Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in “The Americans.” (Frank Ockenfels/FX)

 I was traveling last week, so this post discusses the plots of the May 7 and May 14 episodes of “The Americans” in some detail.

“The Americans” is a show about both espionage and marriage, themes that are tied together by a similar requirement. In both situations, people who are fundamentally unique and distinct individuals – or sometimes outright loners — have to figure out how to be in relationships with other people. How much of themselves can they give up while keeping a secret part of themselves safe? What happens when they privilege their isolation too much?

Watching these two episodes of “The Americans” together crystallizes the extent to which that conflict between loner tendencies and social ties is really the theme of this season, something that pulls together Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) and their prey.

Andrew Larrick (Lee Tergesen) has been such a powerful antagonist for Elizabeth and Philip precisely because the balance of his loner tendencies and his social attachments has shaken out so differently. He became an asset for the Moscow Center because he was initially afraid to be outed as gay.

But he has abandoned the fear of exposure, as well as any fear of being seen as criminal. Larrick is willing to be anyone — a phone company inspector, a fake cop, a man who might kill a teenage boy — precisely because he has decided to be no one at all. Philip and Elizabeth disguise their real identities because they have many things to lose: their family, their ties to Moscow, their freedom. Cut free from all attachments, Larrick is extraordinarily dangerous to them.

“You people destroyed my life, not that I didn’t have a hand in it,” Larrick tells Kate (Wrenn Schmidt), Philip and Elizabeth’s naive new handler, shortly before he snaps her neck. “An unwilling hand. I made my bed, now I will have to lie in it. As will you.”

That same sort of isolation, which has turned Larrick so feral, is what binds other sources to Philip and Elizabeth. Scientist John Skeevers (Zeljko Ivanek) is so desperately lonely and angry about the occupational causes of his illness that he is willing to tell Philip the latest in stealth research almost for the kindness of being spared humiliation at a pharmacy and a visit over a bowl of soup. Fred (John Carroll Lynch) wants a family of his own so badly that when Philip does him the honor of letting him meet Elizabeth, he agrees to take on a dangerous mission.

But sometimes meeting the needs of lonely people only awakens a greater hunger in them. Philip thinks he scored a major coup when Martha (Alison Wright), the FBI secretary married to his alter-ego Clark, brings home classified files, irritated at the cavalier way they are left lying around. But in bed after their celebration, Martha raises the dangerous question of when they might be able to expand their family — and by implication, when they conditions that have governed their marriage might end.

“Martha, that’s not for me. And I thought you understood that,” Philip, in his guise as Clark, tells her. “My life, my career … I’m sorry, Martha. Children aren’t in the cards for me.” Philip has been able to snow Martha into secrecy for a very long time. But he also turned her from an abandoned person into someone who was wanted, and now Martha wants things of her own.

Those sorts of needs are hard to tame. In the Beeman house, Sandra (Susan Misner) gently explains to Stan (Noah Emmerich) that she is leaving him. Stan was initially caught flat-footed by the news of her affair, but there are few recriminations between them now. He was the first one to stray in their marriage, and long before that, his undercover work took his head and heart away from Sandra.

“He a good guy?” Stan asks with a rueful smile, able to do Sandra at least the small courtesy of wanting to know she’ll be all right. “He’s able to be in the flow of things,” Sandra says, that simple level of engagement meaning the world to her. “Yeah, he’s a good guy.”

Across the city, Oleg (Costa Ronin), worried that Nina (Annet Mahendru) cannot flip Stan effectively enough to avoid being put on trial, tells his lover to run, rather than urging her to stay. But even as he gives her money, Oleg gives Nina some affection to take with her, too, just as he found her a Young Pioneers pin. His language may be formal — “I know of no officer smarter or more capable. I believe your future is bright,” Oleg says — but it is deeply freighted with emotion.

Even as Philip and Elizabeth seek to exploit loners, they are also trying to train Jared (Owen Campbell, continuing the show’s streak of excellent young actors) to hold himself apart so that he can survive. They make mistakes in the process. Elizabeth is bitterly regretful when she finds out that the FBI may have revealed his parents’ backstory to him.”I never gave him Leanne’s letter,” she confesses to Philip. “I made him a promise. And now he may have found out from an American.”

Elizabeth may be more of a loner by nature than Philip, but she is also cruelly aware of what they are doing to the child who has been entrusted to them.

“Where the hell are we sending him? Switzerland? Hungary?” she asks her husband. “So that kid who grew up in Virginia Beach, we’ll just drop him off somewhere, one of those places … We had each other. We were older. Our parents hadn’t just been killed.”

For Elizabeth Jennings, this is practically a love aria. Loving other people makes you hideously vulnerable. But living with the pain and the possibility of pain that Elizabeth sees constantly before her is better than becoming a ghost like Larrick.

Previously:

-‘The Americans’ recap: ‘Yousaf.’

-‘The Americans’ recap: “Martial Eagle.”

-‘The Americans’ recap: “New Car.”

-‘The Americans’ recap: “Arpanet.”

-‘The Americans’ recap: “Behind the Red Door.”

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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