“You have a conscience, Philip,” Gabriel (Frank Langella) says during an exchange of Afghan weed and wary glances in tonight’s episode of The Americans, as Philip (Matthew Rhys) hesitates to take advantage of Kimmy (Julia Garner), the teenage daughter of a high-ranking C.I.A. official. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Gabriel continues. “But conscience can be dangerous.” Releasing the tension of “Open House” and “Dimebag,” “Salang Pass” turns inward, constructed from nostalgic smiles and pangs of guilt. For Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), conscience is dangerous because it’s instinctively honest, always interfering with the work at hand—which is, as Philip acknowledges, the work of making the lie real.
“Salang Pass” deploys its constellation of ruses and false identities to examine the question at the heart of The Americans: Is it possible to live the lie so long that you forget what the truth was in the first place? As Clark, resisting Martha’s (Alison Wright) plea to become foster parents in the opening scene, Philip seems to confront this sort of cognitive dissonance. He’s already experienced, in Martha’s words, “what it would be like to come home and have that little girl running towards you and throwing her arms around you”—with Paige (Holly Taylor), the unsuspecting victim of his dissembling and yet, even so, the object of his deepest affection. (When he chooses a white lace dress for her baptism a little later, waving off her worries about the price, it’s clear that his devotion to her is sincere.)
This slippage between fact and fiction is omnipresent in “Salang Pass.” Thus, Philip’s reminiscence of Paige’s “summer of skinned knees,” which lights up Elizabeth’s face with a rare smile, becomes the segue into a strategic calculation, weighing whether or not to foster a child with Martha. And Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) suspicion of Zinaida, the Soviet defector, suddenly seems inflected by his feelings for Nina, as he uses the promise of a prisoner exchange to strike up an unlikely alliance with Oleg (Costa Ronin). Even in the realm of international relations, the influence of Philip’s conscience begins to take its toll. “Look at the people you’re fighting with,” Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), a Pakistani source who believes Philip to be an American, says of a massacre in Afghanistan. “You’re fighting barbarians.”
It’s Elizabeth, however, whose actions test the viewer’s sympathies, most of all her shocking murder of a Northrup Grumman employee midway through the episode. The man’s convulsing legs, the pool of blood on the driveway, the camera’s upward pan to his company parking pass: This brief, unsettling series of images indicates Elizabeth’s endgame for Lisa (Karen Pittman) and functions as a sort of objective correlative for her own compromised conscience, which appears to have deadened even further in recent weeks. Now more than ever, as she establishes Lisa in a country house close to the target facility and says she’s been paid to speak to a “consultant” about the details of a job at the defense contractor General Dynamics, Elizabeth is tough to watch. When she’s not in disguise, Russell lends her a snarling, sharp-tongued affect, as though something in her has begun to devolve. Elizabeth has always, in The Americans’s rather canny approach to gendered expectations, been colder, less winsome, than her husband, but there’s a new and frightening depth to her austere countenance. To what lengths is she willing to go to achieve her mission, or to ensure that Paige learns the truth?
Philip, on the other hand, appears so uncomfortable with the implications of his dalliance with Kimmy, who’s only 15 years old, that he’s willing to defy Gabriel’s suggestion that he begin a sexual relationship. (Even for a series in which the protagonists are Russian spies, turning Philip into a rapist might be a bridge too far.) Indeed, the way Philip casts his eyes to the ground as Kimmy describes working in her father’s garden, or complains of her absentee parents, suggests that he may not be able to make the lie real with her much longer. Rhys nails the heady brew of attraction, disgust, excitement, and relief that runs through Philip as he rushes out of the house “like a teenager” after he and Kimmy share a kiss; Philip appears to enjoy being wooed by a hot young thing even as he realizes that what he’s doing is wrong. Are he and Elizabeth just two more barbarians, no better than the Soviet forces committing atrocities in Afghanistan? Is the biggest lie of all the one that they tell themselves, that whatever means they use are justified because their cause is righteous?
It’s fortunate, then, that “Salang Pass” concludes in such heartbreaking, honest fashion, a potent reminder that Philip and Elizabeth too must suffer the consequences of the Cold War’s ruthless strategizing. As we catch glimpses of Philip’s “training,” a series of sexual encounters with a beautiful young woman, a much older one, and even a man, he says that becoming a spy entailed learning to make the lie so real it became the truth, even to him. “Do you have to make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks. “Sometimes,” he confesses. “Not now.” As the camera captures their kiss from above, her eyes remain open a moment, as if she’s unsure if she can trust him. It’s never quite clear in The Americans what’s real and what’s not, even to those most skilled in the art of lying.
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