Constructed around family spats and Cold War tradecraft, The Americans traditionally finds suspense in the slow, summative effect of its wary glances and closed doors. When the series opens the floodgates, then, as in tonight’s “Walter Taffet,” the cascade of knock-on consequences is enough to sideswipe you—a domino effect, as it were, of unforeseen developments. Philip (Matthew Rhys), in particular, suddenly appears unable to juggle the many personal and political ruses he’s been running all along, and the episode begins to suggest what relenting to the pressure might look like.
Upon finding out that Elizabeth (Keri Russell) told Paige (Holly Taylor) of their involvement in the civil rights movement, during the conversation that concluded last week’s “Born Again,” Philip is less enraged than faintly heartbroken, realizing that his grasp on his daughter’s future is loosening. In his own way, Philip’s been trying to guide Paige in his preferred direction by urging her toward independence, but the distractions of his dalliance with Kimmy have left him playing catch-up. “Am I going to come home one day and Paige will just tell me that she knows who we are?” he asks Elizabeth, recognizing anew that he may not be able to trust her. The final shot before the title credits, the camera peering into their bedroom, frames Philip and Elizabeth with the thick, white wood of the central window jamb between them, divided. “Kids are busy, Elizabeth’s busy, you know. I eat pizza,” he tells Stan (Noah Emmerich, who also directed the episode). “Raising kids? Trying to agree on things lately? We’re on opposite sides all the time.”
Meanwhile, at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, Elizabeth and Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) plan an operation to interfere with a pro-apartheid student infiltrator and his South African government handler. The preparations set Elizabeth and Philip’s respective visions of Paige’s future in stark relief. “They probably recruited [the infiltrator] back in South Africa, when he was young and naïve,” she says. “He wasn’t naïve,” Hans replies, with surprising conviction. “I grew up with so many like him…privileged, self-centered, little, miniature copies of their parents.” Elizabeth returns to the operational details, but there’s a tension between her desire to ensure that Paige is no unthinking beneficiary of capitalist privilege and Hans’s criticism of kids who become copies of their parents. “Do your kids have any idea what a bad-ass woman their mom is?” Reuben Ncgobo (Dwayne Alistair Thomas), a member of the African National Congress and KGB ally, asks her later, before lamenting his own children’s lack of interest in political activism. Here “Walter Taffet” lays the groundwork for its climactic action sequence, but at each stage Elizabeth’s strategizing also confronts her with the question that’s shadowed the entire season. Where does molding your kids in your own image shade into stifling them altogether?
The lion’s share of the episode is given over, rather ingeniously, to a detail I’d forgotten about: the listening device Martha (Alison Wright) planted, on Clark’s behalf, in Agent Gaad’s (Frank Thomas) office. When Gaad, Stan, and Agent Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) uncover the bug, launching an internal F.B.I. investigation, Martha swiftly transforms from flighty secretary into quick-thinking spy. Wright, in that shaky, tearful sequence in the women’s restroom, as Martha destroys the device’s transponder by running it under water, modulates the elements of panic and determination beautifully. Later, after enduring the tense, office-wide scan for bugs and a meeting with the titular agent from F.B.I. internal affairs (Jefferson Mays), Martha bristles at Clark’s small talk. It’s as though she, too, is learning the tricks of tradecraft: She caresses the pistol in her underwear drawer and demands to see Clark’s apartment, unwilling to tell him what’s bothering her, but clearly considering how to proceed. Will Taffet sniff out her betrayal? Will she confess? And if she feels herself coming closer to being discovered, will she confront Philip? Turn him in? Shoot him? In a deft reversal, the series turns Martha’s rather thin characterization this season into an asset. When it comes to her, we have no idea what to expect.
Indeed, on second thought, I’m not sure this is Philip’s episode after all, not exactly. “Walter Taffet” is also a portrait of women striking out on their own: Martha evincing skepticism of Clark, Elizabeth proceeding with her plan for Paige against Philip’s wishes, and Sandra (Susan Misner) telling Stan it’s time to divorce. The episode focuses on Philip only insofar as he’s no longer the sole agent of his own destiny, having tangled himself up in the chains of his divided loyalties. Fittingly enough, the episode concludes with the season’s most thrilling set piece to date, a deadly midday kidnapping of the student infiltrator and his South African handler set in part to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” “Run in the shadows/Damn your love/Damn your lies,” it goes, as if written to describe The Americans. “I can still hear you saying/You would never break the chain.”
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