The Americans, Season 1

Spies Are Just Con Artists With Better Disguises
Talking television.
April 24 2013 11:00 PM

The Americans, Season 1

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Never have these highly skilled spies looked more like sleazy con artists.

Alison Wright as Martha Hanson and Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings
Alison Wright as Martha Hanson and Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FX

In Slate’s TV Club for The Americans—which was created by Slate Group's editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg’s brother, Joe Weisberg—June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner. This week she chats with Will Dobson, Slates politics and foreign affairs editor and author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.

June Thomas: Will, as a D.C. resident, a parent, and an analyst of international affairs, you’re eminently qualified to discuss The Americans, but this week I’m especially grateful for your in-depth knowledge of how totalitarian regimes keep their citizens in line. What did you make of Nina’s transformation from FBI-informing KGB double agent to double-crossing double agent? (And does that make her a triple agent?) It seemed to me that it was Arkady’s administration of a pledge of allegiance to "the Soviet Party, the homeland, and the Soviet People"—as well as her suspicion that her FBI handler and lover Stan had killed her pal Vlad—that made her decide to confess her betrayal to him. Does that ring true for you? Totalitarian regimes really do use appeals to patriotism to keep their citizens on-side, right?

Will Dobson: This really was Nina’s night. It’s true that nationalism is a powerful tonic, and highly ideological totalitarian regimes rely on it as much as or more than democracies, but I felt Nina’s transformation was more personal than just the oath to country she read for Arkady. For me, it was about Vlad—who she seems to have genuinely cared for, even if not romantically—and that Stan Beeman, the man she was forced to place her trust in, is clearly lying to her about being responsible for Vlad’s execution.

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The Americans has always been more about family and relationships than espionage, but that seemed doubly true in tonight’s episode. (I confess, like Grannie says while playing Ms. Pac-Man, I enjoy the maze part, too.) Spycraft takes a back seat to a close look at some of the internal motivations that look to be building for what must be a barn burner of a season finale.

Thomas: Nina definitely made the most surprising revelation tonight, and that terrifies me. They've coaxed an amazing (bilingual) performance out of unknown actress Annet Mahendru; now I'll be on tenterhooks all week, wondering if Nina will survive into next season. That said, it was also a pretty big episode for Philip—excuse me, Clark—and Martha. They also took an oath—or, rather, made a vow—and I've never hated those damned KGB agents more.

Even after I'd seen them kill a dedicated FBI agent, shoot a clueless security guard, and blackmail a powerless domestic worker, I still retained a scrap of respect for Philip and Elizabeth. After all, however misguided, they were patriots fighting for a system they truly believed in. This week, though, Philip showed himself to be an evil piece of garbage. How could he treat poor Martha so heartlessly? How could he prey on her insecurities so effectively? How could he put her in such peril? I don't even believe in marriage, but when Philip/Clark went through with that wedding, my last lingering thread of appreciation for his skill and dedication snapped.

Dobson: Now I will need to worry about Nina, too. Thanks, June!

Yes, the way that Philip manipulates Martha is probably the cruelest thing we have seen this season. It’s a doubled-edged sword in the case of Philip. He has sometimes seemed more sympathetic than the cold, disciplined Elizabeth because of the way he has seamlessly integrated himself into early 1980s America. He is a character who appears to have an intuitive grasp of these “Americans”—their foibles, vanities, and way of seeing the world (and maybe he even shares some of them). But the fact that he is able to get so close to them—and in the case of Martha, prey on her insecurities and vulnerabilities—is also what makes him such an effective spy. When he asks her to place the bug in her boss’s office, you can see the concern in Martha’s face. And listening to her seeking some sort of assurance from him—“Clark, is everything going to be OK?”—is heartbreaking. Because no, Martha, everything isn’t going to be OK.

But to dwell on Nina for one more minute. The most revealing scene for me wasn’t her confession and offer to Arkady at the end of the episode. The place where I think we really see her come into her own is right before that when she meets with Stan for one of their safe-house rendezvouses. Nina enters in a hurry, wearing a trench coat and looking every bit the spy. The first words out of her mouth are that she can’t stay long. Stan is sitting there, hands in lap, waiting. “You’re late,” he says. “I was worried.”

How far we’ve come since Stan first caught her illegally sending those capitalist wares back to the motherland and turned her into his asset! Now the roles are reversed, and Stan (like his suffering wife Sandra) is the one left waiting for a spy to come “home” and spend a little quality time with him. When she confronts Stan about killing Vlad, of course she sees through his weak and evasive answer. And it seals the deal: Stan is now her asset. But you’re right: She’s playing high-stakes poker. I hope she’s up to it, at least into Season 2.

