The Americans Reaffirms Its Status as One of TV's Best Portraits of Marriage

(Episode 6.03)

TV Reviews The Americans
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<i>The Americans</i> Reaffirms Its Status as One of TV's Best Portraits of Marriage

The Americans most often comes at capitalism from the perspective of its sworn enemy, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). In fact, she reprises her snarling opposition to the United States and its hideous excesses in “Urban Transport Planning,” describing the mere sight of its profit-taking plumage — value! images! upselling! — as a slap in the face. (This after dumping the traditional zharkoye she cooks with Claudia and Paige in the sink, its sad, wet plop underscored by the camera’s close-up.) That’s why the episode’s treatment of Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) perspective, frequently rendered as a soft spot for sports cars, is so striking: “The market pays” is a remarkable statement from a former KGB agent, even one as tender-hearted toward the American way as Philip has been. More striking still is the frisson of discontent, of money trouble, that runs through the hour, from the labored cheer of Philip’s office pep talk to the conversation about tuition payments at Henry’s boarding school. Here, as with Elizabeth’s exhausted expression in the final minutes—when she has to eliminate yet another mark—The Americans signals that the Jennings’ divide doesn’t toe simple ideological lines.

Not that it, or the series, ever has: See Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) meeting with Oleg (Costa Ronin), in which the former foes—both chastened by experience, and more pragmatic than ever—discuss the late Nina Seergevna, executed in Season Four. The referents to cultural bridges and chasms pile up in “Urban Transport Planning” (named for Oleg’s cover), frequently in contexts (food, sports) that reflect, rather than generate, ideological differences. Elizabeth may scoff at a Russian START negotiator’s hopeful, “If I understand baseball, maybe I will understand America better,” but there’s nothing inherently counterrevolutionary about baseball. (Plus, the hockey the Russians claim as their own was invented in Nova Scotia.) The mention of a Pizza Hut opening in Moscow, or eating zharkoye with Stan, betrays the sense of an ending, but it’s a beginning, too: Isn’t there something to be said for the (literal) kitchen table diplomacy required to argue New York- vs. Chicago-style pizza, or zharkoye vs. solyanka, or kung pao chicken vs. lo mein? Isn’t the point of any negotiation, be it on the subject of nuclear proliferation or what to order for dinner, that we sacrifice the perfect in the service of the good?

My point here is that “Urban Transport Planning” unleashes a fleet of seemingly impossible conflicts—conflicts poised to determine the remainder of the series’ run—that, like the Cold War itself, might well be soluble in the right circumstances. Stan and Oleg can become (wary) allies. Sofia (Darya Ekamasova) can decide (reluctantly) to play along with the FBI’s ploy, despite her frustration with Gennadi (Yuri Kolokolnikov). Elizabeth can learn to confide in an Orthodox priest, or admit that the disastrous operation with the American general was, in part, her fault. Philip can placate his wife with a forkful of zharkoye, if not the assurance that Russia has changed. (Renee can’t become an FBI agent, admittedly—she doesn’t meet the age requirement—but also, WTF?!) The real drama of The Americans, perhaps clearer now than ever before, isn’t the unbridgeable chasm, the great divide: It’s the unwillingness to negotiate, the suspense of hard lines.

And so it’s fitting that the sharpest contrast in the Jennings’ marriage is as much temperamental as it is ideological, plumbing places where “idealism” and “pragmatism” aren’t the operable terms. Their disagreement over the uses of “self-help” dates back to Season Three, which began with “EST Men,” and culminated in the earthquake at the center of the series’ finest hour, “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”; its reprise here heralds another existential threat to their relationship. Set against the image of Elizabeth furiously scrubbing her face and hair of the dead general’s blood, the later insert of Philip holding Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude seems a dispatch from another planet, and their disparate reactions to Paige (Holly Taylor) violating protocol only emphasize the problems that seem to have grown up through the cracks in their marriage over the last three years. While Philip advises his daughter to “feel bad and go through it,” for instance, citing The Forum (formerly EST), Elizabeth rages, “You don’t get to talk about what you thought, or how you felt, or anything else.”

The whole of The Americans, in some sense, has been about this pas de deux between the two strangers in that Virginia motel room circa 1960, who became partners in work and life, who once neared divorce and have since been married, who are sometimes so in unison they seem a single unit and at others seem so far apart it’s amazing they can stand each other at all. Which is why, whatever happens, the song that sees Elizabeth and Philip Jennings approach their nadir—its understanding of love as a horizon line, or perhaps a rope—is so perfect, and so perfectly ambivalent:

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.