“Why are we looking at this for so long? Ohhh, that’s why.” The Americans loves to set us up like this, drawing out scenes and storylines for as long as it can before pulling the trigger on our understanding of what the show is doing and why the show is doing it. “The Midges,” this week’s episode, features what’s bound to be one of the most talked-about examples of the technique yet. As KGB agent and reluctant CIA asset Oleg Burov exits the Soviet supermarket he’s investigating for corruption, the camera follows him through the aisles for a while but eventually allows him to exit the store alone. While he leaves, it stays behind, watching the shoppers browse the sparse shelves. Most prominent in the frame is a woman in a headscarf, one of many in the store. But the shot lasts too long for her to be just another extra. Is she a spy sent by the US or the USSR to keep tabs on Oleg? Is she about to do something unusual or unpleasant, or is something unusual or unpleasant about to be done to her? Wait—is she…familiar looking? Her face turns toward the camera just as the scene’s focus on her becomes impossible to ignore. Behold: Martha, Philip’s wife and asset and victim, going about her new life in the country that took away her old one. “Is it hard, pretending to be other people?” Paige asks her parents elsewhere in the episode. Philip tells her yes, it is. Martha could no doubt do the same.
Adjustment to a new life, fake or not, is a throughline for the entire episode. The hour opens with the Jennings and their pretend-adopted Vietnamese son Tuan bowling with their defector target Alexei and his family. The Russian and his wife argue furiously about his unilateral decision to take them out of his hated homeland and flee to America, a place only Alexei himself truly loves. Tuan pretends to suck at bowling to boost the confidence of Alexei’s son Pasha, but when he’s alone with the Jennings in their car and their fake home later on, he can express his honest, if conflicted, feelings: Alexei is a traitor who should be shot for pledging allegiance to a country that will one day destroy his native land just as it destroyed Vietnam, while at the same time Pasha should stop complaining about him since he’s lucky to have a father at all. Tuan may have all the right instincts as a spy, as Philip and Elizabeth note while removing their disguises after the bowling excursion, but he carries the horror of the invasion and devastation with him wherever he goes.
The Jennings’ real teenage daughter Paige remains emotionally hobbled too, but by the burden of her parents’ deceptions. While they provide her with a sanitized explanation of their current mission, reasoning that trying to stop America from engineering a famine is a cause she can get behind, the can’t prevent her from feeling “gross” about lying to her boyfriend Matthew about the stress this causes her. “Being in a relationship is complicated,” Elizabeth chides her when she complains about forever having to be “fake” with her boyfriends. “You don’t share everything. You hold back what you need to. Everybody does.” The hard truth about lies of omission is not something children should be learning from their parents. (But as Tuan might say, at least she has parents to hear hard truths from; Philip’s long-lost son Mischa spends the episode trying to smuggle himself out from behind the Iron Curtain all on his own.)
The guise that Elizabeth and Philip adopt for their operation’s most risky phase to date is also the most stereotypically all-American one yet. Traveling to Oklahoma to track a shipment of bugs that are a close relative to the new strain that crawled all over Elizabeth last week, Philip dons a cowboy hat while Elizabeth goes country blonde. In their hotel room, Philip marvels at the similarity between America’s farm country and the Soviet Union’s, given the disparity between what the two nations are capable of providing their citizens. When he toys with the idea that some of Alexei’s complaints about the USSR are valid, Elizabeth quiets his nerves by putting on the cowboy hat herself. “You think they’re gonna make me queen of the rodeo this year?” she asks flirtatiously. They kiss, and it’s electric: After all, actors Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are a real-life couple. You’re watching two people pretending to make out who are, in fact, also actually making out, a meta-deception the Jennings would wryly appreciate.
But they can’t put off the real nature of their work for long. Upping the ante on Elizabeth’s encounter with the midge swarm last week, the show depicts her and Philip’s sojourn among Smith-Poole Research Laboratories’ creepy crawly clientele in lovingly gruesome detail. Wielding red-tinted flashlights, the pair slowly make their way from tank to tank in the lab’s eerie bug room, revealing roaches and crickets and midges and butterflies and even bats one by one as the creatures buzz and chirp and chitter all the while. By the time a horde of unidentified flying insects inundates a frosted window in silhouette in response to their presence, you half expect one of the death’s head moths from The Silence of the Lambs, or even one of The Mist’s giant extradimensional arthropods, to make a Martha-style cameo.
But unlike Clarice in Buffalo Bill’s basement or Thomas Jane in the small-town supermarket, Philip and Elizabeth are the predators here rather than the prey. The latter slot is occupied by the bearded milquetoast lab director who stops in to start work early and finds the Jennings waiting for him. In a scene that carries with it all the weight of their previous lethal encounters with unwitting witnesses to their work, they intimidate him into divulging the secrets of the pestilential midges Alexei and his American contacts may be preparing to unleash on his former home (“They’re wheat-eaters”) and the identity of the company he breeds them for. The one thing he can’t tell them, no matter how hard they bash his head into the bat cage, is what they’re being bred for, since asking that question isn’t in his job description. “You should have asked,” Elizabeth tells him, and he only has seconds to process what that means before she knocks him into Philip’s arms so her husband can snap his spine. As Roxy Music’s luxuriant sophisti-pop classic “More Than This” plays on the soundtrack, they clean up, haul the guy’s body out into the parking lot, dump him in the trunk of his own car, and check in on their fellow spy, who’s been eyeing their corpse-disposal routine with visible unease. “Should we tell Paige about this?” Philip deadpans when it’s over, his voice a blend of resignation, cynicism, and anger. More than this? You know there’s nothing.