Soft Cell’s electronic thrum may muffle the sound of a struggle, but for Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), no amount of noise can drown out a nagging conscience. His murder of an airport worker midway through “Pastor Tim,” framed in part from the victim’s point of view, sees Philip red-faced and sweaty, struggling to catch his breath, which seems an appropriate analog to the mounting chaos of his life as a husband, father, and Soviet spy: If the haggard, desolate expression he wears throughout the rest of the hour is any indication, he appears to have exhausted his capacity for compartmentalization. After all, the song that accompanies the killing is “Tainted Love,” and tonight’s episode of The Americans depicts the blighted affections—for self, for family, for country—that accrue to those who’ve lost control of their destinies.
Philip’s unraveling, held over from “March 8, 1983” and “Glanders,” leaves Elizabeth (Keri Russell) to hold their world together; she spends “Pastor Tim” doling out a series of reassurances, proposed solutions, plans. (Her soft-voiced question about EST is, in its own subtle way, among their most intimate moments in the entire series: “Is it something you’d ever want me to go to?”) As Philip directs his increasing sense of unease outward, however, disclosing his childhood memories to Elizabeth after discussing them in seminar, she chooses, or perhaps feels forced, to channel her anxieties inward: Though she’s the one to suggest killing Pastor Tim, after learning that Paige (Holly Taylor) has told him the truth, it’s clear from Elizabeth’s nightmare that her past is roiling beneath the surface too.
In the dream, the pastor’s corpse transforms into Elizabeth’s rapist, or at least a specter thereof, and proceeds to attack Paige; even the physical position he places her in is nearly identical to Elizabeth’s during her own assault, depicted in a flashback in the pilot episode. Both parents fear for their daughter’s future, but in each case the perspective is shaped, or tainted, by the particulars of prior experience. “They help you deal with it,” as Philip says of EST, “but you have to think about it.”
Of course, their focus on Paige leaves poor, neglected Henry (Keidrich Sellati) to seek counsel from Stan (Noah Emmerich)—not exactly the first person you’d think to ask for romantic advice. Their conversation, along with Gabriel’s (Frank Langella) wry claim that learning to use a computer is “a life skill these days for any young person,” adds a modicum of light-heartedness to “Pastor Tim,” capped by Stan’s offer of his son’s cologne, Henry’s use of which Philip and Elizabeth memorably lamented in “Glanders.” Coming on the heels of the brutal third season, these comic moments count as an unexpected development, especially as The Americans winnows the number of escape routes available to the Jennings family should Pastor Tim report Philip and Elizabeth to the authorities. Much like William (Dylan Baker), with his bone-dry manner of speaking, the series laces the characters’ circumstances with a kind of gallows humor: The situation is now so grave one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It’s in this vein that we might read developments in the isolated facility where Nina (Annet Mahendru) and Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov) continue to toil away under the USSR’s watchful eye. Her risky attempt to pass a note to the scientist’s son via her visiting ex-husband at first seems arrogant—the action of a woman who’s become far too comfortable playing both sides. But her willingness to court the ire of the Soviet authorities might also be taken as a mark of resignation. If she’s begun to doubt that she’ll ever escape her imprisonment, and believes instead that she’ll be used as a pawn against the next lonely physicist or engineer in a series of escalating shell games, it’s possible that aiding Baklanov is a way of quieting her own conscience. As she says when presented with the news that her note has been intercepted: “I’m not who I was.”
Though she’s placed herself in danger, Nina has also achieved what Philip and Elizabeth, unable to shake the feeling that the past is closing in on them, have not: She has, to paraphrase Philip’s description of EST, thought about it, dealt with it, and made peace with it. After the murder of the airport worker, the death of Elizabeth’s mother, and Paige’s accusation (“You did this to me!”) that her parents’ secrets compelled her to confess the truth to Pastor Tim, it’s obvious that Philip and Elizabeth are still working through the stages of grief for the people they once were, or the lives they might have lived. “We’re in trouble,” Elizabeth says finally, as the camera peers through the car’s rear window. It was here, in the very first episode of The Americans, that the sight of her reflection sent her tumbling through the terror of being raped more than 20 years earlier. No trauma can remain buried, not permanently.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.