Every TV hero needs a worthy TV opponent: Walter White had Gus Fring, the Starks have Joffrey, and in The Americans' world of espionage, the universal enemy is "the unknown." Not like Commie ghosts or whatever, but rather the pool of undiscovered facts swirling around in the ether that could tank a whole mission, kill your kids, or stop Russia from developing space plans. In a war where intel is ammo, ignorance is the ultimate foe and the price of losing is death. Set in the aftermath of last week's hotel massacre, the very solid "Cardinal" found the Jennings struggling to escape that threat still lurking in the unknown as the hour bridged the intensity of the Season 2 premiere with the growing, mysterious dangers ahead.
Still reeling from her near-death experiences (her gunshot recovery and the deaths of Emmett and Leanne), Elizabeth couldn’t seem to shake a heightened motherly concern for the safety of Paige and Henry. She spent the majority of "Cardinal" suspicious of city workers outside the home, keeping the childrens close, and generally doing what moms do when they feel scared for their progeny (a.k.a. insist they go to the movies in the middle of a board game). In what's becoming a trademark for The Americans, Elizabeth’s espionage-fueled perspective exaggerates the normal feelings that parents experience as their kiddos hurtle toward young adulthood—a period of adolescence with more freedom and more parental worry. Frankly, I’m happy any time Elizabeth is shaken by the real threat of this sort of lifestyle. She spent a good portion of Season 1 with her head in the KGB, so it’s always welcome when she makes an effort to strengthen the family unit.
Only by the end of the episode had she returned to her spy duties—and to be fair, she had never neglected them really, except for early on when she cut short the decoding. A taste of the field gave Elizabeth the chance to be motherly to Lucia the Sandinista ("Your revolution is beautiful. A foothold for us in Central America"), and hey, that was Aimee Carrero from Level Up!
Really, both Jennings found themselves in a position to guide and mentor, with Philip’s being a smidge less comfortable than that of his counterpart. Man oh man, how tense was it seeing ponytail-mustache-phone guy bound into Fred’s home, trying to talk down the rattled gunman? (P.S. More John Carroll Lynch, please!) Really, Philip should've known better than to touch a metal box under the floorboards without checking first to see whether it was electrified, but given the pressure he was under, I could see how he might forget such a detail.
The most important part of that arc was the debriefing Philip had to deliver to Fred regarding, well, "reality." I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: In the world of espionage, facts are currency. While this includes schematics and government details, it also includes basic vitals like what a person’s name is, and more complicated particulars like who they are when the mission ends. Heck even Henry remarked on the value of truth, saying, "Maybe I’m just a little bit more interested in real life than the game." As we learned in The Americans' first season, human assets require a personal connection to "the cause" to get through through the dark times. A certainty they can cling to. If even that reality came crashing down, anybody would lose his/her cool. (Hell, I locked myself in the laundry room for 18 hours one time after learning how hotdogs were made.) The point is, Fred was broken up about the death of "Paul"—a fake person, a character played by Emmett. But who cares what the flesh looked like? The internal connection was real, and that's the part that hurts.
Which brings us to the fellow who had both sides all aflutter: Bruce Dameran (Erik Jensen—maybe you’ll remember him as 30 Rock’s "C. Cjokula"). Dameran is an employee of the World Bank, an ex-employee of the Department of Agriculture, and a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart. And perhaps most damning, he was BORN IN RENO NEVADA. No just kidding, I have family there and it is a fine place. My favorite part of Dameran’s introduction was getting to see how someone can become an agent of their own volition. What does he know? What has happened in his life that's brought him to this willingness to commit treason? Maybe he feels burned by his experience in Vietnam. Maybe he’s mad about the state of agriculture in this country (in 1982). Either way, he's of MUCH interest to both sides.
In regards to the Rezidentura’s new asset, and really most of the goings-on here, Beeman’s still playing catch-up to the point of becoming a peripheral character in Nina’s story. I'm not complaining, Nina seems to have risen through the ranks the same way that Annet Mahendru has become a series regular. But I’ll admit that "Cardinal" was the first episode where I’d expected Stan to wake up concerning his relationship with the beautiful mole. I mean, sure, early on he could see that she needed his help, but I wonder why he isn’t himself becoming suspicious of her participation. Like, look at him, and look at her. She is gorgeous! He is handsome in his own right, yes, but Nina really has other options, and Beeman has to know this. Right? Like, can't he imagine a world where the Rezidentura has cleared her betrayal? He seems like a smart guy, and at some point he must’ve explored the possibility of Nina relaying his moves back to the KGB. Is he that clouded by his own charms/romantic needs? What will happen once Nina can’t give him anything of value? Mark my words, this conversation is coming, and it’ll involve Oleg "You’re the first person I’ve met who wasn’t exactly as they seemed" Nicholiavic.
Speaking of people who are not "exactly as they seem," Clark provided a wonderful "Martha Moment" (ha she's getting a gun for protection) that fed into a truly touching expression of love from Philip to Elizabeth. Man, when Elizabeth gave her husband the okay to be with his fake wife, and then he turned right around and surprised the family by coming home instead because he sensed how much his real wife needed him, that was like end-of-a-romance-movie material. Very heartwarming indeed.
The Americans seems to be a part of that "new television" movement where the creators understand how necessary it is to cram in all the cool stuff up front, leaving room for even cooler stuff down the road. We're still very early in the season, and already there are tons of moving parts. "Cardinal" smartly continued the sort of balance laid out in last week's "Comrades": part family strife, part compromised missions, and part existential attention paid to the very nature of identity. We’ll never forget this is a spy show, but dammit if The Americans isn't intent on showing us every facet of espionage that relates to our fragile human condition. Mysteries and all.
– Poor son of Emmett. He will be "taken care of." Ugh. What if they ask Philip to do it?
– What is CARDINAL? Any history/Russia experts know this reference? Alls I could find was a character in a Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan book (The Cardinal of the Kremlin) with that same codename who was a CIA agent embedded as an aide to the Soviet Minister of Defense (which we also got a reference to).
– Okay, so the Rezidentura is just as in-the-dark about the hotel murders as the FBI. Still, "CARDINAL" hasn't reported back what they know. Could be an internal thing!
– Uh-oh, Paige continued her sleuthing, using the operator (remember those?) to look up "Helen Leavis."
– "Someone may have to take the fall," this spoken line of dialogue from last week made another appearance in the form of a recording. Martha, I'm looking at you.
– Beeman's plumber acquaintance sounds like he's getting a good bachelor package. I love how Stan keeps trusting the Jennings more and more. He's headed for a rude awakening a la Breaking Bad's Hank/Walter.
– Philip’s "phone guy" disguise was pretty close to his wiener-skewering alias from the pilot.
– "I really enjoyed our dinner. The steak was excellent." Who was Fred talking to?
– '80s touches: TIME Magazine, Bo Derek in Playboy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, LIFE, Blondie chatter. What else, help me out here...
What did you think of "Cardinal"?
AIRED ON 6/8/2016
Season 4 : Episode 13