Upselling and down-strangling in ‘The Americans’

Another episode, another dead body.

In “Urban Transport Planning,” the pressure, always intense for our undercover couple of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, is ratcheting steadily upward.

The Soviets, represented by Elizabeth, need a particular type of radiation sensor that is a proprietary secret for the U.S. military.

Last week, she (Keri Russell) barely escaped a deadly encounter with a suicidal General Rennhull while seeking the sensor. This episode opens with her feverishly washing blood and brains off her face in the safe room used as an in-between stop between home and mission.

Once home, she lashes out at a visiting Paige (Holly Taylor) over her daughter breaking protocol during the mission. Philip has already tried to use his self-help manual bromides to Paige, but his wife is as always far more direct in her dealings.

Elizabeth wants to keep Paige safe, despite her chosen line of work. Her goals are in conflict, her fears are real, and while she’s generally been supportive of Philip (Matthew Rhys) having quit the spy trade, the stress of being the lead agent on operations is causing her to make mistakes.

She needs her husband, but as we learned in the opening episode, she is pledged to keep silent about her mission to provide critical intel for the Soviet side of the upcoming nuclear arms talks. She was even given a disguised cyanide capsule to use in case of being captured.

After Paige leaves, Elizabeth opens up somewhat, saying mysteriously that there’s trouble back home with (Soviet leader) Gorbachev.

“What’s the sensor for?” Philip asks.

Elizabeth has already said too much and she knows it. She must leave her husband in the dark in order to protect him, but as we learn by episode’s end, his idea of marital loyalty is quite different.

In a later beachside walk with Paige, a calmer Elizabeth answers her daughter’s questions about the incident with Rennhull.

“When you meet a source, you can’t always know what’s going on inside his head…he was caught up in something, wasn’t thinking straight. Truth is, I miscalculated, too. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Elizabeth elides the reasons why Rennhull was such a mess. After all, Rennhull murdered a fellow (actual) American several years ago in order to avoid being found out as a backchannel source. The pressure Elizabeth applied on him was nothing compared to what he had brewing all along.

When Elizabeth talks to her daughter about the dangers of her life, Paige wonders if she simply doesn’t care about whether or not she’s killed.

Elizabeth responds, “No matter what happens to me, it’s worth it, but yes, I do care whether or not I die, but you can’t live your life being afraid.”

She is consciously trying to prepare her daughter for the possible cyanide ending facing Elizabeth if she’s captured. Cyanide is already working in Elizabeth’s mind, infecting her every move.

In another walk, this time through a cemetery, she’s talking with the Russian orthodox priest who conducted the wedding ceremony years ago for her and Philip. He is an ongoing spy contact, but she also values him as a quasi-life counselor.

Elizabeth is an atheist, no bones about it, but this is a man whose counsel she values. The Elizabeth of old would have dismissed him outright. This woman, however, needs a nonjudgmental figure in order to deal with the stress fractures threatening to destroy her and her family.

She speaks proudly of her daughter, but when the priest asks about Philip, she says, “He has his life, and I have mine.”

The priest wants to visit with Philip, to help the couple heal their divide. However, as the use of Leonard Cohen’s dolorous song, “Dance Me to the End of Love,” during a pivotal scene demonstrates, this is not a show attached to the idea of happily ever-after.

Elizabeth displays a warmer side during her and Paige’s regular visit with Claudia, during which Paige learns to prepare traditional Russian stew of zharkoye. Her mother recalls, “It’s peasant food. My mother used to make it all the time.”

“Did you ever get sick of it?” Paige asks.

With a patient smile, Elizabeth answers that it wasn’t an issue, the unspoken point being that in her country’s post-World War II economy (England’s was hardly any better), a meal, however modest, was better than nothing.

Mother and daughter team up again in a later scene, this time to surveil Glenn, the U.S. negotiator we saw last week being concerned about his ailing wife.

This time, in a black wig and high-contrast makeup, Elizabeth looks nothing at all like the drowsy, drab home nurse who cares for Glenn’s wife.

She’s able to pull up a chair, unnoticed, at a table near Glenn and his table of both U.S. and Soviet negotiators. The mood is convivial, or least Glenn aims for that, despite his concerns over his wife. Along the way, there are indications he’s up to hosting one of the Soviets in his home for a social occasion.

This is an opportunity for Elizabeth to spy from up close, depending on the condition of Glenn’s wife.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has to extract his feckless Soviet source, Sofia, and her courier husband, Gennadi, when Sofia’s loose lips threaten to derail his old intel operation.

Thus prompted, both Sofia and Gennadi declare that they wish to defect, but in the aftermath, one wonders if Gennadi is willing to be separated from the capricious Sofia.

Stan then pays a visit to his Soviet friend, Oleg, a former KGB agent currently staying in Washington, D.C., and supposedly taking a college class in, you guessed it, urban transport planning.

Oleg isn’t having Stan’s apology for his role in the downfall of their mutual amour, Nina. Each expresses sorrow, but with Oleg, his emotions seem more haunted. He sees the beautiful Nina on a street, in the subway. “It’s always a shock,” he says, and the woman is always someone else.

As for the mostly sidelined Philip, this is an episode where one see how deeply he has inhaled the irrational confidence of American capitalism.

He has poured too much money into building up his travel agency, and spouts inane salesman boosterism designed to fool himself into thinking he has a knack for Western-style business. He doesn’t.

Thanks to his spy training, he can talk the talk, but quality spycraft depends on knowing oneself best of all. He doesn’t.

He’s a born zelig, who can blend into any situation. He’s not a leader, which is obvious during his ham-handed rant to his travel agency staff. Buzz words such as value, images and upselling waft through the air. He has the script down, at any rate.

And when he’s hit up by Sato, the financial head of his son, Henry’s, private school, for overdue tuition, Philip is able to bullshit his way into a delay. The delay won’t last long enough.

He’s over his head financially, and thanks to Oleg’s request for him to dig into Elizabeth’s mission, Philip is coming back into the game rusty.

Oleg said that Philip might need to stop Elizabeth from carrying out whatever the ultimate goal of her mission with the sensor and the U.S.-Soviet nuclear negotiations.

In one scene during the episode, Elizabeth tells Philip how much she hates it in the U.S., especially in contrast to how comfortable, how normal she feels when cooking and hanging out with Claudia and Paige. Their argument ends with no resolution.

Then in intercut scenes, we see the estranged couple carry out separate missions. In one, a disguised Philip meets up with Oleg in a park. To discuss what? Unaddressed by show’s end.

For a disguised Elizabeth, her meetup with a source ends with a depressingly familiar result. She’s pretending to be a security consultant who is expertly interviewing an employee about his company. Elizabeth needs the intel in order to plan out how to obtain the all-important sensor.

Crucially, the source mentions that his girlfriend is a security guard at the facility. Elizabeth’s course of action is unavoidable: of course he would mention Elizabeth’s cover story to the guard, which undoes the entire plan to infiltrate the site.

Once again, she must leap upon her target from behind, which is the only real point of attack for her in this situation. She must kill. There’s no mention as to whether members of her support team (including Paige) are staking out the location.

Regardless, Elizabeth is carrying out her role to the end, while Philip may be about to betray his wife, and thus bring about their downfall.

Catch ‘The Americans’ Wednesdays on FX.


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.