Spies, lies, and glanders: “The Americans” season four premiere

Season four of FX’s The Americans begins with a troubling image from Philip Jennings’ past. One might think his being a Soviet operative working deep cover in the U.S. would spark many a troubled dream, but the memory haunting Philip is one from his childhood.

Like many Russians during the post-war period, Philip (Matthew Rhys), endured grinding poverty, his much worsened by bullies who stole what little he had.

We know that the Soviet Union fought off Nazis on its own soil with little help from the Allies, losing millions of lives in the process. Another of the Allies, England, also resorted to post-war rationing. But seeing history in action brings a raw immediacy to the subject, for ten-year-old Philip, pushed beyond reason, finds a hunk of brick and kills one of his attackers.

As an adult spy living circa 1983, he’s killed several people, but that first one has stuck with him. He awakes in his suburban home next to his beloved wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), and still feeling disturbed, diverts her with a real-world problem.

Clark needs to tell his pretend-wife, Martha, about the death of her work friend, Gene, and so Philip-aka Clark-delivers the news. He tells her he had to do it and plant evidence that Gene was the spy in the office. This is not an IBM research lab we’re talking about; it’s an FBI office complex which has a counterspy operation on which the Soviet Centre wants to keep tabs.

Martha (Alison Wright), who only recently learned Clark is actually a Soviet spy, agreed to continue with the snooping, so learning that Gene’s death was the price of her protection came as devastating news.

Philip isn’t wearing his nerdy Clark wig when he tells her the news nor is he talking like a smooth operator. Perhaps he does have feelings for Martha. “Clark, we have to make decisions together,” she says, choosing wifely loyalty over spousal betrayal.

The next day, she makes copies at work of FBI surveillance records, a deed that pays off later in the episode. When news does hit the office about Gene a. being a spy, and b. an apparent suicide, agent Stan Beeman, who lives across the street from Philip, chats to Martha about Gene.

She responds, “You never really know a person, do you.” Truer words never spoken.

Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, Paige, has something in common with Martha: she knows the couple’s secret and is troubled by it. Her learning the truth was swiftly followed last season with a visit to West Germany where Soviet helpers managed to sneak in Elizabeth’s dying mother for one last visit.

Paige is, understandably, overwhelmed by the knowledge. As a newly minted Christian who still believes that one should never lie, she steps out of a classroom to avoid having to swear the required Pledge of Allegiance.

A more troubling development is her revealing her parents’ true pastime to her pastor, Tim. During one visit to his study, she admits she shouldn’t have told him. “They trusted me,” she says, but when he suggests her parents meet with him, she rebuffs the notion. “We can’t tell anybody else, ever.”

Unwilling to place faith in Pastor Tim’s discretion, Elizabeth sets up a mobile eavesdropping post to listen in on the pastor and Paige. Some mothers have to worry about their daughter’s boyfriends. Not Elizabeth. Jesus, Pastor Tim-and Uncle Sam-are what’s keeping her up at night.

Elizabeth does have a kindly figure in her life, Gabriel, who is her and her husband’s undercover handler. Although Gabriel (the soulful Frank Langella) looks out for the pair by running interference between them and the Centre, he’s had his hands full trying to explain away Elizabeth’s rogue operation to see her mother. “If you can’t work with me, I’ll simply go back into retirement and get you another handler,” he chides, to which Elizabeth says with chagrin, “We want you to stay.”

That piece of business concluded, he’s on to the show’s main story line, which concerns biological weapons. “We’re not allowed to make them, we signed the treaty, but we think the Americans are making them, so we make them, too,” he tells the couple, who realize they’re now on the case.

President Nixon officially decommissioned the U.S. military’s bioweapons program in 1969, and signed the Biological Weapon and Toxin Convention (BWTC) in 1972. Since the show is sticking with its 1983 time frame, its producers are either taking artistic license or reflecting the view of those who claim that the U.S. was and is doing more than making antidotes and vaccines for enemy-delivered bioweapons.

