The Americans "In Control" Review: False Alarm

By Ryan Sandoval

Feb 21, 2013

The Americans S01E04: "In Control"

An assassination attempt on President Reagan forced the KGB and FBI to prepare for nuclear war, while both sides parsed out leadership claims made by Secretary of State Alexander Haig. With a universe shown through individuals whose lives wholly revolve around the hypothetical conflict of two disparate nations, "In Control" gave us some tangible examples of what the crucial step just before war might actually look like: political machinations, unburied weapons, and scoped-out targets. History has shown us how the Cold War shook out, so ultimately The Americans isn’t about whether or not guerilla warfare comes to the U.S.; it's more of a discussion of humanity’s role in inhumanity. Temporarily putting Phillip and Elizabeth’s marital woes aside (for the most part), this fourth installment focused more on the familial dynamics that exist between a citizen and her government. The result was a new, yet familiar angle on The Americans’ growing theme of personal interests conflicting with a larger force.

At the end of the day, every public body is made up of a bunch of people. Governments, clubs, organizations, movements all consist of folks in varying degrees of status either calling the shots for said group, or putting orders into action. Forget about those caught in the crossfire (scared hotel worker, Beeman’s son), the question is, who’s most important? Well, as last night’s episode proved, whoever holds the information. While Phillip and Elizabeth hustled to collect the most up-to-date intel on President Reagan’s condition, and Beeman investigated a non-existent KGB connection, both parties’ respective superiors were raring to pull the trigger on nuclear war. Sure, those bombs are mighty powerful, but what’s stronger is the ability to stop or start those bombs, and the withholding of information that would start World War III fell into the hands of a select few on the front lines: Nina, chest-puffing congressional aides, the bullet-catching secret serviceman, and the poor, lead-brained neighborhood security guard all represented figures closer to a danger than their respective leaders.

As Phillip and Elizabeth further shed their unquestioned devotion to Mother Russia in the name of family, we’re seeing an unpredictable team, albeit one that still honors responsibility. Working in sync as a true married couple (with romantic feelings expressed in hotel meetups) yielded discussions about mission assignments as recognizable and relatable as whether or not to stop and ask for road-trip directions. Except the destination was possible guerilla warfare, and as the compassionate one in the duo, Phillip was reluctant to turn preparation into escalation. Elizabeth retorted with a relationship classic: "You think you understand things so much better than I do... why?" Well, because he kind of likes America, and that allows him to see things she can’t. He understands the enemy, the same way Beeman cares for Nina so far as she can provide him valuable tips. Similarly, Elizabeth’s blind hatred of the U.S. prevented her from reading Haig’s declaration for what it was (I looked it up, he was talking about the Executive Branch, not gunning for the Oval Office), and the gorgeous FBI asset’s ignorance of American life made her read the situation incorrectly. It just goes to show how effective discussion can be in moments as tense as this, or as Nina put it, "Both sides have their fingers on the trigger and that’s how it happens. One mistake is all it takes." In both cases, we’re getting two opposing sides forced to protect the very faction each is against for an ultimate greater good.

Now as a series of flashbacks attested, we’re still getting more on Elizabeth’s backstory than Phillip's, which I’m guessing is because he’ll draw the focus on the latter half of the season. When he does, his history better be a doozy. For now, Matthew Rhys is doing such a fine job of bringing everything about Mr. Jennings to life that I’m happy waiting. But back to Elizabeth, or should I say "Nadezhda," and her lessons from mother: uh, basically self-reliance. Not sure we needed any more reasons as to why Elizabeth is such an independent woman, but going forward there could be some terribleness revealed with her mom + Russia, and that kind of thing always seems character-defining. Also, it could inform her relationship with Paige a little more. Either way, it was a big deal for her to relinquish control to Phillip, who, yeah let’s face it, basically took charge like a champ. But we know Elizabeth is capable of going her own way (i.e. straight deading that poor Rent-a-Cop point blank), so following her husband’s lead after all her doubts and back-room loving signified yet another turning point in their relationship. One that put them even further ahead of Stan Beeman and his wife. There’s been no shortage of love for Beeman in the comments section, and I’ll go ahead and throw my hat in the ring too for the fella. Between his scene with Nina, which kind of felt like a first date, and his all-too-real conversation with his increasingly estranged wife, the quote-unquote bad guy is coming off as a very sympathetic figure. Try as he might to live a traditional American life, the Jennings still outshine his marriage by the simple fact that they share so much time and information together.

Oh spies, is there anything they can't do?


– Welp, there goes the Jennings’ first secret from Moscow. Hopefully this brings them closer together.

– Wonder if Dead Security Guard is going to come back to bite the Jennings in the ass.

