This post discusses plot points from the March 19 episode of “The Americans.”
“He just got really mean, and he sort of had me on the ground, I was flat on my belly, and he was shoving my head into the floor, and then he sort of got on top of me from behind and ripped my pants down,” Elizabeth Jennings tells Brad, a sweet Naval seaman who is her latest mark. “I remember I said, ‘No. No!’” Her play is to convince Brad that Andrew Larrick, whom she suspects of murdering her friends Emmett and Louanne, raped her, and that Elizabeth needs his files to prove he was on leave at the time of her attack.
But while the story Elizabeth gives Brad is a lie (that she “was hanging out with these seals, these big handsome guys. They were all on leave — and this one guy, he took me to one of those motels like you took me to”), the specifics of her attack are absolutely true. As we saw in the first episode, Elizabeth was raped, just by her KGB trainer back in the Soviet Union, rather than by a U.S. Navy captain. In this tricky episode of “The Americans,” the show raises important questions about just how far Elizabeth can own and transcend her own assault by repurposing it. And she isn’t the only one: Both Martha and Nina are beginning to examine their relationships with Clark and with Stan, as events — and new people — challenge their temporary refuges.
With Brad, Elizabeth’s performance of distress is convincing precisely because she genuinely experienced it, even if she often pushes down her feelings about her rape in favor of more urgent concerns. But she cannot revisit her memories of being assaulted without being affected by the process of dredging them up.
When Elizabeth finally explained to Philip what had happened to her last season, his violent reaction to her attacker began an authentic opening of their marriage, permitting real emotional and sexual intimacy between them. Brad is similarly horrified by the story Elizabeth is telling him, but rather than responding by volunteering to become a vigilante, he offers to be a whistleblower, to help Elizabeth get the legal justice she can never obtain. Elizabeth tells Brad that the Navy stonewalled her, protecting her attacker, but the truth is actually worse. Rather than leaving the KGB in protest, Elizabeth burrowed into the organization that wounded her so badly, holding up her excellence as an agent and her ideological purity as both a shield to protect herself and a placard to shame her superiors. When she tells Brad that Andrew’s files were “a lot to hope for,” she’s expressing a wistfulness far beyond what Brad can possibly fathom.
And in the show’s climactic moment, Elizabeth has an experience that powerfully returns her to the emotions she felt when she was raped. While trying to abduct a dissident Russian Jewish scientist who has become a powerful symbol of Soviet repression, and who could help the Americans cloak their submarines, Elizabeth is attacked from behind by one of his protectors. In the course of defending herself, she launches a ferocious counterattack, and Philip is forced to pull away from the scientist to stop her repeatedly slamming the trunk of the car on her attacker’s arm.
Joel Fields, an executive producer on “The Americans,” told me the shocking scene was a reflection of the show’s approach to violence, which focuses more on the perpetrators than on the damage done to their victims’ bodies. “That was a real pivotal moment for her, and for us, and less about that guy and his arm,” he said. And series creator Joe Weisberg said it was intended as a powerful reflection on the depth of Elizabeth’s trauma. “I don’t think Elizabeth has any awareness of that guy. She’s just killing an arm,” he told me. “She was out of control.”
In the Rezidentura, Nina is experiencing a different kind of exposure. Oleg used his family connections to get his security clearance increased so he could have access to Nina’s reports to Arkady about her ongoing operation with Stan. Nina is afraid that Oleg is being read in at a level that will expose that she was initially spying for the FBI. Instead, he reacts in a way she doesn’t expect, by expressing sympathy for the fact that Nina is being required to use her body in a way that has an inevitable impact on her emotions.
“I admire what you do. I’m being sincere,” Oleg tells her. “We’ve all been trained to use everything we have to accomplish our mission. Me too, believe it or not. . . . I know how difficult it is. That’s all I’m saying. I sympathize.” Nina does not really believe Oleg’s professions of concern, convinced that he is only interested in her for personal reasons. But his suggestion that our bodies “want to tell the truth when we want to lie. That’s hard on the soul,” is an observation Nina has to get out of with a snappy retort, rather than arguing the merits.
Nina may be detached when she files her reports on exactly what she and Stan do together sexually, but a gap looms between the words she puts on the page and what the camera shows her feeling when she and Stan are ensconced in bed together. Stan sounds a bit teenaged when he confesses to Philip that he’s having an affair and that Nina “understands what I do. She sees me in a different way.” But just because Nina is aware that she is perpetrating a sophisticated double cross on Stan does not mean that her mind is acting independently of her body. She is deeply engaged, too. And the cost of redeeming herself with Arkady may prove exceptionally high.
Finally, and funniest, Martha runs up against the realities of married life when she and Clark have their first big squabble. “We had the start of” a nice, lazy morning in bed, Martha complains, as Clark heads off to work on time. “Yeah, and then you got on the phone with your mother like you always do,” Clark snaps back at her, before complaining about how little space he has for his clothes and about Martha’s habit of washing her hair in the kitchen sink. Their marriage may be fake, but Clark and Martha are fighting like a real couple. Like everyone else in the show, they are wildly confused about what is fiction, what is real, and what fictions have acquired lives of their own. The consequences for everyone could be worse than a broken arm.