I’m concerned about Renee. You know, Renee—Stan Beeman’s beautiful blonde gym buddy and new girlfriend, played by ex-Walking Dead lead Laurie Holden? The woman whose magnetism ate up a ton of Stan’s screentime through his descriptions of her to his buddy Philip Jennings and his partner Agent Aderholt alone, even before she made her on-screen debut? The woman who, during a double date with Stan and the Jennings, provides the kind of highly detailed backstory that we’ve learned from experience with our Soviet spies in this very episode (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) is just the sort of bubbe-meise secret agents concoct for their false identities? The woman who elicits weirdly stiff smiles from Philip and Elizabeth, implying that they sense something is off, but without the show ever confirming that implication by having the Jennings say something like “Wow, that was weird, wasn’t it?” during the car ride home or whatever? Yeah, that Renee. The beautiful thing about all this is that it all works no matter what pans out. Maybe we’re right to be suspicious and this person is up to no good—KGB, CIA, or some other alphabet agency seeking to compromise one of the FBI’s best and brightest. Or maybe our years-long immersion into the lives and lies of Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Oleg et al have us jumping at shadows. Either way, you couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration of The Americans’ power to generate paranoia.
I’m impressed with Stan. Yes, there’s the whole pesky aforementioned Renee thing. And yes, he’s best friends with a KGB agent, a revelation that will destroy his career as surely as Walter White being the meth king of the Southwest would hamper Hank Schrader’s shot at a DEA promotion. (Which is why I’m leaning toward the idea that Paige will kill him before the show can re-run that particular storyline, but that’s a topic for another time.) But when confronted with the injustice of the CIA using intelligence he gathered to blackmail his Soviet peer Oleg Burov despite his protestations, he doesn’t take it lying down. Rather, he invites his boss into the bug-proof vault and confesses to the murder of a KGB agent way back in Season One, instantly involving the bigwig in the coverup and promising to blow the whole thing wide open in the media if the Company continues with its plan to use Oleg and thereby most likely get him killed. Stan’s such a soft-spoken guy, courtesy of Noah Emmerich’s subtly brilliant acting, that this is as big a shock as the murder itself was. But here is a man who’s willing to put not just his life, but his whole way of life on the line for what he knows is right. We could use a few good spooks like him. (Shoutout to Edward Snowden!)
I’m sad for Oleg. Those rotten bastards at the CIA are not only blackmailing him with compromising information gleaned from his ersatz friend Stan (for now, at least), they’re also pinning the blame on Stan himself. Oleg’s confidence in those he thought he could trust thus shattered, he has to go about his business trying to crack corruption cases—in this case a supermarket manager played by Alla Kliouka Schaffer, better known as the one-legged nurse Tony Soprano once bedded down—knowing that the axe could fall on him at any time. He confides his plight in his mother; his reward is first her tears (she’s already lost a son in Afghanistan, which is the reason he’s home in the first place, and can’t bear to lose a second, a fact the show leaves unspoken as we linger on her sorrow) and then by her confession that she herself was once imprisoned and resorted to, essentially, sexual slavery to survive. “You do what you need to do,” she orders him as they sit on his bed, too small for his lanky frame. Yet like Stan, he’s still putting his ass on the line in the name of justice, working with his new, more experienced partner to talk their boss out of threatening their target’s children to get to the truth. He’s a mensch, and it’s gutting that the only person who really sees it other than his mom is Stan, the man he’s been told to blame for his impending doom.
I’m sympathetic to Philip and Elizabeth. Boy oh boy, are they ever tired of fucking strangers while wearing wigs! I suppose it’s the dueling debacles of the previous season—the narrow escape of Philip’s fake wife Martha from Federal clutches and Elizabeth’s hideous betrayal of her friend Young-hee via the simulated seduction of her actually very faithful husband—that’s turned them off this kind of work. But on the orders of Gabriel, their handler, they separately work to ingratiate themselves with a pair of staffers at one of the companies responsible for possibly tainting the Soviet Union’s grain supply. The contrast between the two targets is very funny: Philip’s quarry is a square he only barely manages to get his foot in the door with, while Elizabeth’s is a granola-chewing, hiking-enthusiast hunk who could likely have his pick of any non-KGB-agent woman in the entire state of Kansas. Watching the two of them discuss their successes and failures in their respective missions, knowing full well that this is about fucking people other than each other, is a window on a relationship dynamic unlike any other on television.
I’m surprised at Gabriel. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed. A far more empathetic and effective handler than his predecessor Claudia (and a more compelling performance courtesy of Frank Langella, TV people’s Margo Martindale obsession notwithstanding), he’s previously been the voice of restraint when it comes to overstretching the KGB’s two best deep-cover agents in America. He even went so far as to try to pull them from duty, over the heads of his bosses at the Centre. Yet when Philip and Elizabeth express their dislike of their travel-heavy new assignment in Topeka, first with wordless resigned body language and then by explaining all the demands placed on them already—working the Morozovs, keeping Pastor Tim happy, monitoring Stan Beeman, keeping a handle on their kids Paige and Henry—Gabriel blows them off, quietly but firmly insisting they take the assignment. (“Think we’re gonna get fired?” Philip asks Elizabeth facetiously after their disappointing meeting with the old man. “That’s not funny,” she says. “I know,” he replies.) On a lesser show, I’d treat Gabriel’s sudden turn toward taskmaster as inconsistent writing. But based on his conversation with Claudia in the season premiere (“Those two are afraid of everything”), it’s possible he’s simply grown a bit tired of babysitting his prize protégés, particularly when the stakes of the CIA’s grain-destroying operation are so high and when agents like William proved willing to pay the ultimate price to keep their country safe.
I’m baffled by Paige. To be fair, so are her parents. Which is kind of the problem, isn’t it? Philip and Elizabeth have painted their job as a perilous but essentially benign mission to right the wrongs wrought by America, and that’s a message even goofball Pastor Tim can get behind. (Shoutout to Karl Marx!) They’ve also stressed the urgency of their current famine-prevention mission, albeit in sanitized form. Elizabeth has begun combat-training the kid (who by the way looks weirdly just like her baby brother Henry now that he’s all grown up), just a few months after killing a man in front of her in a trauma-inducing fight-or-flight moment. Now they’re gonna act indignant when she goes snooping around Pastor Tim’s house for information about the lawyer he and his wife Alice supposedly entrusted the truth about the Jennings to? When they scold her rather than praise her, her confusion and dismay mirror ours. What did they expect was gonna happen? Isn’t this what they wanted — not just for the sake of prurient parish gossip, which they both seem kinda curious about, but for the sake of bringing Paige into the ideological fold? Law & Order gave us a wonderful phrase for when an attorney’s overreach leads to their own undoing: “You opened the door, counselor,” some marvelous character actor will proclaim from the judge’s bench. Elizabeth and Philip are slowly learning that some doors are easier to close than others. And as Philip’s son Mischa makes his way to them, will their doors be open or shut?