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WashingTelevision: The Americans Recap, Episode Eight, “Mutually Assured Destruction”

The Jenningses hit a rough patch—again—while a German KGB agent goes rogue.

Nina (Annet Mahendru) and Stan (Noah Emmerich) in their cozy Eastern Market debriefing room. Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn for FX.

It was sort of inevitable that
The Americans, a show that says it’s fundamentally about marriage but is really about the conflict
that happens when you get it on with a coworker, would start wrestling with what I
like to call the Meredith and Derek Paradox right in the middle of its debut season.
Named after two characters from
Grey’s Anatomy (whose romantic ups and downs took up the best part of eight years before they were
finally allowed to be happy together), the Meredith and Derek Paradox rules that no
matter how much an audience might be invested in characters and rooting for them to
have functional relationships, they cannot do so because a love life that is all smooth
sailing makes for bad television.

The Americans, which turned normalcy on its head by starting with a married couple who subsequently
fall in love with each other, is dealing with this problem by throwing a new wrench
into Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship each week. In episode three it was Gregory,
in five it was a sadistic contractor, and in six it was the Jenningses being kidnapped
and tortured and wondering who’d given up whom first. Last week there was Irina, who
begged Philip to run away to Canada with her, and about whom he lied to Elizabeth
at the end of the episode. Now, thanks to Granny, Elizabeth knows the truth and has
somehow decided that this means the absolute end to any genuine feelings of affection
between her and her husband in name only.

It’s a little sloppy as plot development. For one thing, Elizabeth has no reason whatsoever
to trust Granny and should be savvy enough to figure out that the KGB wins by keeping
her and Philip suspicious of each other. For another, there’s been genuine affection
between the two of them for the past several weeks, and that kind of thing is impossible
to just shut off. But Philip’s pronouncement at the end of the episode that they both
live in a modern country and there’s no reason for them to stay married to each other
if they don’t want to be was a fascinating trump card to play. Elizabeth, who responded
to it by going into her children’s bedrooms and tearfully watching them sleep, is
clearly more invested in keeping her family together than she’d like to be.

The theme of this episode could also be seen as exploring how sex is the ultimate
way to get what you want, even if you’re not the one doing it. For Philip it’s information,
which he gets from Martha after hours of carefully hinting that he’d be a much happier
and more contented boyfriend if he could only crack open the case he’s working on
(the FBI and the CIA apparently don’t like to work together) but nary a minute of
foreplay. For the heavyset German assassin it’s a chance to plant explosives in an
FBI agent’s radio while he’s in the shower with a hooker. For Stan, it’s insight,
as well as the human connection he doesn’t feel with his wife (savvy old Agent Gaad
for giving him and Nina a studio apartment to “debrief” each other in). For Granny
it’s security—the KGB presumably put Philip and Irina together because they were wary
of the growing intimacy between the Jenningses and how it might affect their exemplary
record as spies.

Otherwise, the plot of “Mutually Assured Destruction” was a little janky, because
the words “anti-ballistic missile” have been flying around for weeks now and they’re
starting to get a bit boring. So of course there’s a rogue agent from West (not East,
mark you) Germany whom the KGB assigned to eliminate scientists working on the ABM
technology, and of course they’ve now changed their minds and realized that killing
all those people would make the Cold War very, very hot, and of course they have no
way of getting in touch with him. It was another Mission Impossible for Philip and
Elizabeth, who against all odds managed to prise information from a Baltimore bombmaker
and his shotgun-wielding eight-year-old daughter and blow up the assassin before too
much went wrong. But not before he’d managed to kill one of the scientists and the
three FBI agents protecting him, leading Agent Gaad to don his fury face and express
that all is not well on Walton’s Mountain.

I’m going to go ahead and predict, and you can call me crazy here if you like, that
Elizabeth and Philip are going to somehow resolve the problems in their relationship,
and that those problems are going to surface yet again in a new and more virulent
form. And it’s unfortunate, because in many ways it would be fascinating to see a
couple on television go through the same things real couples go through—boredom, temptation,
anger, contentment—even though they happen to be spies.

Some thoughts:

Nina and Martha are both women in a man’s world, and they both think they can get
away with certain things because of it. They might be relegated to typing and using
an ancient Xerox machine most of the time (although Nina’s now been promoted), but
they have access to classified material and they’re not afraid to use it. This could
have led to Nina’s downfall if Stan hadn’t been protecting her. With Martha, who now
has Chris tailing her, it’s hard to think she’s going to be quite so lucky.

Nice music interlude by the Cure at the end of the episode. We haven’t had such effective
use of ’80s music since the pilot.

The hotel bathroom after the bomb went off was incredibly gory. Kudos to the set dresser.

Elizabeth is starting to irritate me. “I love you,” says Philip. “Hmm. Love. Huh,”
she replies. Like any other woman pissed off with her husband, she’s adept at freezing
him out when she needs to. But, hello, Gregory? Elizabeth manipulates the concept of
“truth” in a way that is enormously convenient for her.

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