Recap: No Lines Left to Cross in 'The Americans'

Episode Four

“The Americans” is doing its best to juggle a number of plotlines in its fifth season. From Paige’s emulation of her parents’ darker sides to the increasing conflict between the Jennings and their ability to maintain their false identities, from Oleg’s trials and tribulations in Moscow to Stan’s clashes with the F.B.I. and C.I.A., from an American plot to wage war on Soviet grain to Philip’s Russian son trying to make his way to America— there’s a lot going on. That makes for great storytelling, but it can also make for particularly confusing episodes when the directors choose to advance too many of them at once.

Episode four of season five is one of those episodes. It’s still good, but there are a lot of scene changes in the episode that happen very quickly. Another level of confusion is introduced by the Jennings’ travel over the course of the episode, which splits its focus between Paige and the Jennings in Washington, Oleg in the U.S.S.R., and the operations the Jennings are running in Topeka, Kansas. Rapid switches from one of these scenes to the next occur throughout the episode and make it difficult for the viewer to follow any one thread. The show has done this before, but it’s frustrating to see it return at a time when the series should be gathering steam, as this is the second to last season of the show.

Though hard to follow, this episode does do a great job of developing these threads. I wrote in weeks past about the increasing tension between the Jennings’ private life and their work, and this is brought to a head as Gabriel assigns them to work on seducing executives of AgriCorp, the nondescript technology company helping produce grain-destroying bugs for secret U.S. operations. The only issue? These executives live in Topeka, Kansas, which would require the Jennings to fly there almost every week, and put strain on their relationships in D.C. Gabriel shoots down their concerns, and the Jennings return to their car with a new assignment. Philip deadpans, “Think we’re gonna get fired?” Elizabeth turns to him: “That’s not funny.” Philip responds, “I know.”

And, as we see, it really is a job—just not the kind you survive being fired from. As Philip and Elizabeth commute back and forth, they talk about their work like an office job. When Philip returns from his (unsuccessful) mission, he complains about how dull it is; “It’s promising if I don’t die from boredom first.” When Elizabeth returns from her mission, Philip is waiting, dinner’s in the fridge, and they casually discuss her attempt to seduce another man to gain intelligence on a secret ecological attack against their home country. It’s absurd, and the Jennings are clearly perturbed by the intrusion of their work on their lives. But they still keep seducing, murdering, and lying their way to state secrets.

As for Stan and Oleg, they remain tragically moral characters in the immoral world of “The Americans.” Paige and the Jennings, though at times morally troubled by their actions, continue their work. Yet despite the morally tumultuous journey Stan and Oleg took through the first four seasons, they continue to display an adherence to basic decency. Indeed, Stan puts his career and, potentially, his life on the line by threatening to go public and confesses to the unlawful murder of a Soviet man. Such a confession would cause massive public scandal, as proof of the government wielding unchecked lethal force against unarmed people, and also likely result in Stan’s being fired—perhaps in the way Philip alluded to in the show’s opening moments. All this for the enemy, for no other reason than that his moral compass will not allow him to stand idly by while Oleg is blackmailed. Whether or not the news will ever reach Oleg, whose mother tells him “do what you have to do to survive,” remains to be seen; of course, it’s unlikely that the C.I.A. will tell him.

Even so, Oleg faces his own problems. He continues pressuring a corrupt grocer along with the assistance of an experienced prosecutor. Once they obtain the name of her supplier, though, he has to confront the lack of moral flexibility in the Soviet system. In a clear parallel to Stan’s dilemma in the U.S., Oleg is perturbed by his government’s willingness to throw aside morality in the name of efficiency. Oleg, whose own brother was killed in Afghanistan, takes issue with his bosses’ plan to leverage the corrupt supplier’s son, who is deployed in the region, to force him to cooperate. He appeals to his director, suggesting that they find another way: “It’s not about being soft. It’s about doing the decent thing.” The director scoffs at him: “The decent thing is what’s best for our country.” In Stan and Oleg, we see men of two nations trying to do what is morally correct and being told that what is in the best interest of their country is the opposite. Here, as I wrote last week, is the central thesis of “The Americans.” If neither country will do what is right over what is tactically correct, then what are they really fighting for?

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

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