When Philip and Elizabeth Jennings take a trip to the local Bennigan’s for a family dinner, they don’t come alone. Yes, they bring their fake adopted son, secretly a Vietnamese spy, and the family of their target, a Soviet defector who claims to be working for the Department of Agriculture but seems to be part of a bioweapons program. But they, or more accurately the filmmakers behind their show The Americans, also bring a lingering shot of the bustling salad bar…accompanied by the sound of people coughing and sneezing. You can’t see the culprits, but they’re there, somewhere, and their bodies are coating the food with filth.
Corruption and paranoia suffuse “Pests,” the second episode of The Americans’ fifth season, from start to finish; the salad-bar sound cues are among the more subtle examples, but they’re no less telling for that. The dinner scene that ensues is all about the gap between what can be heard, what can be seen, and what can be sensed: As the Morozov family bickers about he relative merits of the Soviet Union and the United States in Russian, the Jennings—in the guise of high-flying couple the Eckerts—smile politely, pretending only to intuit that an argument is going on while secretly understanding every word. Their “son,” Tuan, is aware of the true nature of his “parents” and their interest in the Morozov’s, but since he can’t understand Russian he can only guess at what his quarry is arguing about. In the car ride “home,” Philip and Elizabeth can be honest with him—not just about the conversation they overheard, but about their job and its geopolitical consequences—in a way they never can with Paige, their own very real teenage daughter, who’s taken to almost unconsciously retreating to her closet to sleep in order to keep her anxieties at bay.
And to the extent that their talk with Tuan inspires them to stop “treating her like a goddamn kid,” as Elizabeth puts it, the end result is instructing her in a technique to better deceive her boyfriend Matthew Beeman if their budding romantic and sexual relationship ever tempts her to divulge the truth about her parents. “Rub your thumb and forefinger together,” Elizabeth tells her, “and picture me and your father to help you remember who you are and where you come from.” But she still doesn’t really know either of those things, does she?
It makes sense that Philip and Elizabeth are soul-sick about the dangerous possibilities of Paige and Matthew’s relationship, since paranoia is almost always justified in this show’s world. For one thing, Matthew’s FBI agent father Stan, a careful student of human behavior (with a few obvious exceptions), is already picking up on Paige’s distress just from being around her when she’s hanging out with his son. For another, the Jennings are quite right to suspect Morozov of being more than a mere agricultural advisor: He’s driven to a remote barn in the middle of Illinois by a carful of CIA goons, where he does…something involving a padlocked greenhouse full of grain. Half of it is withered and dying; the other half is lush and healthy and green and absolutely crawling with insects. Elizabeth’s infiltration of the site is deeply eerie: It’s all cloudy glass, inexplicable metallic clinking, and a maddening background hum that eventually erupts into a swarm of bugs that cover her from head to toe. Like the virus that consumes their fellow spy William, this is the show’s fixation on blind patriotism as a sort of plague made literal.
Stan is struggling with blindness of a different sort. His superiors at both the FBI and CIA are plowing ahead with a plan to force his ersatz friend and ally, good-hearted KGB agent Oleg Burov, to betray his country and become an American asset. Nothing Stan says to anyone about the nobility of Oleg’s motives—yes, he gave them William, but only to prevent the possibility of a deadly contagion being loosed upon the world, capitalist and Communist alike—does him a bit of good. Actor Noah Emmerich does so much so minimally in this storyline: It’s all in the sadness in his eyes, the tightness of his mouth, the timbre of his voice, the quiet way in which he responds to a Company man saying they’ll just blackmail Oleg if persuasion fails by simply saying “…what?”
All this makes his budding relationship with Renee (The Walking Dead’s Laurie Holden), a glamorous member of the gym to which he and Philip belong, seem…off, somehow. There’s the weird way in which it’s built up via second-hand stories to Philip in which Stan slowly gathers the courage to successfully ask her out. There’s the debut of his partner Agent Aderholt (hooray!) during a stakeout, where he suggests a good restaurant for Stan to take his new lady friend; the selling point is “a see-through grand piano,” an instrument only a spy could truly love for how it lays bare the inner workings of art. There’s the disconnect between Stan’s grim demeanor at work and his almost childlike joy at discovering Renee—he seems more puppy-love besotted with her than Matthew is with Paige.
I dunno, maybe I’m jumping at shadows. Maybe Renee and everything about her is on the up-and-up. But The Americans makes it impossible to ever feel at ease. The bugs are always crawling, the germs are always spraying into the salad bar. A girlfriend is never just a girlfriend, a boyfriend is never just a boyfriend. And the kindly neighbor who’s just nuts about your teenage daughter, whom you just so happen to be training how to fight and kill, may eventually need to be exterminated.