“Relax your shoulders, and follow through,” says Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) to her daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), in tonight’s episode of The Americans, as they start their latest self-defense training session. The scene begins and ends with the metronomic sound of Paige’s fists taking turns smacking—not too hard but also not too soft—a duct-taped throw pillow. That sound, like the girl’s movement, is a canny corollary to Elizabeth’s methods as a spy, the perfection with which she must thread needles, and how they’re inextricably bound to her methods as a mother. Yes, Paige is frustrated by her parents not wanting her to date Matthew (Danny Flaherty), but when she agrees to continue their training session, one grasps Paige’s respect for her mother, for the way she broaches the subject of sex so frankly—which is to say, by pretending that it’s something that can actually occur.
Much of “Pests,” whether observing an arena that’s personal, political, or a knotty combination of the two, is concerned with the threat of what could happen next. This point is first and most explicitly made right at the start of the episode, at an expectedly shadowy meeting point where Elizabeth and Philip (Matthew Rhys) hand over the sample taken from William Crandall’s body in last week’s season premiere to their handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella), who, with an almost comical expressionless, disregards Philip’s eulogizing of William before proceeding to discuss Russia’s grain: how half of it comes from the U.S. and its allies, and if our government might be contaminating shipments. “Going after people’s food? I thought there were things they wouldn’t do,” says Philip with an incredulousness that feels, for our benefit, intentionally unconvincing, before Gabriel informs the pair that Alexei Morozov (Alexander Sokovikov) is on his way to Illinois, the land of Lincoln.
Notwithstanding Gabriel’s deliciously bitchy dig at Ronald Reagan, which I’ll leave to others to mine for the contemporary resonances that I don’t even think the show’s producers are particularly interested in rousing in the first place, this is one of the more blandly expositional stretches in the history of The Americans. If “Amber Waves” felt so refreshingly free of the inelegant bookkeeping that plagues so many shows’ season-premiere episodes, maybe that’s because all that busywork was relegated to this one. So much of these stilted bits of business abound throughout “Pests” that it becomes increasingly hard to tell a potentially character-revealing moment apart from one setting up a future plot turn. For example, is Elizabeth truly remorseful about having had to kill Hans or does her conversation with Philip in the bathroom exist only to prime us for a confrontation with Han’s sister, who was planning to visit Hans from South Africa in three weeks?
In that same conversation with Philip, Elizabeth mentions her training session with Paige, to which Philip brings up his earlier conversation with Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and how Stan told him that “everything doesn’t seem right in Paige Land,” and which leads Elizabeth to wonder how long it’s going to be before Paige blows there cover. In “Pests,” Stan is over the moon about the prospect of love with “the gym lady,” Rene (Laurie Holden), and that pleasure is nicely complemented by the happiness he feels over his son and Paige’s blooming relationship, but if these scenes featuring Stan at play in the non-professional arena feel so flimsy, it’s because they too conspicuously serve as grist for the mill of the Jennings’ fears.
Still, Emmerich poignantly conveys how Stan’s pursuit of happiness feels like a desperately sought after balm for the paranoia he’s being driven to at work. Through the years, Stan and Philip have forged something that could legitimately be called friendship, and in spite of having butted heads from time to time over not so small matters. Still, the unevenness of their social contract is becoming increasingly more obvious. The Stan depicted at the F.B.I., so sad and desperate in his attempts to appeal to the organization’s brass, including the deputy attorney general (Cotter Smith), to not investigate Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) for fear of what may come to light about their working relationship and love of Nina, evinces the sort of emotional instability that may make him more likely to “slip” than, say, Paige.
“Pests” may work too hard to stoke our doubts, but look past the justifiably cagey way that it holds the cards of this season’s arc to its chest and you will see that The Americans still dazzles for how it tautly parses its characters’ emotional entanglements. The scene showing Elizabeth discovering the bugs that Alexei may or may not be planning to use on Russia’s wheat supply is straight out of Hannibal, but more chilling is the prospect of what, say, a live wire like Tuan (Ivan Mok), so curdled with contempt for what he suffered during Vietnam that he only sees in false equivalencies, may do to Pasha (Zack Gafin) and his parents. Certainly, this series has yet to run out of ways to show how the political informs the personal, and at its finest, “Pest” thrillingly plants the seeds of a whirlwind of emotional reckonings.
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