“The production of too many useless things results in too many useless people,” Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) tells Hans (Peter Mark Kendall), her South-African asset-in-training, in “Open House,” an hour laced with dangerous transactions. Suburban homes, stonewashed jeans, a drum set for the kids: Consumer culture and the freedom to choose run through tonight’s episode of The Americans in forms both abstract and concrete, though as Elizabeth suggests, quoting Marx, capitalism’s promise of unlimited options is tyranny by another name. “Open House,” directed by Thomas Schlamme, is a master class in suspense, not only of spies caught in a tightening net, but also of characters whose choices begin to feel less like liberty and more like entrapment.
The central drama concerns Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth’s ongoing pursuit of the C.I.A.’s Afghan group, and the episode’s careful pacing increases the tension by increments until it spills over in the remarkable, wordless climax. The narrative is almost “Stygian,” to use Gabriel’s (Frank Langella) term, set in a muffled underworld that prizes secrets and lies over gun fights and chase sequences. To wit, Gabriel suggests that Philip and Elizabeth target the Afghan group’s second-in-command, Ted Paaswell (David Furr), because the tumbling asking price on his house indicates financial woes that might be turned to their advantage. As Philip and Elizabeth learn after visiting the open house, Paaswell’s problems are personal too; the bug Philip plants in Paaswell’s study later captures a flirtation with the babysitter, and Paaswell himself inadvertently admits to strain in his marriage. “If you have a home office, you use it,” he says. “You come home, you barely have dinner, and you keep working. Bring work home, and your wife starts to resent it, resent you. Next thing you know…” Not unlike Philip and Elizabeth, whose latchkey kids are left to do the laundry and develop crushes on the neighbors, Paaswell’s professional life hurts his personal life long before he recognizes the damage he’s done.
With Air Supply’s “I’m All Out of Love” blaring from the radio, Philip and Elizabeth leave the open house only to discover a tail, part of an 11-car U.S. government team whose presence sets in motion the episode’s most gripping sequence of events. Late afternoon passes into evening and Philip rolls out of the moving car in order to request assistance from the Center, leaving Elizabeth to elude capture. In a genre often dominated by gleaming technology and high-speed pursuits, “Open House” possesses a refreshing, analog sensibility: Elizabeth escapes with the help of a handful of human assets, a walkie talkie, radio-jamming equipment, and a car accident, and it’s this sense that espionage is hard work that lends the episode its slow-burn intensity. When Elizabeth finally comes in the door, her stretched back and drained expression illustrate this point with offhand precision, as does Philip and Elizabeth’s relieved embrace. There’s nothing like an existential threat to remind them that they’re in this together.
Having returned again and again to Elizabeth’s jaw injury, The Americans finally provides the payoff in “Open House,” in a terse, brilliantly conceived scene that, like much of the series, finds marital subtext in the couple’s grim professional responsibilities. Even if you notice the episode’s foreshadowing of the tooth extraction, as Elizabeth touches her hand to her cheek in the car or F.B.I. agent Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) tells Stan (Noah Emmerich) about the high number of false leads they’ve received from area dentists, the construction of the scene is surprising. There’s no dialogue, only Elizabeth’s groaning, panting discomfort and the sound of her spitting out blood, which allows Schlamme to heighten the sense that Philip and Elizabeth are playing out their argument over Paige’s (Holly Taylor) future by other means. The details—the dingy garage, the pile of towels, the pliers, the whiskey—are enough to induce a shudder, but the camera soon turns the focus to Philip and Elizabeth’s eyes. Hers are watery, his impassive; they are, in marriage as in work, allies and at times adversaries, and their eyes express the arrangement’s complications in powerful terms. Philip and Elizabeth have to trust each other in order for their mission to succeed, yet their differing visions of Paige’s future, of Paige’s “choice,” threaten to dismantle that trust forever.
In effect, then, Philip and Elizabeth’s negotiation, displaced here onto a brutal, intimate act, is but one in the series of transactions that “Open House” examines. “It’s impossible not to buy your kids everything they want, right?” the realtor asks Elizabeth at one point, though the episode makes clear that buying and selling is not simply a question of conspicuous consumption. Hans’s mention of stonewashed jeans is mixed up with his attraction to Elizabeth; Paaswell’s house may be on the market because his marriage is suffering; Martha (Alison Wright) broaches the idea of becoming foster parents with Philip, in disguise as Clark, only to have him compare it to leasing a car. Each of these exchanges is framed in capitalistic terms, but there’s always an ulterior motive, an angle, a ruse. Are the choices we make, whether to follow a fashion trend or give someone our trust, in fact choices, or are we so hemmed in by circumstance that we embrace the illusion of free will in lieu of the real thing? “Paige will have a choice. There is always a choice,” Gabriel assures Philip to this end, though it’s evident from his reaction that Philip remains unconvinced. “Really? Because Paige grew up here,” he says, before storming out. “Her life has been easy. She’s not equipped to deal with this!”
Ultimately, “Open House” uses its economic conceit to underline the fact that The Americans is a series in which everyone is selling something. A Russian defector (Svetlana Efremova) sells her narrative of freedom in a series of media appearances. Philip and Elizabeth sell false identities to targets, assets, their children, themselves. Gabriel sells his assurances that Paige will be allowed to choose. “Tell them what they want to hear, over and over, and over again,” as Stan, who once sold himself as a white supremacist to infiltrate a cell in Arkansas, describes his strategy to Aderholt. “People love hearing how right they are.” When you offer what people want, getting them to buy it is all too easy.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.