Move over, the Mountain and the Viper—the past year of TV has a new most disgusting moment. But let’s not oversell the gross-out aspect of the act that gave “Baggage,” this week’s episode of The American’s, its sick-joke title. Yes, the sight of Philip, Elizabeth, and their murderous Pakistani asset Yousaf breaking the bones of a nude, dead woman to fit her into a suitcase (making this the second season of the show in a row to open with a brutal murder in a hotel room) was stomach-turning enough to make even a veteran gorehound like yours truly physically recoil from the screen. But in the hands of smart filmmakers, spectacle, violent or otherwise, is more than an end in itself. Like the eye-popping violence in that Game of Thrones episode, the packing of Annalise — the physical reduction of a human being to inert trash to be toted away and discarded — is depicted so shockingly not just for shock’s sake. The Americans uses that shock, employs it to batter down our usual defenses and force us to acknowledge the horrifying ideology beneath the horrifying act.
That is certainly the effect it has on Philip. With their KGB superiors’ plan to convert their daughter Paige to the cause always on her parents’ minds, Philip can’t help but connect the young woman he’s helping to raise with the young woman whose death he just caused and whose corpse he just defiled. “I don’t want her putting people into a suitcase,” he snaps at Elizabeth, “and I don’t want her ending up in a suitcase.” Elizabeth, we come to learn, is dealing with the emotional baggage that gives the episode’s title its double meaning: Her own mother, perhaps in compensation for her father’s desertion during World War II, jumped at the chance to enlist Elizabeth in a life of patriotic violence. But at this point in the episode she’s not ready to address that directly, instead falling back on pat “hey, things are tough all over” clichés. “What do you want, Philip?” she asks. “A guarantee that life’s gonna be easy?” Philip’s response oozes the contempt of a man forced to state outright an idea he feels ought to go without saying: “For my daughter? Yeah.”
The Jennings are not the only characters struggling within the constraint of their family ties. Driven to desperation over the conviction of his girlfriend Nina for treason, Soviet agent Oleg Burov asks his influential father, the Minister of Railways, to intervene. The Minister, however, mainly uses his jailhouse face-to-face with his son’s lover to think out loud about the pain of parenthood, and it’s a very different pain that what Philip is feeling. “Parents are always trying to understand our children better,” he tells Nina. “To do what’s best for them. It’s our great misfortune.” “Why a misfortune?” she asks. “Because we’re so often disappointed,” he replies. The Minister is long past the point of protecting the innocence and ideals of his child, the way Philip wants to do for Paige. He’s sized up his son and, with a sigh of resignation, seen little worth saving beyond the shared blood in their veins.
Of course, this isn’t Oleg’s only attempt to effect a rescue of his beloved. The first comes at gunpoint, when he tracks down and accosts FBI Agent Stan Beeman — himself in love with the Nina he thought he knew — in an attempt to force him to do something, anything, to spring her from prison. As Oleg, actor Costa Ronin is one of the show’s finest performers, and as with so much of The Americans the body is key. The process of watching his emotions flow from that open book of a face through his long limbs and into action makes every scene he’s in convincing and pleasurable, even when he’s doing something awful. His raffish youthfulness, his affected American style, his air of legacy-hire privilege are all belied by his rangy physicality and warm, soft features, rendering him likeable despite all the surface signals to the contrary. Perhaps that’s what Stan senses when, in the episode’s tensest scene, he turns his back on the guy and walks away, daring Oleg to gun him down. Neither Oleg nor Stan have the Jennings’ ability to repeatedly, unfailingly push past their moral limits (though perhaps Philip has at last reached his with Paige); loving Nina’s not the only thing they have in common.
Shaken by the experience, Stan does something Philip would understand: He calls his kid. The Americans is great with the details of human interaction, better indeed than it tends to be at grand visual statements; compare, for example, the understated brilliance of Philip handing Yousaf a beer after the murder with the painterly fussiness of the final scene’s staging, with Philip and Elizabeth sitting forlornly in their travel-agency office, pointedly looking away from one another. Stan’s pay-phone answering-machine message to his estranged family, fortunately, takes the former approach, festooning itself with small, sharp heartbreaks. He notes his last name, as if he can no longer be sure they’d know who he was otherwise. He specifies the time, “9:27,” its quotidian exactitude wholly incommensurate with the enormity of the event. He even adds a polite, awkward greeting for Arthur, his ex-wife’s Sandra’s new partner. It’s a painful scene, so true to the difficulty of fitting traumatic experiences into the available spaces in everyday life.
And for Stan, it’s not enough. He has to go to Sandra’s house, see her personally, tell her that even though he doesn’t hope for a rapprochement and knows he shouldn’t come to her with pain like this, there’s no one else he’d want to come to at all. “You know, at EST they said that almost getting killed is one of those things that makes you feel really alive,” he tells her, referring to the confrontational self-help quasi-cult whose classes he took after Sandra left in a belated effort to understand what she saw in them and, by extension, what she no longer saw in him. “I don’t know about that.” Nearly losing his life merely showed him how little he has left to live for already. Sandra still cares about him, of course — she reaches out, takes his hands, tells him how glad she is he’s alive and means it, but then pulls away when it looks like he wants to deepen that connection. “That’s all,” she says. “That’s all there is.” An old life, packed up, carted away.