The Americans is no stranger to boredom. Boredom is the flipside of the danger and glamour that are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ nominal stock in trade. It’s the constant travel to decidedly un-exotic destinations like Topeka and Harrisburg, the endless surveillance and reconnaissance details, the dull dinner dates with uninteresting people they only pretend to like, the logistics and mechanics of spycraft which are so often no more thrilling than what an HVAC technician might do. But “IHOP,” this week’s episode, pushed the tedium envelope farther than ever. It showed Philip and Elizabeth doing jobs—listening to untold hours of recorded office chatter on the one hand, sitting around watching late night television while waiting for their teen-spy “son” Tuan to return home on the other—that are boring not just by their standards, but by ours. If you’ve ever sat in on a lengthy conference-call meeting or killed time until a delivery guy showed up, you know their pain. Almost, anyway. You never had to worry that you might need to kill someone at the end of it all.
Watching this episode, I was struck by just how exhausted everyone looks and sounds. Some of the characters are quite vocal about it, in fact; the language of enduring, or failing to endure, is everywhere. In a well-intentioned but poorly received attempt to check up on an asset who gave everything for the cause, wittingly or not, Gabriel tells Martha (Alison Wright, returning for a second welcome cameo this season) that he retired because he was just “done.” The late Frank Gaad’s widow tells Stan Beeman, making a parallel visit, that everything’s been so quiet since her husband’s funeral. We finally get to see the CIA bigshot father of Kimmy (Julia Garner, another face it’s good to see again), and he looks like a fatigued middle manager rather than the heroic hard-charger Kimmy and Philip’s conversations had conjured. The priest-slash-spy who reports to Philip in Gabriel’s absence suggests that he pray: “It is a great solace,” he says, “especially when you live this kind of life.” In a particularly unpleasant heart-to-heart, Oleg’s father bitterly describes decades of life with his mother, a changed woman after her experiences in a prison camp, as a sort of jail sentence itself. Tuan schleps all the way to Pennsylvania to surreptitiously call his former adoptive family back in Seattle, whose six-year-old son is suffering from leukemia. Philip half-suspects Tuan wanted to be caught doing this in order to get sent home, “pulled out of this shit, start over.” “It’s not who he is,” Elizabeth says, disagreeing. You have to wonder who she’s trying to kid.
At times the episode feels like a concerted assault on the concept of family, one of the few sources of succor supposedly permitted to these people. Gabriel has none of his own. Martha is forbidden to contact hers. Philip has a son he’s never met, and while talking over the sanitized version of this fact she’s privy to, Kimmy says nobody really raises their kids right. Philip’s other son Henry wants to go away to boarding school. His fake son Tuan yearns to comfort his own fake baby brother, when he’s not busy cultivating a gang of bullies to torment the son of the Jennings’s defector targets. Mrs. Gaad’s sole consolation in her husband’s absence is the prospect of revenge against his killers. And with the family secrets still ringing in his ears, Oleg threatens the family of a prisoner until he finally coughs up the info he needs for his corruption case. Family is something to fret over, to threaten people with, or not to have at all.
Of all the characters, Oleg undergoes the biggest reversal on this issue, and it’s a wonder to watch actor Costa Ronin put the weary young agent through this change. Ronin’s a tall, lanky guy, and he’s used his size and built to great effect, developing a rambling gait and unassuming posture that make Oleg seem less intimidating because of his height, not more. (Notice how often he’s paired off against much smaller men; only Stan, a tall guy himself, has been able to see eye to eye with him, literally and figuratively.) You can see how effortless this is for him when he’s brought in for further questioning about his American contacts and his relationship with the executed double agent Nina Krilova; he slouches in his chair, withdrawing his head into the collar of his coat like a teenager. So when he switches his voice from warm to cold in that prison cell, transforming his sob story about his own family’s plight into an explicit threat against the family of his prisoner, it comes as a shock, like watching a schoolyard victim suddenly turn bully himself. “We’re stronger than you think,” he warns his target. I’m not sure that’s true of anyone on this show anymore.