– Dang, anyone else learning a lot about history from this show’s references? Now I know what the Solidarity Trade Union Movement is (no thanks to public school).

– Really liked the Charles/Sparrow character.

– Man, Amador is STILL getting crap—this time from Beeman for not reporting the car glare.

– Claudia sees something in Elizabeth. Wonder if she’ll turn Elizabeth against Phillip one day.

– Hey real footage taught me that the news reported “James Brady” was killed, when he wasn’t. Way to pull through dude!

– Very rad telephone sequence set to Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Pictures on My Wall.” Happy to have '80s music back, but look, it’s 1981, we’re in D.C. Where’s Minor Threat? Where’s Bad Brains?!

– WTF with Paige and the Beeman boy talking about “Travel agenting is a world filled with peril.” Hmm, is the Jennings daughter too child-actory to bring anything to the table?

– So many historical interweavings this episode.

What'd you think of "In Control"?

  • Comments (21)
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  • CarlosR628891 Feb 22, 2013

    I'm really getting into this show. I think they're getting the 80s vibe across pretty well. I'm also rooting for the bad guys, who are the main characters, after all. Their tradecraft seems pretty professional, too - as opposed to the FBI guys (if you're on a stakeout, you do NOT jiggle the blinds! Repeatedly! If you follow a suspect who's on foot, you do NOT follow him only in a car!).
    Now that they announced a second season, we also know pretty well how this season is NOT going to end.

  • DavidJackson8 Feb 22, 2013

    Lovely. Just lovely.

  • klotensen Feb 22, 2013

    I don't blame Ryan for not knowing the entire background of the political stage in eastern Europe of that era. He was made aware by a TV-show and read it up afterwards - no harm done. As a European student I learned a lot about the (U.S.)civil war and how the abolitionists started not in school but throughout some films and good documentaries followed by web research. So in some areas BOTH our school systems suck.
    BTW this show is really growing on me - there is another recent spy series which is in terms of realism and believability lightyears behind.

  • gudendk Feb 22, 2013

    loved it... this series really caught my interest, keep it up!

  • Gorand2055 Feb 22, 2013

    An almost Flawless episode....with one minor technical problem. When the security car braked to turn around, it had a third brake light. There weren't any cars with the third brake light until '85 or so. I know it's a very minor nitpick but, i just had to say.....OCDOCDOCD.

  • Sw33tEscape Feb 22, 2013

    No judgment here, I do that all the time when it comes to era specific shows.

  • sethaustin507 Feb 22, 2013

    This was another great episode. Growing up in the 80's and having loved spy novels like Gorky Park and The Man from St. Petersburg, I appreciate how this show harkens back to that era flawlessly and with impeccable attention to detail. The writing, acting, production values and overall high quality make for a special program I hope will only get better.

  • RyanSandoval Staff Feb 22, 2013

    I was explaining to a friend who mentioned how, given the show's setting, he's reluctant to watch because The Americans can't rewrite history, which diffuses some of the tension. I replied how the show is full aware of that obstacle, and smartly puts most of its eggs in a very specific "spy genre" basket. I'll have to check out these titles you mention.

    There's a restrained tone to the show that nearly borders on noir (for example Beeman discovering Robert's wife dead). The Americans seems to know that people are not going to have as much patience for "what-happens-next" cliffhangers in the historical sense, so it's putting a lot of work into its "feel," which I think is a savvy move these days.

  • sethaustin507 Mar 01, 2013

    I concur. And really, the history of U.S./Soviet spycraft wasn't known to the general public. A lot of the ideas that are explored on the show are rather new. That's why sometimes we're jolted when something totally unexpected happens. For example, I always assumed that the KGB and CIA had a tacit understanding that they wouldn't kill on each other's territories. Well on the show, Elizabeth and Phillip certainly feel no such inhibitions. If this indeed is based on actual reality, it comes as a big surprise.

  • LiseLotteDive Feb 22, 2013

    I'm born in -67 and even though I remember the Reagan shooting vividly I had NO idea about the implications as they are portrayed in this show. I just had my horse, my teenage angst and wrote poems about the cold war, without knowing too much about it. Yes, I know this isn't a documentary, but it's still very real. Nowadays I teach my own kids about Europe - we are Swedes - as it was before the wall came tumbling down.

  • sandorxian Feb 22, 2013

    You seriously didn't know about solidarność ? And then they say people are prejudiced about american ignorance.

  • theopratt Feb 21, 2013

    Well, this show certainly doesn't hold back. Already they've dealt with the assassination attempt on Reagan, and we're not even at the mid-season finale of the first season. And like last episode, the Americans is continuing to make this show about both the KGB and the FBI, without having the FBI just react to what the KGB does. While there is an obvious focus around the Jennings, Stan is not just on this show to spy and them and become suspicious. While this has been clear ever since the second episode, when Stan recruited a mole from within the Russian embassy, the show has made several strides since then in making the FBI a world of its own. And after seeing this episode, I think the formula for The Americans is now apparent.