Thomas: I confess, I wondered if Nina was playing Stan. She seemed so confident and so skilled at using her feminine wiles to get him to do her bidding that I was sure the handler-agent roles would be reversed in no time. Apparently that's not the case, but I hope this isn't her last mission. Nina has the makings of a superior spy.

Our Russian friends have never looked more like a bunch of common con artists as when they were play-acting as the Westerfeld family. Instead of elite operatives pursuing high-level strategic-defense technology, they looked like shabby grifters pulling off a job. As Elizabeth told Paige, "We see what we want to see in people." Now that the scales have fallen from my eyes, I'm ashamed that it took so long for me to see through Philip and Elizabeth.

Do you have any predictions for next week? The FBI are building up quite a gallery of sketches of that Caucasian couple who are pulling off such daring capers. Stan is a bloodhound ready to take the scent ... and he wouldn't have to follow it far from his front yard.

Dobson: That’s a great point. So, you were seeing what you wanted to see in Philip and Elizabeth? You might be right. But for all their awfulness—particularly Philip’s devastating deception toward Martha—I don’t think I’m ready to write them off as “common con artists.” I mean, they did manage to get a bug into Casper Weinberger’s home office. That ain’t bad for a day’s work. Although I will admit that was always going to be a short-lived accomplishment for the S-Directorate. How long did they think that a woman as religious and God-fearing as Viola was going to live with her sin? Having to go into that room day after day and see the evidence of her own deceit ticking away on the shelf? After all, she has her own faith—something akin to an oath—that was going to make her second-guess her decision to cooperate with those two Caucasians whose sketches are now pinned up in the FBI conference room.

And to stay with this idea of the oath, I think that scene you mention between Elizabeth and Paige is essential, if a little heavy-handed. As you point out, Nina begins the episode by taking an oath to Arkady and the motherland. Martha and Clark/Philip have their vow to each other. And for Elizabeth, watching Philip take that marriage vow with his asset made her get just about as misty as she gets. She realizes that she and Philip never took that vow to each other—instead they took an oath to the party—and it very well may have mattered. Because in that scene between Elizabeth and Paige, her daughter follows up by asking, “Did you see something in [Dad] that wasn’t really there?” And Elizabeth appears to have an uncomfortable epiphany of sorts and says it was there. I think she’s telling the truth—there is something there, but it never had much of a chance. They never took an oath to each other. When Clark/Philip explains his failed former marriage to Martha, he says, “We didn’t care enough” and “We didn’t know how to be married.” Martha replies, “That’s sad.” And it is.

Predictions? I’m terrible at predictions. Let me narrow the question: Do you think someone else gets knocked off? And if so, who?

Thomas: I see what you did there, Will, you turned the question back on me. You'd clearly have made an excellent intelligence operative. (And just to clarify, although I did liken the Jenningses to "common con artists," I'm in awe of their spying skills. They're absolutely fearless, and they're damned good at their jobs. Too good for me to hold on to my affection for them, alas.)

I'm going to try some wish fulfillment and say that there won't be any major deaths next week. I worry for Nina, but I'm going to keep hope alive. Stan still has too many unshared secrets for the writers to end his story. (Stan, buddy, I need to know what happened with the Aryans.) And the show is too dependent on Philip and Elizabeth to kill them off. So maybe next week will be a big kumbaya hootenanny. I do hope so, because I hear Noah Emmerich has a hell of a singing voice.

Dobson: OK, OK, I’ll be a bad agent and take the bait. I agree with you that Nina is probably the most exposed—and most likely to meet Marx. But I’d really like her to develop into that superspy, and it would be fascinating for her and Elizabeth to become aware of each other, perhaps even work together. (Speaking of which, I think Grannie may not be long for Falls Church—or whatever D.C. suburb these spies are supposed to be calling home. It doesn’t seem like anyone would miss her.)

I can also imagine a scenario where Season 1 leaves Philip and Elizabeth on firmer footing, back under the same roof. This Kramer vs. Kramer routine needs to end. They have problems, they have misgivings, but the S-Directorate knew what they were doing when they paired them up: They’re a good team when they work together. (Remember the way they sliced through that East German?) But wait … I’ve said too much. Not that it matters—it’s not like in 1981 I predicted this whole U.S.-Soviet competition was going to come to an end. I doubt I’ll do much better with Keri Russell.  

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.