyone’s suspicions and now it’s clear this week just exactly what she’s up to. 

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Lisa works for a missile factory in D.C. and the KGB needs her to be working in a different one. So Elizabeth takes advantage of Lisa’s unsettled relationship with her alcoholic boyfriend and suggests that she move out. It just so happens that Fake Elizabeth’s mother just moved into a retirement home and her house is just 50 miles outside of D.C. Lisa moves in and is getting closer to Elizabeth. Now if Lisa could only get a job. In yet another happy coincidence there’s another Northrop Grumman just 15 minutes away from her new home she can transfer to. And hey, a position just opened up due to an unfortunate incident in which a Northrop worker was crushed to death under a car he was working on. 

Too many times on television and in movies, characters come across as so stupid for falling for whatever scheme a spy or “bad guy” has concocted. But Elizabeth and the KGB’s scheme is so brilliant that it’s not unreasonable to imagine almost anyone falling for it. I certainly would have as evidenced by my not even seeing the need to include Lisa in a recap yet. The Americans has room for the deeper stuff because it nails the nuts and bolts of espionage so believably.

Conversely, Philip is just as good at this whole spy thing as Elizabeth but he’s starting to wish he wasn’t. Gabriel subtly chides Philip for his “conscience” when Philip comes to retrieve some Afghan weed to help seduce his 15-year-old target. And it’s true: Philip’s conscience is a interfering with his work to an extent. But the foundation of that work is so solid that Philip’s conscience is not interfering as much as he’d like.

Last week, I observed how helpless Philip is with the women in his life: Elizabeth, Kimmy and Martha. Now I’m starting to realize that it was Philip’s own competence and skill with lying that has placed him in these situations. Martha wouldn’t be “window-shopping” for a child to bring home if she didn’t have the utmost confidence in her relationship with Clark. Kimmy wouldn’t put Philip in a situation where he may eventually have to sleep with a 15-year-old if his disguise weren’t so pitch perfect. Sure, there are extenuating factors for Kimmy like her deteriorating relationship with her father and clear melancholy over her mother’s death but Philip is a good spy precisely because he knows how to manipulate those weaknesses. It’s so clear that Philip is doing all he can to avoid having to develop a romantic relationship with this girl but he’s just too good at his job that he’s unable to turn it off. He has a conscience but his skill is much better.

Philip asks Elizabeth if he should sleep with Kimmy. “I don’t know,” she says. And she means it. Sex is supposed to be just an asset for Philip and Elizabeth but over the years their phony marriage has developed into a real one. As some quick, uncomfortable flashbacks reveal, Philip and Elizabeth have been extensively trained in the art of sex for espionage purposes. Elizabeth says it’s “harder for men” and as we watch Philip encounter a woman his age, a woman much older and an overweight man it’s hard to argue with. They live in a paradigm in which sex isn’t always real.

“Do you have to make it real with me?” she asks.

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“Sometimes,” Philip says.

Spying and secrets are everything for these characters. It’s the basic language in which they speak and because of it, human beings seem to be only assets. As Stan enlists Oleg in a plan to reveal Zinaida as a spy so she can be traded for Nina it’s not even any clearer if Stan really sees something sinister in Zinaida or if she’s just the best possible asset to get Nina back.

At least Stan has moved on from Sandra and acknowledged his real feelings for Nina. Still, in the process he’ll still end up hurting someone else. 

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3.5 out of 5