This post presumes you've seen "Pastor Tim," the second episode of the fourth season of The Americans. If you haven't, read this review of the new season instead.
Does anybody really care about poor Pastor Tim?
Todd VanDerWerff: One of the nice things about "Pastor Tim" is how completely unexpected it is. The episode's titular character found out in season three that Paige's parents are Soviet spies, and The Americans easily could have delayed Philip and Elizabeth finding out what he's learned for a half season or so. Instead, the two find out in the second episode of season four, and the show is off to the races.
Of course, this hints at what will likely be a weak point of the season for many: Pastor Tim is far from The Americans' most beloved character. He's always been presented as an obstacle to the Jenningses' mission, and that means it's easy to slot him into the "antagonist" role.
When I posted a silly tweet about the characters I feel the most empathy for on The Americans, lots of people were surprised at how highly I ranked Pastor Tim.
Americans characters, ranked by how intensely I feel emotions for them. (Inspired by @soniasaraiya.) pic.twitter.com/4duhJa1OSu— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) March 16, 2016
But think about the circumstances from his point of view! Through no fault of his own — indeed, because he's really, really good at his job — he's wandered into a situation where he's more or less screwed. It's an extremely slow-motion version of that scene from last season where Elizabeth kills the old woman with her heart medication. Sure, it's been going on since season two, but I can't imagine it ending any differently.
How do the two of you feel about the series leaning into one of its most irritating characters like this?
Libby Nelson: I was one of those people who gaped at you about that tweet. Pastor Tim over Stan?! Pastor Tim bores me, perhaps because I don’t have a sense of who he really is beyond a foil to the various Jennings family members.
The Americans typically shows us how every character believes they're the hero of their own story — not just the principals, but Paige (conversion story), Martha (romantic drama), Sandra (a midlife coming-of-age tale) — and then as the secrets come out, they realize they’re not in the kind of story they thought they were in, not at all. I don’t know what narrative Pastor Tim tells about himself.
And I think he might live to see many more days. If Philip and Elizabeth hadn’t already spent months antagonizing him, I’d say they should even try recruit him. I looked up the CISPES brochure we saw in his drawer — it’s the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a group that fought US intervention in El Salvador and was infiltrated by the FBI on suspicion of being a communist plot.
But, uh, speaking of more compelling storylines. Was Philip strangling the airport security worker on the bus one of the most harrowing — and risky, for Philip! — scenes yet? And is he going to murder someone with his bare hands in every episode of season four?
The uselessness of Philip's mission is a perfect illustration of his feelings
Caroline Framke: The worst thing about Philip having to kill a man who almost blows his cover is that it ends up being for nothing. Since the courier bails on taking the potential bioweapon, Philip has to hang on to it, bringing him right back to where he started — the only difference is that he's killed someone.
The total uselessness of Philip's mission in this episode is the perfect way to illustrate how awful he's feeling. He kills a perfectly innocent person, and he doesn’t accomplish anything. He does his job and does it well, but it’s slowly destroying him and he has no idea how to stop it.
And while we don't get quite the same vivid actualization of how Paige is feeling (though Elizabeth’s dream comes close to depicting it), her panicked admission to her mother about telling Pastor Tim the truth is maybe the most blunt we’ve ever seen her. "This is killing me!" she yells, but she’s not angry so much as she is terrified.
Nina says it best: "I’m not who I was." More than ever, everyone on The Americans seems to feel their seams showing — but no one has any idea how to stitch themselves back together.
(On a side note: I love that Pastor Tim is everywhere in this episode, even though Kelly AuCoin, who plays him, never once shows up.)
These days, I’m worried for every character on the show, all the time. "Pastor Tim" ends with Elizabeth asking if she and Philip are in trouble, and you can feel her exhaustion. They’ve escaped tight corners before, but between Pastor Tim knowing who they are and having to sleep knowing there are bioweapons in the basement, the Jenningses have never been closer to totally blowing up their — and everyone else’s — lives.
How risky do you think it is for The Americans to bring its characters this close to the edge, this early in the season?