    It looks like in a normal episode of this show, one of two things will happen. Either some big event will happen, and both the FBI and the KGB will deal with it in their own ways; or, both the FBI and KGB will have their own issues to deal with, though they will naturally be linked together thematically. I'm perfectly fine with this formula. In fact, I think it's the best kind of formula that this show can have. Naturally, since this is a period piece that will presumably be as historically accurate as it can, the bombs will not be dropped and the invasions will not happen. And, especially at this point, Stan can never really discover the Jennings' secret, not without him or them being turned. So while the characters on this show are worried about both of these things happening, we as audience members aren't going to take these threats seriously. Therefore, the way that this show will stay interesting is to see how the historical events of the Cold War affect these characters, and how both sides react to, and deal with, such events. Plus, there are still a lot of underhanded deeds that can be done, deeds that history will never know about.

    And while as an audience member, who lives in a time several decades after this show takes place, I know a lot of the places that this show cannot go, I'm still very intrigued as to where it will go. And I'm not just talking about whether or not the Jennings will eventually be caught, or if Stan will ever run his own surveillance operation on them. Because honestly, this show doesn't need to do any of that to be compelling. Stan and Nina's relationship, for instance, could go in several interesting directions (I'm guessing they'll become romantically involved at some point, which will then make Stan start to question his own alliance to his country, much like the Jennings do theirs). Elizabeth and Philip, especially, have a very interesting relationship, perhaps the most interesting one of television. I'm really curious to see where they're headed, and I'm glad to see that so far they've gotten closer and closer together; but then again, that could change.

    And of course the biggest wild card is Chris Amador, Stan's partner. So far, his story line has been the least developed of the adult main characters, and at this point almost anything could happen to him. Seriously, he could be promoted, be turned, or die by the end of this season. All of these things I could see happening at this point, because he's the most unnecessary character currently on the show. This isn't a bad thing, in fact it gives the writers a lot of freedom to work with. Understandably, Stan can't really die at this point. Or at least, he shouldn't. He's the biggest and most human presence in the FBI, and killing him off or turning him would make the audience find it harder to connect with, and empathize with, the FBI. This means that Chris is the only main FBI character that can realistically discover that the Jennings are KGB spies, this early in the game at least, since again he could either be killed or turned by the Jennings/KGB, and the Jennings' cover would still be intact.

    So far, this show has made me very happy in that I both enjoy it while I'm watching it, and at the same time I'm wondering where this show will go next. I realize that The Americans has only had four episodes so far, and that it could potentially become tired and predictable as it gets more episodes under its belt, but I strongly doubt that. This show lives and breathes creativity and originality, to the extent that I don't think it will ever get old. And if it does, it would take several seasons before it started to repeat itself in an unpleasant way.

  • Mate Feb 21, 2013

    Another great episode. And it is all of the little things that just add up perfectly and make a fantastic show.

    I really like the will they won't they even though they already have and are aspect of Phillip and Elizabeth's relationship. It is just new and different and something you don't see in a show. Mostly because it requires this exact scenario to bring it to fruition. And for Elizabeth it seems like a ping pong match. Now I wanted her to kind of be playing Phillip in order to maintain their mission. But then she kind of said she was feeling for him. Then she was pissed and then she was ok with it. And I really like that aspect of the show. I also wonder how Claudia is going to influence her. I imagine that Elizabeth will trust her more because of the woman aspect, even though she probably shouldn't.

    I liked Paige's comment on the shooting and then her apology later on. It made her seem like she did have equal amounts of her parents in her. I think her and the boy talking about travel agency being dangerous was just a bonding experience making fun of and lessening the lameness of her parents job and the dangers of her husbands. Which was later kind of emphasized when Beeman told his wife that he just isn't the same anymore.

    Overal, just a great episode. I hope this show gets more viewers because I don't want to see this go the way of Terriers.

  • WavSlave Feb 21, 2013

    Argh, referencing Terriers is akin to referencing Voldem...well, you know who. You just shouldn't do it, lest ye invoke the wrath of the gods. ;-) Fortunately, I think this show is on more solid ground ratings-wise than that other much loved and still missed show.

    I thought this was a great episode, featuring genuine cold war excitement, more filling in of Elizabeth's back story, more subtle nuances of the various characters' relationships, etc., etc. Being on FX, after all, you really have to expect this sort of great TV. (Let's all pretend that Anger Management airs only in a parallel universe.)

  • Mate Feb 21, 2013

    Voldemort? Are you talking about Voldemort?

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