After weeks of preparations, including a tap on the hotel switchboard, tonight’s episode of The Americans witnesses Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) intercept one of the three mujahedeen commanders brought to the United States to discuss the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Posing as C.I.A. officers, Philip and Elizabeth propose that the man (George Georgiou) betray his compatriots to secure a more favorable agreement, but it’s the freedom fighter wary of both Soviet and American motives who sets the consequences of the Cold War in starkest relief. “I am Abassin Zadran,” he says, describing his brutal killing of young Soviet soldiers, probably no older than Philip’s long lost son. “I am the one who cuts the throats of the communists.”
“I Am Abassin Zadran” in fact hinges on several internecine struggles, within families as well as within intelligence services, a paranoiac hour in which skepticism of one’s erstwhile allies places renewed strain on all concerned. On the home front, for instance, Paige (Holly Taylor) continues to act out against her parents, planning to stay the night with Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife, Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt), and presenting Philip and Elizabeth with scrapbook photographs as proof of their deception. “Everything is a lie!” she screams, though it’s Elizabeth’s response, springing to cover Paige’s mouth, which most forcefully suggests the heightened tension. The sudden, surprising physicality of the moment makes clear that Elizabeth’s first instinct here isn’t as a mother, but as a spy.
It remains to be seen whether this will change when Philip and Elizabeth learn that their former handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale), has returned to the U.S. to make sure Gabriel (Frank Langella) is keeping the KGB’s recruitment of Paige on track. Though their conversation in the diner refers to “the paradox of being American” (the paradox of choice), it’s the far more challenging decision of what to do with Paige that consumes much of the discussion. Most striking, perhaps, is Claudia’s indication that Philip and Elizabeth, who’ve been debating their daughter’s future all season, have no choice in the matter anyway. Has Gabriel, who softens toward Philip’s position for the first time, been protecting his charges from the KGB’s most troubling demand all along? Or do his cautious words amount only to an intellectual exercise, another game of
Though Philip repairs the damage with Paige by way of his own photographic evidence, eliciting a lovely little admission that she and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) have kept a few secrets from their parents too, he remains distracted by Martha (Alison Wright) and the F.B.I.’s ongoing internal investigation. It doesn’t help that Stan (Noah Emmerich) turns up unannounced at Martha’s apartment, sending her into a panic that requires Philip’s immediate intervention. With Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) as his accomplice, “Clark” meets Martha far from her apartment, desperate to reassure her, though the arresting composition that marks the beginning and the end of their conversation foreshadows the revelation of his ruse. As Martha asks what they’re doing there, and again as Clark promises to “figure this out,” the camera frames them in a doorway at the end of a long, arched tunnel, two silhouettes squeezed into what remains of the gray winter light. The routes out of this mess are winnowing, and fast.
As Elizabeth coaches Lisa (Karen Pittman) to snap surveillance photographs inside the Northrop Grumman plant and deals with Lisa’s increasingly prickly husband, Maurice (Thaddeus Daniels), in a subplot that seems sure to crescendo in the season finale, “I Am Abassin Zadran” also introduces a bracing new conflict within the F.B.I.. The Americans is a series that rarely wears its formal choices on its sleeve, and here the subtlety is so refined that it took me two viewings to catch it. It’s no surprise that F.B.I. man-on-the-make Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) should air his suspicions about Stan’s relationship with Nina, or that Stan, inured to the inner workings of nefarious organizations, should defend himself with a stemwinder about the KGB’s dangerous “illegals.” Rather, in an episode that also features Oleg (Costa Ronin) and Tatiana (Vera Cherny) convincing Arkady (Lev Gorn) to continue the KGB’s eavesdropping on the bugged F.B.I. mail robot, the most significant detail may be what we hear as Stan walks away from Aderholt at the end of their conversation: the whir of the approaching mail robot, and its three foreboding beeps.
Indeed, it’s another faintly electronic rhythm, this one a music cue, that sends this dazzling season of The Americans hurtling toward its conclusion. After Zadran cuts the throats of his compatriots, after Maurice arrives unexpectedly to trade Lisa’s film for cash, Elizabeth turns up Ultravox’s “Vienna” on the radio to drown out her voice as she invites Paige to come to Russia to meet her dying grandmother. Though the lyrics, describing “haunting notes, pizzicato strings,” nod at the power of sound to convey emotion, the chorus, with its claim that “this means nothing to me,” suggests that all the assurances made in “I Am Abassin Zadran” amount to little more than white noise. Philip, as Clark, may promise Martha to “figure this out,” for instance, but backed into a corner by her impending departure, he allows the mask to drop. Over the course of an unbearable, interminable minute, he removes his glasses and then his hairpiece, a gesture that leaves her shaking and, fitting enough for an episode otherwise defined by screams and whispers, beeps and ballads, totally speechless.
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