Libby: I totally agree — watching this show has never been a relaxing experience, but it’s pacing-the-room stressful now. How much longer can this go on? A climax seems imminent, and I’m talking days, not weeks or months.
Have you noticed that time is moving really slowly in the Jennings family's world? Season four picked up right where season three left off; Paige isn’t even over her jet lag. The first two episodes of the season have taken place over only a matter of days.
Dramatically, this might be necessary: People can get used to anything, and even the most earthshaking revelation eventually becomes background noise. But it also heightens the feeling that we’re very close to a breaking point, and it's startling to remember there are 11 weeks to go before the season four finale. How much more can the tension build up?
Caroline: When I talked to series showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about season four (for a piece that will run next month), they specifically pointed to this heightened tension as an especially important part of their vision.
They had always taken time between seasons to reset the status quo a little, but this time they had so much momentum going as they approached the end of season three that they decided to run with it — and it definitely makes the walls feel like they're closing in.
Libby: I hate future binge watchers because they’re the reason for The Americans’ tragically low ratings in the present, but man, am I jealous of them too. I wonder if in the future, seasons three and four will be viewed as one continuous experience.
Caroline: Having binged The Americans before, I have to say it is hard work. This show requires your constant attention even more than Mad Men did. Leaving aside the fact that it’s a spy show, with subtle dead drops and microexpressions that can betray characters with just the twitch of a smirk, a bunch of it is in Russian — so you can't really turn away from the screen. But as television veers more and more toward writing with binge viewing in mind, I’m so grateful for The Americans' insistence on detail and episodic storytelling.
Speaking of the Russian scenes: Nina broke my heart this week, as she is wont to do. On a scale from one to devastated, where did you two land on the Sergeevna scale in this episode?
Secrets are coming out all over, with devastating effect
Libby: When is Nina not devastating, really? Annet Mahendru’s ability to deliver a magnetic performance in two languages is stunning. We met Nina when she was a smuggler out for herself. Her changes feel earned and real — and how rare is it that her experience in a brutal, dehumanizing system has left her kinder and more humane?
The risk Nina takes to help Anton fits my impression that, suddenly, honesty is pouring out of all of The Americans' characters, setting off reactions they can no longer hope to control. I was stunned that Paige told Elizabeth so quickly about spilling her parents’ story to Pastor Tim. Nina’s inability to be the double agent, to play everyone off each other, is another good example.
But it scares me, at least with regard to their safety and well-being. Caring about another person, being your authentic self — those traits require you to accept that which you can’t control, and how much of your fate is out of your own hands. The skills that made Nina a smuggler and double-crosser also made her a consummate survivor.
Todd: Look at the difference between how Nina makes her revelation — with a kind of quiet defiance — and how Paige makes hers — with utter horror and embarrassment. The Americans, on some level, is about figuring out who you really are, and both of these young women have made choices that have caused them to have major revelations about themselves.
But (and not to make everything about Pastor Tim) I also love the way the Paige storyline plays out as a fairly normal domestic tale — of when you're a teenager, and your parents entrust you with something important, and you fuck it up.
This is something teenagers just do, because teenagers don't quite know how to adult just yet (which is not to say adults do either), and I love the way this setup almost plays out like something from, say, Modern Family, even if it's in the middle of a high-stakes spy game.
(Speaking of which, maybe Modern Family can return to prominence by revealing that all of its characters are spies.)
Libby: You’ve put your finger on what I like most about The Americans — that even if it features a lot more bare-hands killing than most of us encounter in our everyday lives, the characters’ deepest conflicts are much quieter and more universal.
All of us have kept a secret or hidden a part of ourselves from the world, or struggled with the idea that our parents are also people, or worried about passing the right values on to kids. The stakes might be different than risking exposure as a KGB agent, but they don’t feel lower, and that somehow makes The Americans' characters into people who aren’t just believable but relatable.
(Except Pastor Tim. Sorry, Todd.)
Todd: Just you wait until Pastor Tim is influential in instituting glasnost. You'll all see. He's the true hero of this story.