Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours is a crystalline collection of immaculately produced pop-rock that has sold in the neighborhood of 40 million copies. That’s approximately 8 million copies per each of the five members of the band whose romantic partnership ended during the album’s recording. Given that there were only five people in Fleetwood Mac, including a pair of couples, that’s one hellacious track record. Count ‘em: Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and his longtime partner Stevie Nicks, two of the band’s three main songwriters, broke up acrimoniously. The third songwriter, Christine McVie, left her husband, bassist John McVie — for the group’s lighting director. Finally, drummer Mick Fleetwood got a divorce from his wife Jenny Boyd. (PS: Boyd had conducted a lengthy affair with the band’s ex-guitarist Bob Weston; Fleetwood would go on to have a secret relationship with Nicks, which ended when he broke up the marriage of Nicks’s best friend by having an affair with her. BuzzFeed’s Matthew Perpetua has the best summary of the turmoil if you’re searching for a scorecard.) Lindsay, Stevie, and Christine all chronicled their changing fortunes with savage honesty and/or dizzying romanticism in the songs that formed the album. And in the only instance of the entire group collaborating as songwriters, all five band members co-wrote the record’s centerpiece, classic rock’s most vicious anthem of romantic recrimination: As they all fell apart, “The Chain” quite literally kept them together.
It’s well worth thinking about Fleetwood Mac in the context of The Americans. In a sense, the two are inseparable, and not just because Matthew Rhys is Lindsey Buckingham’s spitting image: The show’s pilot began with an eight-minute espionage sequence set to an extended remix of “Tusk,” Buckingham’s bizarro paean to sexual paranoia. And tonight’s climactic use of “The Chain” will, yes, keep them together as well. But the songs are on the soundtrack for a reason. Long before Mick’s opening stomp emerged from your speakers tonight, this was a show obsessed with the ways in which couples in varying degrees of estrangement could nevertheless come together to achieve something greater than they ever could individually. “Walter Taffet,” this week’s episode, contained enough examples to make the Mac’s Behind the Music blush.
The central couple requiring counseling is, of course, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. When Philip pitches himself as an American everyman to Stan Beeman over pizza this week, he provides a vanilla suburban summary of the couple’s complaint: When it comes to how to raise their kids as they grow older, “We’re on opposite sides all the time.” Driving them to those separate sides is the Centre, which wants to push Paige Jennings into life as a spy alongside her parents. Elizabeth has responded enthusiastically, hoping a career in the KGB could give her daughter the same sense of purpose it’s given her. Philip, though, has dangerously disavowed the entire project, insisting that Paige be allowed to take advantage of the range of choices available to her in America, choices he and his wife never had. As Elizabeth cites the examples of her old civil-rights contact Gregory and their new South African ally Ruben to shore up her argument that truly fighting for a cause is inherently ennobling, all Philip can think of is his own secret son, serving as a paratrooper in Afghanistan. Would his death at the hands of some American-funded fundamentalist be all that ennobling, really? Throughout the episode, the pair are viewed in or through panes of glass — the windows of their bedroom, the mirror in their bathroom, the windshield of their car — as if the screen they’ve erected around their secret life is finally sealing them in, where no help can reach them to solve their crisis. When at last they reach out to each other, with Elizabeth apologizing for telling Paige about their activist past without speaking to Philip first, and Philip finally revealing the existence of his other son, it’s in bed, in the dark, with no barriers in sight. Is it any surprise, thematically speaking, that they pull off a daring kidnapping in the very next scene?
Other agents of the Jennings’ acquaintance have their own marital woes. Stan’s separation from Sandra is becoming a divorce at last, a prospect he seems not the least bit prepared for. Sure, he was willing to admit it was silly of him to invite her to fly cross-country with him for a fallen agent’s memorial service, but admitting she won’t be doing anything together with him again was a bridge too far. As he tells his awestruck son, Stan is a man who has suffered deeply from the isolation he experienced undercover among murderous white supremacists, and we’ve long witnessed the effects. He is alternately overly attached to or instinctively suspicious of anyone with whom he comes into close professional contact: He fell in love with Nina, the Soviet agent he was working and who worked him in turn; he fears Zinaida, the defector he’s handling, is a double agent; now he’s skeeved out by Agent Aderholt, the go-getter new guy in the department who asks a lot of questions and (coincidence? not coincidence? now I’m getting paranoid) discovers the bug in their boss Agent Gaad’s pen. You can imagine what watching his wife move on with her life while he’s stuck in his own will do to him.
By contrast, Ruben Ncgobo, is still living life on the edge. It’s been years since he’s seen his wife and four sons, whose home in apartheid South Africa he describes with memorable vituperation: “We live like dogs in shacks with nothing.” He worries his kid will grow up into a materialistic boob and get himself killed for it, and believes his whole family is better off fighting for freedom. It’s a far cry from the happy courtship of “Jack” and “Michelle,” Philip and Elizabeth’s aliases while working their Northrop contact Lisa. That relationship plays almost like a parody of all the real ones, each of which is being pulled part by distance divorce or ideological difference.
But it’s Martha and “Clark,” the FBI receptionist her nebbishy horndog husband — Philip’s most frequent secret identity — who are in the deepest trouble. When Aderholt finds the bug, you can feel the bottom drop out of your stomach in synchronization with Martha’s. The scenes that follow are like a comic operetta of tension and terror, as this fundamentally good-natured but doofusy person frantically tries to dismantle and hide her end of the bugging apparatus while in the ladies’ room. (What is it with this season and ladies’ rooms, by the way?) Every second she spends in the FBI office from that point forward, every encounter with every new face, from the bug-sweeper to the owlish internal security expert whose name gives the episode its title, feels like she’s an inch away from the abyss. And every second she spends with Clark that night, acting strangely (demanding to see his apartment, almost immediately asking to return to her own) and secretively (not divulging the discovery of the bug), feels like she’s a second away from pulling the trigger on the relationship. Quite literally: I became so convinced that she’d lured Clark to his bogus bachelor pad in order to kill him with the handgun she retrieved earlier that when he showed back up in the Jennings’s house, I wondered if it was a flashback or dream sequence. But no, apparently catching a glimpse of their copy of the Kama Sutra was enough to keep her from doing anything desperate.
For now, anyway. Sex, kids, a career, a calling, plain inertia: They can all keep a couple chained together, happily or not. It seems likely that The Americans’ ultimate goal is to add pressure to every link until something snaps.