Gabriel explains that a Soviet operative is unable to continue meeting with a dissident bioweapons researchers due to U.S. surveillance having perhaps identified the operative.

We’re talking about deadly germs, American-made instruments of terror, so when Gabriel displays syringes of vaccines for meningitis, Philip and Elizabeth wisely roll up their sleeves.

Meanwhile, Nina (Annet Mahendru), the disgraced embassy employee sent back home to face justice last season, is dealing with the impact left by three men in her life, but unlike Elizabeth, she’s thus far on the losing end of the equation.

She is still working at the Soviet computer research facility and talking to a renegade scientist who had been forcibly extricated from the US.

He admits that he was a shitty husband to his wife in the U.S., and then talks to Nina about being shown the prototype of an aircraft wing he designed, a type of Stealth fighter wing. Nina, who seems to be continuing her pattern of sex + spying, reports to her project head that the scientist is chiefly interested in his work. She’s holding back on giving more details, then she delivers her demand to see her husband.

Husband? That’s news to me. She had sex with FBI Stan Beeman at least partly as a means of ensuring the agent didn’t rat her out to the Soviets for smuggling, and then seemed to legitimately fall for Oleg, a handsome Soviet embassy official. No mention of a husband, as I recall.

The show has a habit of playing the long game, so although Nina doesn’t seem currently relevant to the main players, one suspects this will change.

Over at the Rezidentura (the base of espionage operations), director Arkady is dealing with a mystery of his own, for the radio room keeps being used by security pro Tatiana. Feeling out of the loop, he talks to Oleg about Tatiana, but he knows nothing.

Arkady (Lev Gorn) finally hits up Tatiana about his concerns and learns she’s with Department 12, a unit tasked with biological warfare issues. “If there are dangerous things going on, like germs and chemicals, I need to know,” he says, but gets nowhere with her.

And so it goes at first for Philip and Elizabeth in their effort to contact the dissident bioweapons researchers. The first street meet is called off at the last second by Philip, who thinks their contact could be under surveillance. On the second try, Elizabeth is the one who detects something is awry.

When later they study intelligence gathered by Martha, they find an open date where the scientist isn’t under surveillance. Other military-employed scientists are also being watched by the FBI, but this man is the actual contact.

Finally, Philip, who is wearing a face-swallowing beard, and Elizabeth meet up with the American scientist. Played by Dylan Baker, he comes to realize he’s stuck with this pair of strangers. He hands over a vial in a padded tobacco tin and tells them to deliver it to Gabriel within 48 hours.

The pathogen is a weaponized version of the equine disease called glanders. An alarmed Philip points out the shots he and Elizabeth received were to counteract meningitis. The scientist says sardonically, that glanders is “to meningitis what bubonic plague is to a runny nose.”

Philip, like his wife, has a lot on his plate, but he finds time to attend a self-help meeting where he shares a highly edited version of his childhood assault on the bully.

The moderator tries to offer guidance but Philip can’t share what really happened. Afterward, he meets at a café with Stan’s ex-wife, Sandra, a fellow group attendee. The moment, however platonic, is witnessed by Stan’s current girlfriend, who’s all too happy to run to the agent with intel about his ex-wife.

Stan, a retro male who thinks he’s entitled to know about his ex’s private life, confronts Philip in the Jennings’ garage and slams the smaller man against the wall a couple of times. Guess what Philip has tucked away in his pocket. The tobacco tin? You got it in one. Glanders for the neighborhood, everybody.

Philip decides not to risk damaging the vial, so he contents himself with telling the truth about having attended the self-help meeting where he saw Sandra. Stan seems unconvinced but he leaves.

The vial turns out to be undamaged, but now Phil is even more motivated by episode’s end to send the vial on to the next stop on the line.

The next stop for viewers? Next Wednesday on FX.

Photo: FX NOW


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.