While helping his son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), master the state capitals midway through “Dimebag,” Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) gently pries into his daughter’s religious life. He’s barely finished asking Henry if Paige (Holly Taylor) ever mentions church when she wanders into the kitchen, and though Philip saves face by asking what she wants for dinner on her birthday, it’s clear from his expression as she leaves the room that he’s puzzled by her faith. To Philip and his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), Paige remains inscrutable. Indeed, as tonight’s episode of The Americans suggests, professionals in the art of reading people are most vulnerable to misapprehension when their judgment is clouded by the personal—rocky terrain for which even the most powerful intelligence service has no adequate handbook.
As “Dimebag” begins, Elizabeth peers through purple-tinted glasses as Kimmy (Julia Garner), the babysitter from last week’s episode and the daughter of the man leading the C.I.A.’s Afghan group, purchases a little weed from a dealer in the park. Though she’s Philip and Elizabeth’s best chance to siphon information from their adversaries, the fact that she’s only a few years older than Paige gives them pause, a moral quandary that writer Peter Ackerman and director Thomas Schlamme emphasize from the outset. “We’ve never used someone this young before,” Philip cautions, just before their conversation is interrupted by Paige’s return home. The hypocrisy here is breathtaking: Even Elizabeth, the more ardent advocate for Paige’s recruitment by the KGB, believes a gradual introduction to the truth is preferable to a sudden revelation, and yet she and Philip are both willing to use someone else’s child as a pawn. Indeed, as The Americans continues to find new layers to Paige’s adolescent rebellion, one of the show’s primary pleasures is watching her do to Philip and Elizabeth what no one else can, which is throw them for a loop. When Paige, smiling brightly, tells them she wants to invite only Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife (Suzy Jane Hunt) to her birthday dinner, the moment feels like karmic retribution for their lackadaisical parenting. “Look, she’s just doing it to bug us,” Philip says later, leading into one of the season’s most satisfying admissions of failure. “It’s working,” Elizabeth growls.
Though The Americans asks viewers to sympathize with characters engaged in the dirty work of the Cold War, “Dimebag” serves as a reminder that these are unscrupulous people, no matter how closely their intimate lives reflect our own. In the past, I’d been able to write off the collateral damage caused in the course of the secret missions as one of the rules of the game, but this season, with the sound of shattering bones in “Baggage” and the sight of a tooth extraction in “Open House,” has begun to suggest the consequences of the conflict’s amoral calculus more explicitly.
“Dimebag,” though it witnesses no gruesome bodily harm, actually turns out to be the most discomfiting of all, because the target of each ruse is, as far as we know, unconnected to either the U.S. or Soviet government, except by happenstance. It’s one thing to prey on the weaknesses of dissolute intelligence analysts or promiscuous politicians; it’s quite another to set up teenagers, recovering alcoholics, and political prisoners. (The episode reminds me, in this sense, of “The Clock,” in which Philip and Elizabeth, as needlessly cruel as Bond villains, poison a woman’s son and hold the antidote hostage in order to plant a listening device in the secretary of defense’s study.) Philip pursues Kimmy by playing on the familiar adolescent desire to be an adult, offering fake IDs, joint-rolling expertise, and skin-crawling flirtatiousness; Elizabeth poses as a woman on the verge of relapse in order to contact Lisa (Karen Pittman), an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor with knowledge of a Northrup Grumman facility, and discovers in the process that the “wheels came off” Lisa’s marriage; Nina (Annet Mahendru) finds herself thrust back into espionage when she agrees to gather intelligence from her cellmate, Evi (Katja Herbers), in return for a more lenient sentence. “Dimebag” is about as close as The Americans has come to portraying its main characters as guilty of willful moral blindness, if not outright evil.
Even Stan (Noah Emmerich), trying to be honest for once, remains blind, in this case to the obvious reasons why Sandra (Susan Misner) should be so resistant to getting back together. Stan, who explained last week that “people love hearing how right they are,” apparently thinks that going through the motions of Sandra’s beloved EST, a program he clearly doesn’t believe in, is enough. He’s so used to being the one in control, the one in disguise, that his frustration at being stonewalled finally boils over (“Don’t call me an asshole, asshole!” he screams at the EST seminar leader) and metamorphoses into paranoia that Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova), the defector, is hiding something. Is this his finely honed instinct for reading people grinding into gear? Or is his late-night search of the diner bathroom, in a brilliant sequence that could singlehandedly reignite the craze for Yaz, evidence that something inside him has come unhinged? Aesthetically speaking, the frenetic synth-pop sounds and the whitewashed, fluorescent set design, reminiscent of an asylum, might be taken to indicate the latter. Crazy Stan Watch begins now.
Yaz is also the inciting element in Philip and Elizabeth’s climactic argument, which returns to the season’s central question. What about Paige? Though the discussion ranges through Paige’s church group, Yaz’s new album, and a proposal for “taco night,” the real subject is Philip and Elizabeth’s mutual mistrust. Both have become convinced that the other is trying to poison the well:
Elizabeth: I like spending time with her. Do I want certain things for her? Yeah. All parents do.”
Philip: No. You know what most parents want? Good college, good marriage, good job.
Elizabeth: Well, that’s a fine list…Just because you want to do nothing does not make it right.
Philip: Oh, so you are doing something.
Elizabeth: It is happening. It is just happening, Philip. And yes, I am. I am doing it, with or without you.
The last shot in the scene is silent, and it inverts the composition of the final image of “Baggage”: Elizabeth is framed in the right foreground, and as Philip walks out of the bedroom, they exchange a wordless, almost hateful stare. Of course, neither yet knows that Paige will end the hour with the upper hand. Whether or not you consider the shock, horror, and disappointment that pass across Philip and Elizabeth’s faces when Paige announces her desire to be baptized a form of comeuppance for all their shady dealings in the aptly titled “Dimebag,” it’s evident, as Philip remarks, that Paige’s plan was “a setup” all along. Philip and Elizabeth were too busy to realize it, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.