This post discusses the March 26 episode of “The Americans” in detail.
Halfway through “The Deal,” before negotiations between the Soviet and Israeli governments really kick off, before Anton breaks down in the back seat of a car while begging Philip Jennings not to send him back to the Soviet Union, Oleg stops Nina in the hallway of the Rezidentura for a chat. We watched them in previous episodes bantering about Rod Stewart and the Washington Capitals. But Oleg has a more serious purpose in mind now: the discrepancies in Nina’s explanation of her work with Stan.
He pauses in front of a stained glass window that depicts Vladimir Lenin and turns to his left, unconsciously presenting the same profile as the architect of Soviet communism. The light streams through Lenin’s face as Oleg turns into shadow, the dream and the reality in a single shot, a perfect summary of last night’s episode.
The best half of the hour is essentially a bottle episode, as Philip and the Mossad agent who turned out to be defending Anton poke at each other over American culture. “What are you? The Kenny Rogers of Tel Aviv?” Philip teases him about the accent in which the other man broke into Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” when playing drunk for a D.C. cop. But the agent is not shaken by Philip’s indictment of his tradecraft.
He and the Soviet Union, he explains, share skepticism about the United States. And his argument for Israel shows a sly sense of his audience. “My kids in a communal hall. My wife works in the field with other wives. You like communism? Come to Israel. It works much better there,” he explains to his captor, offering up a vision of family that’s better integrated than Philip’s situation, where he lies to his children but is tied to his wife by profound secrets.
Maybe the Mossad agent senses that in him. “I go home for Passover. I sing country-western with an accent. I hide what I do. I don’t hide who I am,” the Israeli tells the Russian at the beginning of their conversation. At the end of it, he asks Philip for his name, but then rescinds his request. “But your name isn’t your name, is it?” he muses. “Is your face your face? Are your children your children?” These are questions that have plagued Philip as long as “The Americans” has been spending time with him.
That tangling up of national and personal identity is everywhere in the episode. Elizabeth, who has been using sweet Navyman Brad, tells him that she is too damaged to pursue a relationship. She fudges details and timelines, but Elizabeth is repurposing her own personal history for her national interests. Later, she plays on Martha’s personal and national interests to persuade her not to list her husband on her job application.
In the Rezidentura, Arkady muses that Russians die for ideas but “Jews? They’ll die for their tribe.” Ultimately, though, he seems pleased when he hears that the Soviet Union traded the recovery of one dissident for the freedom of 1,500 Soviet Jews to leave for Israel. The bargain preserves their agent’s life and the idea of Jewish religion freedom all at once, making a different sacrifice than the one Arkady expected.
And Oleg, he of the hockey tickets and the Walkman, turns out to be using his immersion in Western culture to further his rise in the Soviet bureaucracy. Having discovered why Nina is carrying on with Stan, Oleg confronts the FBI agent. “I’m a budding student of capitalism,” Oleg says. “Everything has a value. Everything can be traded, yes? So let’s make a deal.” Now Stan will be his source, rather than Arkady’s asset.
It makes sense that an episode that includes secular saints in stained glass and discussions of Passover would be summed up with another conversation about religion and oneness. “It’s not you. It’s me,” Paige says, trying to explain that she is going to church and reading the Bible for herself, not as an expression of anger against her mother. “My life, my crazy life. I don’t know where to put everything.” “What do you mean?” Elizabeth asks, genuinely confused. Everyone else in this episode is comfortable being many different people. Paige just wants to be herself, and to be sure of it. Only in “The Americans” would her dream be audacious.