Getting outsmarted by a TV show: It’s a high I chase like Ahab chased the white whale. It’s not that I’m some supergenius drama savant, or conversely that every series, even in the New Golden Age of Television, is #actually dopey. Rather, it’s that even the best, smartest, most surprising shows pull their shocks and showstoppers from a painstakingly assembled deck of dramaturgical cards. When you get past that initial jaw-on-the-floor reaction to a particularly impressive or unpredictable scene, you almost invariably follow that feeling up with “Ohhhhh, of course.” Whether transcendent moment or twist, it was retrospectively inevitable. That’s exactly what makes for a good show, usually! So when a show completely laps your ability to click its pieces into place, when it does something you know you could have sat in its writers’ room for months and still never have come up with, hoo boy, chills. That’s something special.
My favorite example of this phenomenon is an early, comparatively minor moment in Mad Men’s first season. Don Draper catches his ambitious underling Pete Campbell literally stealing files from his trash to use, unsuccessfully, in a client meeting, and fires him on the spot. But Campbell is connected in New York City society, so Don’s decision is overruled by his gnomic boss Bert Cooper. It’s a disaster in the making, a reversal that reveals Don’s lack of authority and would render him an impotent figure in the office for good. Then — bang! — Don’s friend Roger Sterling swoops in with a face-saving stroke of genius. When he gives Pete the news that he’s not fired after all, he tells the little shit that there’s one man he should thank: Don Draper, who, Roger lies, wound up fighting tooth and nail to keep the kid at the company despite the infraction. I remember sitting there watching this, smiling and shaking my head in raw admiration. Such a clever way to escape from the corner the show had painted itself in! Far cleverer than my puny brain could see coming, that’s for sure.
The same is true of “Born Again,” tonight’s installment of The Americans.
Throughout this season, and right into this episode, the series has played with parallels between its plotlines. Paige Jennings, Philip and Elizabeth’s rebelliously religious daughter, has an echo in Kimberly, the precocious latchkey kid of a CIA operative whom Philip has been forced to semi-seduce. Even as he fights against Elizabeth, their handler Gabriel, and the KGB itself in their plan to recruit Paige to the Cause, he’s corrupting another, equally innocent teenage girl in its name. Their shared taste in music (Yaz!), their similar upbringing by workaholic parents in clandestine organizations, their attachment to adult male longhairs with rhyming names (Pastor Tim/Philip’s alias “Jim”)—Paige and Kimmy’s stories are mirror images of one another, culminating in tonight’s juxtaposition of Kimberly’s attempt to woo Jim into a shared bath with Paige’s immersion in the baptismal pool. (Which itself was an callback to the season-opening link of Elizabeth in the bath with young Paige in a swimming pool.)
But despite all the reflections, the separate storylines remained just that: separate. The last thing I expected was for one to come careening into the other. But when “Jim” dodged the bullet of Kimberly’s hormones by speaking about his supposed come-to-Jesus moment in the language Paige taught him as Philip, that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly, its elegant structure folded in on itself, its themes became plot points, its resonant ideas got weaponized into a method of letting a spy out of a jam. Such intelligent writing, such impressively lateral thinking! Philip took the season’s parallel lines and braided them together. And The Americans blew my goddamn mind.
But the show didn’t stop there, either. Confronted with Philip’s recalcitrance, Gabriel informs him that his teenage son back home in Russian, whose existence he only discovered a couple of years ago, is a soldier who’s been deployed to Afghanistan. It’s information relayed solely to goad Philip into sleeping with Kimberly to preserve access to her father. And at first, it seems like that’s exactly what it’s doing. “Jim” shows up outside Kimmy’s school, just as Elizabeth does the same with Paige, following a similar conversation with Gabriel in which the old man pushed her to start indoctrinating her daughter. We’ve got every reason to believe both the elder Jennings are about to cross their respective Rubicons.
Instead, Philip does the opposite. Oh, the news about his son factors in, all right—in fact, his alter ego pretty much divulges it to Kimberly in a cri de coeur about the 17-year-old son he knows is out there but hasn’t done a thing for in his life. Convincingly heartbroken — because, you know, he really is heartbroken — he returns to Paige’s crash course in faith and asks Kimberly not to sleep with him, but to pray with him. Her wholly sincere response, pleading with God to watch over Jim’s kid and reunite him with his “awesome” father, is sad and sweet and touching; more to the point, it’s precisely the kind of deep emotional connection Philip had been ordered to cultivate with her. He used the events of his own life to forge a bond with his target that didn’t require him to lay a hand on her, only to fold them in prayer.
That’s plain brilliant writing. Shit, I’ve spent the entire review talking about it, when there was so much equally strong stuff in this episode: Nina’s brutal betrayal of her Belgian cellmate (Christ, that screaming: “Nina, what did you do?”), Stan’s kind of outrageously hot and complex sex scene with his girlfriend from EST, young Henry Jennings’s skeptical interrogation of the EST members at dinner, the baptism itself…The Americans is that kind of show now, the kind you can pull apart for hours, amazed at how well it was put together to begin with.