The Americans has always prided itself on interweaving storylines, and season three’s fifth episode, “Salang Pass,” is an example of that. Pieces and parts are moving all over the place, and it’s the audience’s responsibility to keep up. As we watch the balancing act that is Philip Jennings – both professionally and psychologically – everyone else is playing their own games, and there really are no winners.
Philip gets to be everyone this episode. First he’s Clark, pacifying Martha, who’s going so far as to introduce him to potential foster kids; then he’s Scott, trying to keep Yousaf (Rahul Khanna) from having another meltdown; and then he’s still working to cozy up to Kimberly (Julia Garner) with pot he’s handed by Gabriel (Frank Langella). There’s not a ton of time for Philip to just be Philip, and that can get to a person. So can realizing that Kimberly has no idea that her father’s in the CIA, just like his kid has no idea he’s with the KGB. Oh hai there, uncomfortable parallels.
Elizabeth, who’s showing signs of jealousy, is still keeping close to Lisa (Karen Pittman), making every effort to help her and her children as the other woman’s marriage continues to degrade. But it’s not entirely innocent: Lisa lets slip about a new Northrop plant that’s opening, and she’s got a job there. Which she happens to get just after Elizabeth drops a car on a now ex-Northrop employee.
Our heroine spends her evening waiting for her husband to get home, and then there’s a series of really uncomfortable flashbacks to Philip and Elizabeth being trained to honeytrap any and all manner of targets. It’s the kind of sequence you wish you hadn’t seen. Philip point-blank asks Elizabeth if he should sleep with Kimberly, and she can only tell him, “I don’t know.” Followed by asking him if he’s faking it when they sleep together. He tells her he doesn’t now, but that doesn’t make her feel any better.
Meanwhile, Stan has come up with a plan to save Nina and he needs Oleg’s help to do it. Stan believes than Zinaida is a Russian spy, and that they can trade her for Nina in a prisoner exchange. But Oleg isn’t so sure that Zinaida is a plant – he hasn’t heard any such thing and Tatiana (Vera Cherny) isn’t talking. Naturally, entering into collusion causes the conflict between these two to spark up again, and if there’s any complaint about this episode, it’s that there’s not enough of it.
And elsewise, Paige is still dead-set on going through with her baptism, so Philip reluctantly agrees to take her shopping for the necessary dress. If you’ve ever had to go clothes shopping with either of your parents, you can guess how awkward these scenes are. Only slightly less awkward is Stan revealing to Philip that Lori from the EST group (Callie Thorne, sadly not seen this week) asked him out. What follows is a conversation between two guys who don’t understand their kids.
TV seasons generally roll in three phases: setting up the action, enacting the action, and then concluding with the results of that action. Five episodes into The Americans, we’re now definitely into that second part of the equation. From Philip’s POV, the only thing missing from this episode is a big, flashing sign over Kimberly’s head – otherwise, the whole installment is a blunt cautionary tale about what Paige could so easily turn into. Make no mistake about it, Kimberly is now the diametrical opposite of Paige, showing what’d have happened if she’d gone off the tracks instead of off to Jesus.
That’s not to say that Philip is a passive character in this episode. So much has been leading up to exactly what Gabriel points out: the fact that he’s now a man balancing three identities and four different women all with increasing demands. And that’s just taking care of them; that’s before we even get to what he wants or feels or needs. We’re talking about a guy who, for all intents and purposes, had a minor emotional breakdown last season and now he’s under a tremendous amount of pressure with no apparent release – what is that going to do to him?
It’ll be interesting to see how long The Americans can string all of Philip’s various identities along. Television shows have had characters pretend to be other people, but it’s usually just one other person. Even the best shows, like the UK’s Spooks, had characters with many cover identities but you rarely saw more than one in each episode and the storylines didn’t all continue on. This series is playing out all three faces of Philip Jennings over what can be considered long-term.
Aside from what should be Emmy material for Matthew Rhys (really, how much more can you ask a guy to do than play somebody who’s playing two other people?), that’s a lot of stuff to keep straight, both for the writers and for the character. You have to figure there’s going to be a slip somewhere, but what and with whom? Can you really see Clark and Martha adopting a baby and there being a kid somewhere in the background of this show? (See: Justified.) Or how far can this Kimberly thing go before Philip – and the audience besides – can’t take this anymore?
There’s been so much going on with him that we haven’t really focused too much on Elizabeth, but how she reacts to the storylines surrounding her husband and daughter also say a lot about who she is. The jealousy and the protectiveness, these things are part of a journey for Elizabeth, as we see her continuing to open herself up further and have to deal with feelings that she probably didn’t entertain before.
If Philip crosses that line, absolutely she’s going to have to face feelings and absolutely there will be a divide in their marriage at a time when they’ve already got a big one thanks to the Paige situation. We may see these two, who started the season in such a strong place relationship-wise, on the rocks again. It wouldn’t be surprising if there’s enough conflict that she winds up backsliding, once again putting country over everything else because she feels pulled away from the family that she’s built.
Then there’s Stan and Oleg. Aside from Stan serving as a great sounding board for Philip because they’re more alike now than maybe they’ve ever been before, the idea of throwing Stan and Oleg on the same side is a really fantastic one. Noah Emmerich and Costa Ronin played off each other so well as opposite numbers last season, and it’s always fun to take a dynamic that works and find a reason to flip that script and see how it changes.
Can these two actually ever work together? Or are their feelings – either for Nina or against one another – going to get in the way? And should they bring Nina back, just how complicated are both their lives going to get, even though Stan seems quite over her? We’re all in favor for more screen time with these two, but there’s a whole host of questions that every scene creates.
It’s been said a million times before by plenty of people, but The Americans is at heart a character piece, and the plots always seem to work in service of the characters. It’s no coincidence that just as the Kimberly situation reaches an important decision, Philip is also having a conversation with Stan about parenting and having to take Paige out dress shopping for her baptism. There are reasons why the writers didn’t hand that scene off to Elizabeth; it doesn’t serve any purpose that way. But when Philip does it, it takes on a resonance. Besides, we needed Elizabeth to go drop a car on someone.
We’ll have to see how many answers the season ultimately doles out, because it may not provide them for every single thought that it provokes (which are many). But this series has us asking questions constantly about everything from character interactions to motivations to why we had to listen to Flock of Seagulls, and that’s the kind of television you want to have on the airwaves – the stuff we can’t stop talking about.
Season three of The Americans continues next Wednesday at 10 PM ET/PT on FX.