This post discusses the events of the April 16 episode of “The Americans.”
At the end of last night’s episode of “The Americans,” Henry Jennings (Keidrich Sellati) — breaking the unwritten rule of prestige television that the male children of main characters are not allowed significant plots — falls apart when his parents come to talk to him about his newly formed habit of breaking into his neighbors’ house to play with their video game console.
“You don’t have to tell me. I know what you’re going to say. It’s not like I haven’t been thinking about it nonstop. I have. it makes me sick. I feel like I’m going to throw up. But I didn’t take anything. I wouldn’t do that. And I didn’t hurt anybody. I know the difference between right and wrong. You know that, right?” Henry begins, trying to forestall a reproach. His mother is doubtful, and Henry begins to doubt himself. “I do! I do! It seemed like no one would even know. And they weren’t there. You guys weren’t here. Once I did it, it seemed so easy to keep doing it. I know it was wrong. I’m not going to do it again. I feel horrible. But they think I’m some kind of criminal, which I’m not. I hate that they think that. And I hate them. And I hate that you think it. It’s not true! I’m a good person. I swear! You know that!”
It is a wrenching and wholly familiar scene. But as is so often the case with “The Americans,” Henry’s self-recrimination is made even more powerful by his circumstances. Henry is, as far as we know, a fairly good boy, a kid who will defend his sister, who wants to spend time with his father. But Henry’s goodness is, itself, a sort of ruse. He was born and has been raised to provide cover for two people who do very bad things in service of what they believe is a greater good. Henry is meant to be proof of the normality of Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), but his failure comes at a moment when they are both experiencing profound doubt about their own virtuousness.
In Henry’s torrent of explanation to his parents, he notes that “you guys weren’t here.” And in fact, the moments after neighbors Bob and Christy stopped by to reveal Henry’s transgressions reveal just how checked out Philip and Elizabeth really are. “Unbelievable,” Philip grouses to Elizabeth, only to find her distraught. “Hey, hey, hey. It’s okay. It’s okay. Kids do stuff. Look, he didn’t take anything.” But Elizabeth could care less about her son’s sudden revelation of waywardness. “Larrick killed Lucia,” she tells him.
More precisely, Lucia (Aimee Carrero) attacked Andrew Larrick (Lee Tergesen), intending to torture and kill him in retaliation for his predations in Nicaragua, only to end up his prisoner after he overpowered her and shot her with her own tranquilizer gun. Larrick offered to trade her to Elizabeth for his freedom from blackmail, but during their negotiations, Lucia attacked him again. Elizabeth chose to let Larrick strangle her, rather than kill him and jeopardize the contra mission. “She didn’t understand what it is that we do,” Elizabeth told Philip, trying to explain. “If she didn’t understand what comes first, then she didn’t understand anything.” Her choice may have been correct. But the cost is still too high.
After their conversation, Philip suffers a different kind of moral confrontation, with the idea that he has failed to be as devious as his enemies. After the Soviets used the propeller plans that he and Elizabeth stole, a submarine kitted out with the technology sunk, killing everyone on board. When he gets the news, Philip walks back to the new car he took so much pleasure in at the beginning of the episode, looking at it in horror and disgust. American engineering can be gorgeous and sleek. Philip has just seen its murderous side. And Elizabeth makes the connection between Larrick and the submarine in Ronald Reagan. Echoing the walk-in from earlier in the season, she watches the president on television and tells her husband, “Look at him. He’ll do anything. He doesn’t care. Kids. Nuns. Journalists. He doesn’t care.”
While the members of the Jennings family all deal with their sense of guilt, back at the Rezidentura, Oleg (Costa Ronin) stands in stark contrast to them and to Arkady (Lev Gorn), who is frightened for his nephew in the Navy. Oleg has always seemed unburdened by the sorts of conflicts over enjoying Western culture that Philip and Elizabeth, with “all those beautiful shoes,” suffer. And rather than reflecting on the success or failure of his spycraft, Oleg looks to Soviet bureaucracy, and to technical explanations, for what happened with that submarine.
“I don’t want to avoid blame,” Oleg tells Arkady. “But the Navy retrofitted a propeller on an Akula class, which is two classes bigger than what the Americans use this design for, and they tested it for only three weeks. The admiral pushed it past the red line, and it shattered the shaft. They rushed a testing period that should have taken five months into three weeks. And now they’re trying to blame us.”
If Elizabeth and Philip are going to break, I doubt it will be as early as this season. But even if they hold on, Oleg seems like a more sustainable model for the future, and not just because he knows what Arpanet is and why it matters before his colleagues and superiors catch on. He is getting ready for conflicts that happen between machines, rather than men, and where casualties result from technical details rather than human error or moral failing. Oleg seems to care less than Philip and Elizabeth whether he is a good person or not. But just in case, he is doing his best to remove the question from consideration.