Funny isn’t something that The Americans often does, and “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is unique in the canon of the series for the sterling self-reflexivity of its sense of humor. The episode opens with Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) receiving an update from their supervisor, Gabriel (Frank Langella), about what their sleuthing in the Oklahoma science lab’s rolodex uncovered. After being assigned two new targets who are, coincidentally, both single, husband and wife exchange looks, no doubt sensing the potential long game they’ll have to play. It’s clear that neither Philip nor Elizabeth care to bring another Martha or Gregory into their lives, but above all else, they have a lot on their plates right now, and as Elizabeth goes down the list of all their—and in turn the show’s—outstanding commitments, she sounds like she’s trying to get out of brunch plans with someone she disconnected from previously, and with good reason.
Martha’s surprise appearance in last week’s episode, “The Midges,” feels cannier in the context of Philip and Elizabeth’s new assignment. Each take turns traveling to Topeka to ingratiate themselves with two AgriCorp employees, and at least in Elizabeth and Benjamin Stobert’s (Brett Tucker) scenes together, the first of which is a fabricated meet cute inside a health food store, viewers are almost subliminally tasked with contemplating how, for any of Philip and Elizabeth’s targets, ending up in a Moscow supermarket trying to decipher the words on cans of food is something close to a best-case scenario. If “The Midges” was the last we’ll ever see of Martha, it was in retrospect a poetic and merciful goodbye.
But back to the yuks for a moment. I haven’t been paying too close attention to all the excuses The Americans has used to keep Henry (Keidrich Sellati) off screen, at least not as close as the Vulture has, but when Henry shows his face here, it’s with a self-consciousness that suggests the show’s producers have been listening to viewer concerns. Throughout his one scene, Henry is grandiose and petulant, bemoaning his home’s lack of cereal and telling Paige (Holly Taylor) that she can finish the piece of toast he throws into the garbage after getting into a tiff with his mother. Later, when Elizabeth has to run the faucet so she and Paige can talk spyworks, the necessity of keeping Henry off screen is understood to be an unmistakably practical one for the series: If Henry were always home, The Americans would play, week in and week out, like a one-hour sleep therapy session.
The episode is unique in the canon of the series for the sterling self-reflexivity of its sense of humor.
At times, though, the humor and pathos of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” run hand in hand. If Philip’s own meet cute with the other targeted AgriCorp employee, Deirdre (Clea Lewis), isn’t actually very cute at all, it’s seemingly by design. At a Topeka gym, he contrives to introduce himself to Deirdre by asking her how to operate the exercise bike he takes adjacent to her own. On the surface, Philip’s comical awkwardness isn’t exactly endearing, as attested to by the phone call he later makes to Deirdre, who’s noncommittal about meeting up with him the next time he’s in town. But the unspoken subtext of their initial interaction, which speaks to the show’s devotion to finding new layers to just about every aspect of its main characters’ lives, is that Philip is taking one for the team. He seems to be setting himself up for possible failure, and for pragmatic reasons: one practical, so that Paige and Henry can at least have one parent reliably at home to tend to their needs; and one less so but equally empathetic, so as to allow Elizabeth her turn at whatever satisfaction either of them get from pretending to love other people.
Empathy is a theme that connects this densely constructed episode’s plot strands. Ominous as they may seem to Misha (Alex Ozerov), the men who seek to smuggle him out of Yugoslavia are doing so at great risk to their lives—and when they succeed, a calm washes over him that resembles a silent ecstasy. Over in Moscow, the same sense of decency that Oleg (Costa Ronin) displayed when he broke rank with his government by refusing to abide by its bioweapons program manifests itself when he asks his boss (Oleg Stefan), and in the presence of his new colleague, a very experienced interrogator named Ruslan (Ravil Isyanov): “Isn’t there another way?” The OBKhSS has learned the identity of the man who’s supplying Ekaterina Rikova (Alla Kliouka), the department head of the supermarket Oleg investigated in “The Midges,” with her quality food products. The man, it seems, has a son in Afghanistan, and Oleg feels that that’s reason enough to go “soft” on him for any fraud that he may have committed against his country.
Ronin is haunting throughout his scenes, especially in the one where Oleg reveals, with great trepidation, to his perpetually worried mother, Yelena (Snezhana Chernova), that he’s in trouble and could be going to jail. An existentially fraught veil continues to hang over Oleg, and by the episode’s end it looks as if Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), inspired by a conversation with Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), has figured out a way to ensure that everyone winds up happy, and by confessing to the very crime—the murder of Vlad Kosygin—that’s tugged at him for so long. His ultimate, and expertly calculated, act of reclamation may mean that at least one of the show’s outstanding commitments has been finally resolved.
Something, though, that will continue to be a work in progress, and long after this episode, is Paige and the very essence of her being. Emphasis on work. In a remarkable scene set inside the home of Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife, Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt), Paige’s mentor pulls from a shelf a copy of Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The pastor reads from the book to the babysitter who will, unbeknownst to him, rummage through his things for evidence of his thoughts about her parents and their ideologies: “Labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means of satisfying needs external to it.” Paige doesn’t understand the line, or maybe she does and wishes that she didn’t, because it would mean admitting that she’s essaying not of her own volition this new version of herself. Marx’s line handily assesses where Paige is right now in this moment, but it more profoundly attests to the very logistics of this remarkable episode’s level of craft and to its understanding that there is no harder work in life than the act of sacrifice.
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