Recap: A Plague Upon Their Grain

'The Americans,' Episode Two

When I wrote my review of the first episode of this latest season of the award-winning television series “The Americans,” I commented mostly on the pacing of the episode: it seemed slow, almost too ponderous for a premiere. Episode two, I’m sorry to say, feels much the same. Now, to clarify, “The Americans” has never been a fast-paced show. The series, much like the work of its protagonists, focuses on methodical buildup to an explosive, and often quite satisfying, payoff. This episode has all of the slowness of those episodes but none of the payoff. That is to say, not a lot happens.

We rejoin Philip and Elizabeth as they report to their handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella). Their job at the end of last episode—exhuming the body of deceased sleeper agent William and retrieving a sample of his infected flesh to send back to the U.S.S.R.—went off well, except that fellow agent Hans scraped his hand at the end, risking infection. Elizabeth shot him in the head to prevent a potential outbreak and buried him with William. The report goes well enough; the Jennings pass their pound of flesh to Gabriel, express a moment of sorrow about their fallen comrade, talk about their next mission, and return home.

Here is one of two points in this episode where a plot point moves decisively forward. “The Americans” has always been a show about the tension between the Jennings’ American and Soviet lives: the former embodied by their relationship with their children, the latter by what they do every day. When, late in Season Four, Elizabeth tells Paige what her parents really do, the line between those lives begins to blur. We begin to see the ramifications of this when, upon their return, Elizabeth and Philip see that Paige has fallen asleep curled up in her closet, because that’s the only place she feels safe. Philip is at a loss; Elizabeth resolves to teach her daughter to defend herself.

There are really only a few points of tension left in the show to resolve, and this is one of the most intriguing: How will the Jennings’s children ultimately react to their parents’ occupations? Their parents might be staunch Russian communists—although even that allegiance seems to waver at times—but the children are Americans through and through. Paige’s struggle to reconcile herself to her parents’ identities will likely be one of the dramatic turning points of this season.

The second development of this episode is Elizabeth’s discovery of U.S. research into biological warfare in an unconventional form. On Gabriel’s instruction, the Jennings continue to develop their relationship with a Soviet defector working for the Department of Agriculture. After some sleuthing, Elizabeth finds proof that U.S. agencies are actively working on methods to attack Soviet crops. As multiple characters over the course of the episode aptly point out, a successful assault of this nature would cause death by starvation for millions of Soviets, military and innocent alike.

Despite the nearly glacial tempo of this season, this kind of intrigue is something the show has historically done well. The creator and executive producer may be a former C.I.A. agent, but he seems dedicated to showing how the Cold War really went down, without the rosy glasses of selective listening and incomplete history that gives so many Americans a sense of moral superiority. Indeed, a welcome subplot in this episode continues to track the relationship between F.B.I. agent Stan Beeman and former Soviet “diplomat” Oleg Igorevich Burov (Costa Ronin), as Stan becomes increasingly concerned by his government’s abandonment of moral principles in their pursuit of intelligence. When another operative suggests blackmailing Oleg, Stan replies bluntly that Oleg would be killed for it. The operative doesn’t bat an eye, and in that moment we see Stan’s faith in the system dramatically shaken. This is one of the core themes of the show: America was both victim and aggressor in the Cold War.

“The Americans” has, so far, offered a compelling drama framed by the Cold War: a narrative of shifting alliances, half-truths, and complex moral dilemmas. This season continues to build on the work of the initial seasons, but I have to wonder if the dramatically slowed pace will undercut that success. Last week’s episode was slow, but excusable; premieres are sometimes slowed down so that audiences can reacquaint themselves with characters and settings they may have forgotten. This episode was faster than the premiere, but only on the margins. If they don’t start to speed up, the show may just have to test how compelling its setting can be without accompanying, interesting action. Spoiler: It wouldn’t be that great.

—Crimson Staff Writer Noah F. Houghton can be reached at noah.houghton@thecrimson.com.

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