This week it was Elizabeth Jennings' turn to experience parental misgivings—spy-style—as she and Phillip took on a risky, last-minute assignment that had the usual go-getter sobered by the reality of potentially orphaning her children. As Tim mentioned in his review of the series premiere, The Americans came programmed with a killer number of story options, and "The Clock" managed to touch on most of them (no flashbacks this time around, though). With all the initial moving parts established, we got a thematic companion piece to the first episode, with the Jennings essentially swapping roles: Phillip matter-of-factly rolled up his sleeves in preparation for cold-hearted civilian death, while Elizabeth experienced a newfound pity for the mark and then transformed it into a doting mother’s love.
Ironically, from what little we’ve seen of Phillip and Elizabeth so far, the two representatives of an allegedly oppressed nation are more romantically progressive than their suburban American counterparts. They both engage in extramarital sexual activity as part of the gig, and it seems to be working out just fine for them. It’s an arrangement that, if ever questioned, puts them in opposition to Mother Russia. So it’s accepted—or at least ignored. Of course, that all may be changing: Tonight we witnessed Elizabeth's light grilling of Phillip about his steamy, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense contact. Totally wife-like. Add to that Mr. Jennings’ trachea-collapsing fury over Elizabeth’s past assault, and it's likely these two lovebirds will give way to traditional possession the more they open up to one another during each mission.
Speaking of which, I appreciated the clear objective here: A conversation about national defense was imminently going to take place and the Jennings needed to rig a clock in order to hear the juicy details. If Phillip’s reluctance to pull off said mission on such short notice is the "weakness" Elizabeth mentioned last week, then this episode saw her understanding the source of his cautiousness. As soon as Phillip slammed Viola up against that wall, it wasn't just the housekeeper's framed paintings that shook; Elizabeth saw her values knocked off balance as well. What if it was her family being poisoned with a "Bulgarian umbrella"?
Which brings up the essential conflict of the Jennings' relationship. How does compartmentalizing the murdery part of one’s life sync up with an otherwise wholesome facade? Granted, no one was killed this episode, but Viola’s son came pretty darn close to dying, and Phillip not only distanced himself from the responsibility ("Will you let me help you and your family get through this?") but actively criticized this lady’s belief in God ("People who believe in God always make the worst targets."). That’s a heck of a lot different than just using quiet brute force to get the job done. He seemed genuinely bothered by Viola’s religious devotion. Whether the housekeeper’s spirituality rankled him on a personal level or stood as minor frustrating obstacle, we at least know a little more about the Jennings (atheists! Travel agents!).
But still, as spies, can they be any kind of good parents when behind the scenes they’re threatening the lives of innocents? Or is the murdery part the real facade, and deep down The Americans are true suburbanites looking to shake off the shackles of espionage? It’s the genius of the show that keeps these two aspects in active balance, and that conflict will need to be presented in increasing discussion so as not to favor one side over another and settle on an answer. For the time being, though, it’s looking like Elizabeth doesn’t want to deal with such questions. Believing that "Henry would adjust to anything," in her absence, but Paige was "...delicate somehow," Elizabeth’s resolve to go down in a hail of bullets rather than deal with the torture of having her kids taken away smacks of a person who’s had their value system cracked. Lucky for us, that meant she stayed behind, and we were treated to another jaw-dropping fight sequence that gave new meaning to the phrase “broken home.” (See, because a bunch of crap got broken in a hom— oh nevermind).
One element that continues to be surprisingly entertaining is how plain and alluring suburban life appears in and of itself, rife with father/son night hockey, neighbor beers, streets named "Golden Meadow Lane." Positioned against the high-stakes world of spy games, though, this planned neighborhood functions as a different thing to different characters. To Phillip and Elizabeth it’s a cover, but to deep cover veteran FBI agent Stan Beeman it's a foreign nuisance, one that makes him restless. It's a place he sees as a continued battlefield in the war on American life, and these mixed-up associations are resulting in some of the most dramatically ironic, tense conversations since Breaking Bad’s Hank and Walter: On the surface, Stan and Phillip share a chummy interaction, but deep down there’s a psychological chess match happening, which neither wants to acknowledge.
Last episode ended with Elizabeth and Phillip bonding over details of their former lives, and it's fitting that this one wrapped up with a similarly sweet moment: husband surprising wife with some expensive caviar (like "Russian embassy" expensive) after a job well done. The tender gesture was soiled, however, with Elizabeth's admission of shell-shock, sending her right back into concerned family member territory. While both the FBI and KGB celebrated advancements against each other, she was happiest to see one more restful suburban night, even though it came at the expense of another family’s peace. Such is the dark underbelly of the American Dream: Sometimes you have to step on others to achieve it.
– Phillip's blonde contact is ultimately a liability, but for one fleeting moment she described his domestic fantasy, which must be frustrating to no end.
– Discord among the superiors in the KGB, but what about the FBI?
– Damn, no rad '80s jams, unless you count the one playing in "MODERN HIFI." What song was that?
– It was touching, and tragic, the way Elizabeth rattled Paige out of bed for an impromptu ear-piercing session. Paige might be tougher than her mom thinks.
– Action choreography is a hard art to pull off and so far the physical quarrels in The Americans have been brutal and organic.
– Agent Beeman’s small aside about Agent Amador’s minority status—could race be the wedge that drives these FBI partners apart?
– As a family man, Phillip knows the quickest motivator is a threatened loved one. Let's hope this doesn't backfire.
– The man in the stereo shop was sporting a damn good look.