Her Mission: Impossible? Elizabeth’s struggles on ‘The Americans’

“Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” is both the title of the episode and the FBI nickname for a troublesome pair of Soviets living in the U.S. who agent Stan Beeman pushed into defecting, a step ahead of them being found out as double-agents.

Being that the husband is a Soviet courier who’d been passing secrets to the U.S. and had once been a hockey star, he’s a prize catch. And a stinging blow to the Soviets, which is why undercover handler Claudia (Margo Martindale) assigns Elizabeth Jennings and her team the task of tailing Stan to find out where the FBI has the couple stashed.

Elizabeth (Keri Russell) can’t do the tailing herself, nor can she add daughter Paige to the rota. After all, Elizabeth lives across the street from Stan. Wouldn’t do for Stan (Noah Emmerich) to notice Paige tooling along behind him.

That’s how close the relationships are in this show. Stan plays racketball with Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys). Friends, neighbors, and (from Philip’s end) antagonists, although Philip’s mostly retired from the spy game.

How ironic that Stan, defender of the capitalist way, receives full-ride benefits courtesy of American taxpayers and can look forward to a comfortable retirement.

Phil, having chosen to turn his little travel agency into a would-be colossus, is staggered by the ensuing—and predictable—amount of debt. In an excruciating phone call, he has to tell son Henry that another year of private school may not be possible.

The show seems to be establishing the likelihood that Philip will betray his true country in order to pay off his debts. Too obvious a plot line, but we’ll see what happens.

In disguise, he meets with fellow Soviet Oleg Burow (Costa Ronin), a former KGB agent now seeking intel on behalf of General Secretary Gorbachev’s Kremlin faction.

The upcoming nuclear weapon disarmament summit between the Soviet Union and U.S. is triggering dueling efforts by Soviet factions to discover exactly what the other side intends to do to help or hinder their side of the talks.

Also to dig into U.S. strategies, but the spying is traveling in multiple directions these days.

As Oleg and Philip stroll through a shadowy park, Oleg compliments the latter’s English, then explains how he learned during his previous time in the U.S. that the Americans aren’t monsters.

“We can make peace with them,” he assures Philip, but inborn monsters aren’t necessary to populate even the most destructive of governing bodies and corporations.

The only requirements are belief and acquiescence. Belief that capitalism and the U.S. are one and the same, and the willingness to accept actions approved by those in authority.

The American dream’s shackles are invisible, yet powerful enough that Philip, who should know better, gladly clasped on his pair when expanding the travel agency.

Oleg wants Philip to rat on Elizabeth, who is doing her damnedest to snag a rare type of radiation sensor desperately needed by the Soviets, who fear sudden nuclear attack by the U.S.

While Philip betrays his wife by telling Oleg what little he knows about her mission, Elizabeth is breaking into a warehouse where the sensors are being kept.

On a nearby street, backup team Marilyn and Paige (Holly Taylor) sit in separate cars, but they can only wait and watch while, inside, Elizabeth realizes she’s triggered an alarm.

In a startling sequence, she strides along a corridor, pools of darkness welling up as she knocks out each overhead light. Then, in near total darkness, she shoots at least two or more security guards in an exchange of gunfire.

She managed to click-warn Marilyn by using the walkie-talkie. Following protocol, Marilyn sends off Paige, who this time does as she’s told.

Marilyn is made of stern stuff, but even she looks fried by the time Elizabeth makes it back to the car, safe but without the all-important sensor.

When Philip makes it home, Elizabeth and Paige are discussing the mission at the kitchen table. He’s snippy with them both before retiring to bed.

Elizabeth explains to her daughter, “He loves me, loves you, but somewhere, something got lost. This work…I’m so proud of you.”

Later, when Paige proposes working a young man she’s met who is a Congressional intern for the Armed Services committee, Elizabeth is quick to underline what she considers to be Paige’s career path.

“If you want to date someone, don’t mix roles. It’s most important to get you ready for working at the CIA someday, or the State department.”

By show’s end, we’ll see how well Paige observed her protective mother’s dating restriction. In this scene, as elsewhere, director Roxann Dawson continues her play of light and shadows in this portrait of a family frayed by choices made.

Philip’s one ongoing spy mission is to occasionally meet up in disguise at the house of a top CIA official where he’s established a quasi-paternal relationship with Kimberly Breland. No longer jailbait, collegiate Kimberly is paying a pre-holiday visit home. As usual, he steals away to replace a secret recording device in her father’s briefcase.

When later he reveals the contents of the tape to Elizabeth, she’s alarmed to learn that Kimberly won’t be back in town until Christmas. Given the high stakes of the upcoming summit, she is well aware of how important any intel can be, including that from Kimberly’s father.

Philip managed to avoid having sex with Kimberly years earlier, and their relationship has matured since then into a platonic one. But that may have to change in order to maintain access to the tape in her father’s briefcase.

Overworked as usual, Elizabeth continues to handle shifts as a home nurse with Erika, the cancer-stricken wife of a U.S. nuclear weapons negotiator.

Elizabeth has scraped up a little intel snooping through the husband’s papers, but a real break comes when the husband, Glen, is invited to a get-together to a baseball-watching party to which a Soviet negotiator is also invited.

He suggests that Erika come as well, then as the couple quibbles back and forth, Elizabeth volunteers to come along. “I’ve taken sicker people places…I think it’d be good for everyone. A change of scenery, some baseball.”

She secretly arranges for Glen’s jacket to be wired for recording conversation at the party.

Later, Elizabeth receives another art lesson from Erika, who muses, “I thought (when hearing the cancer diagnosis), at least I’ve got the work. It’ll be there forever. But, really, who cares. All those hours—honestly, I wish I’d spent them with Glen.”

The mission and the party doesn’t pay off for anyone involved. Erika throws up what appear to be coffee-ground emesis, which is a sign of upper gastrointestinal bleeding. She most likely doesn’t have long to live.

When listened to later, the tape reveals nothing of use. Another mission, and still more reasons, via Erika, for Elizabeth to question her acute work-life imbalance.

Back at home, the tired couple goes to bed. Philip finally comes clean about his problems with the ad agency.

“Maybe you just need to cut back,” she suggests. She is supportive, but not engaged, for the agency ramp-up was hardly her idea.

Here, as elsewhere, director Roxann Dawson displays her mastery of light and shadows, and how well she handles the hard-won intimacies of a couple in crisis.

Philip and Elizabeth are both troubled, both in for a sleepless night.

Paige, on the other hand, is young and comparatively unburdened. Earlier, she took her turn down a hotel corridor with a camera-equipped bag that allowed her to snap photographs of negotiators emerging from a room.

Nicely done. Her date with the Congressional intern goes even better. She’s ‘80s posh and very much the collegiate. Their kiss turns into a hook-up. The next morning, she smiles down at the sleeper, then her smile fades as she sees his intern badge.

When is a hook-up not a hook-up? When it’s the beginning of a honey pot operation.

Something tells me Elizabeth won’t be thrilled to hear about this.

Watch ‘The Americans’ Wednesdays on FX.


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.