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WashingTelevision: The Americans Recap, Episode Four, “In Control”

Reagan’s shooting almost sparks World War III, but Philip’s eye for nuance saves the day.

"Whaddaya mean cordless phones aren't invented yet?" Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans. Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn for FX.

Remember how in high school you’d always have one history teacher who’d try to impress upon you what a ginormous deal the Cuban Missile Crisis almost was? And how if JFK had been just a little bit more hopped-up on pharmaceutical-grade speed and Khrushchev had been a wee bit more susceptible to the rantings of Castro, the whole world could have gone boom?

Last night’s episode of The Americans was a little like that, with Elizabeth almost sparking World War III, Philip playing Robert Kennedy and putting his (very) manly foot down for peace, and everyone freaking out about (spoiler alert, although can it be a spoiler if it happened 30 years ago?) President Reagan getting shot outside what’s now known as the Hinckley Hilton.

It goes down a little like this: Elizabeth and Philip are doing their usual morning bustle with the fam, arranging to meet somewhere later, and Paige wants to know where they’re going, but E says cheerily that it’s none of her business. So of course we think they’re going to kill/code-break/tie up strangers who have unusual sexual predilections, but actually they’re going to an oddly medieval-looking hotel so they can be vulnerable in each other’s presence for the first time in their marriage. Do I love how they have to go to a hotel to start dating because their home is so filled with remnants of uncomfortable marital energy? Yes. Will the good vibes last? No. 

There they are in post-coital bliss, walking down the staircase into the lobby next to what looks like the Bayeaux Tapestry, when they see news reports and people looking alarmed, and a perky girl informs them that Reagan’s been shot. “My God! Is he okay?” says Elizabeth, and it’s so spontaneous you’d never know America and its capitalist pig leader are her mortal enemies. And off the Jenningses go on their various duties—he to talk to a hairy journalist man who used to be a communist, and she to talk to Granny, or “Claudia,” as we’re now supposed to call her, about Operation Christopher and then go dig up boxes full of dynamite and weapons in the woods. 

Claudia impresses upon Elizabeth how she and Philip must now undertake guerilla warfare behind enemy lines. In other words, s**t just got extremely real. And let’s all take a moment to appreciate how The Americans might actually be the perfect premise for television show, because the completely bizarro nature of the ’80s means something crazy can happen each week without a) seeming improbable or b) ruining the overall sanctity of the show’s overarching focus on the Jennings marriage. Anyway, back to the recap: John Boy/Agent Gadd at the FBI is freaking out because he wants to know immediately if the KGB have anything to do with Hinckley before nuclear missiles start raining over his head, and Stan summons his source from the Russian embassy to a meet by pretending he’s calling from the Kennedy Center, which is just genius when you think about it, because this was before the days of e-mail and if someone wanted to spam you they had to actually pick up the phone to do it. 

P is not altogether thrilled at the prospect of Operation Christopher, because as we’ve learned from the show thus far, when it comes to a choice between living in comfort with his children or being forced to precipitate a global war between East and West, he almost always chooses the former. Paige and Stan’s son, who is oddly cute and around whom she is bizarrely composed for a 13-year-old girl (I would have barely been able to dribble in his direction at that age), watch footage of Reagan being shot over and over again, which Paige declares “ghoulish.” Later, she goes over to his house and the pair ponder how this relates to Stan’s job, and how all Paige’s boring dad does is book people vacations all day. The irony! It’s only a little forced. 

Stan and his partner try to meet up with Nina, who is being followed by someone from the embassy, and instead of Stan’s partner warning him, he does nothing, which is weird and makes Stan angry and mistrustful. But Stan already knows, obviously, because he is brilliant. Nina sits in a bar and eavesdrops while congressional aides drunkenly debate whose boss’s whatnot is bigger, which leads to some kind of speculation that the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, is plotting a coup. Nina and Stan meet later and have a great conversation involving people running around like “cut-off chickens,” and how all it takes is one mistake when both sides have their fingers on the trigger to make everything go horribly wrong. I like Nina, but judging by the way her boss is stalking her, I am sensing she is not long for this show in her current capacity. 

P and E put on fantastic wigs and pretend to be from the Vice President’s office, going to interrogate a poor nurse (played by Johanna Day, who is currently starring in Arena Stage’s Good People) about whether the President’s condition is actually stable. She looks surprised to be asked this, because she lives in a country where the government and the press don’t routinely lie to the people about things, but she assures them that yes, he is fine, and off they go to telegraph this information to Moscow. 

I got a little bit confused at this point because I am slow, apparently, but it seemed like Elizabeth and Paige go to a house to assassinate someone (Haig, possibly?), and when they get stopped by a fancy-schmancy McLean security guard, Elizabeth shoots him in the head, very coldly. And P is all, “We’re the ones escalating this thing into World War III! Chill out, crazy!” (I’m paraphrasing), and they start fighting again about how bonkers E sounds when she talks about America and how softened P has become by years of Coca-Cola and comfortable temperatures. And E can’t help but keep flashing back to her childhood when a man tried to give her mother and her some food, but her mother said nyet, because you should never take anything from anyone because then you’ll owe them forever. 

The two listen in (via their clock radio from an earlier episode) on a conversation the Secretary of Defense is having about submarines and “nuclear football,” or something, and E wants to tell the KGB so everyone can go to war but P tells her it’s just blustering, and after all these years she still doesn’t understand America. And he puts his foot down and tells her he is the man in this marriage, dammit, and they are going to do what he says for once, and it’s really, really hot. And thank goodness they do, because later they head over to Stan’s to fish for information and he assures them how Hinckley was totally nuts and yet if someone had jumped the gun only slightly, the event could have precipitated WWIII and killed billions. YES, ELIZABETH. How do you like them apples? 

She likes them, apparently, because she lies in bed and basically tells Philip he was right, and even though Moscow would be furious at them for sitting on the garbled information about nuclear footballs, she’ll never tell. Then they actually make out at home, not in a car or a hotel, and it’s in stark contrast to the Beemans across the street, whose marriage is crumbling now that they actually have to spend time together. 

Some thoughts: 

Is Matthew Rhys’s hair really that curly, like Richard Simmons in mild-to-moderate humidity? I like it so much better when he wears a wig. 

Elizabeth’s character is frighteningly complex. Just when you think you see fragments of the person beneath the iron lady, she flat-out shoots someone in the head because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and then snarls at her husband like Fenrir Greyback in Harry Potter (just Google it). 

I didn’t fully understand that whole flashback with Elizabeth’s childhood and what it was supposed to imply, so if anyone did, enlighten me. 

What did you think of last night’s episode of The Americans? Let us know in the comments.