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The Americans season 4, episode 3: "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" takes some weird shortcuts

Elizabeth makes a new friend, Paige works Pastor Tim, and Philip spits on a man.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of FX's The Americans. If you haven't watched it, back out now, for spoilers follow.

Isn't some of what happens in this episode awfully ... convenient?

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in the FX show “The Americans.”
The show needs Philip and Elizabeth to stay in DC, so Gabriel comes down with a bad case of bioweaponry.

Todd VanDerWerff: So I have a little confession to make about "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" — or EPCOT, if you will: Of the four episodes FX sent out to critics before season four began, it was the one I liked least.

There are a few reasons for that, but the chief one is this: Gabriel seemingly contracting Glanders struck me as the kind of narrative convenience The Americans very rarely indulges in: The show needs a reason to keep the Jennings family in DC, so Pastor Tim stays alive, and by God, it's got a biological agent right there.

Caroline Framke: This episode very much feels transitional — almost like the first half of a two-parter, meaning next week’s fourth episode will be the one where things introduced this week will actually pay off.

Libby Nelson: On one hand I’d say it feels like a table setter, but on the other hand, compared with the first two episodes of this season, quite a bit happened!

Though I think Caroline’s right that none of what happens in "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" feels like it's quite paid off. And I’ll admit I’m a little bit surprised that the Chekhov’s gun of the Glanders vial actually went off so early.

Todd: That seems to be the narrative progression of season four: Anytime something is introduced, it will blow up in Philip and Elizabeth's faces sooner than you would expect.

But this quickened pace also suggests the danger of supercharging a story, like the show did with the Pastor Tim arc. You either have to start stalling to make it last an entire season or you have to ramp it up so much that you burn through whatever you still have left.

Granted, the latter seems unlikely to happen on The Americans, of all shows, but the former seems plausible.

Caroline: That also speaks to the show (uncharacteristically) blazing straight through from the season three finale to the season four premiere. But the writers were smart to use that momentum, and to make us sit with Paige as she grapples with this ​huge​ burden, rather than diminish it by flashing forward a couple of months.

This episode specifically seems to be connecting everything to season four’s continuing theme of: "Everyone is ​thisclose​ to losing it." Paige is at her wit’s end. Martha's on Stan’s radar in a big way, especially now that Gaad has noticed that some copies are missing. Nina is in a far-off cell, with seemingly zero options left to save her.

But the moment that sold me on how fucked everything is getting — before the Glanders of it all — was Gabriel sitting down with Claudia(!) and very firmly informing her that Philip and Elizabeth's cover is blown. That stunned me, even if Claudia did her own version of it back in season one.

Libby: To me, it was Claudia and Gabriel's acknowledgment that trying to recruit Paige was a mistake — which it obviously was.

But even given the fact that the last attempt to recruit the child of two Soviet agents ended with a bloody murder scene in a hotel room, I get the sense that the situation with Paige is going wrong in more ways than Claudia could have imagined. And no one even knows yet that Stan is inches away from discovering Martha's involvement.

Of all the stories unfolding so far this season, I might be most invested in what happens next to Martha. It really seems that Stan is at most one or two moves away from figuring it all out — and I don’t see how that’s actually tenable from a plot perspective.

Who's the most doomed on this show?

The Americans
Okay, yeah, probably Pastor Tim.

Todd: Martha, clearly, is doomed. But my question is whether she's act four doomed (i.e., she's one of a number of escalating bodies) or act five doomed (i.e., her death will be a huge, pivotal moment in the character development and downfall of Philip and Elizabeth and maybe even Stan).

I think it's probably the latter, which makes me think something monumental is about to happen there — maybe Stan flips her? That could be really interesting.

But I also don't want us to veer too far away from the Glanders plot without discussing the greatest scene in the history of television, which is Matthew Rhys spitting all over Dylan Baker. Emmys all around!

The Americans
Spit spit spit!

Caroline: Dylan Baker is amazing, and so is William.

I love how much the character actively hates what he does, which makes sense now that we know just how much it’s cost him. (His sense of smell! His "natural lubricants!" His ability to decorate his apartment beyond sad plastic boxes!)

In fact, he’s so good, and I’m so excited for next week’s bottle episode trapping him, Philip, Elizabeth, and Gabriel together, that I find it hard think about much else pertaining to this episode.

Libby: I’ve just realized that William’s weird apartment is a pretty potent symbol of all the ways that being a secret or double agent can poison your life and cut you off from even the most normal, everyday human emotions and experiences.

After three seasons of characters who are, to one degree or another, true believers, I find William refreshing — he seems to feel like he’s chosen the lesser of two evils, but that they are, actually, evils, something that all the characters new to the secret are just starting to figure out.

Todd: William is my favorite new character to appear on this show in quite a while, and he's a vivid reminder that the "humorless" criticism that occasionally (and unfairly) gets pinned to The Americans, even though it no longer happens as often as it used to, doesn't really carry a lot of water. William is so dryly funny, and in a way only an Americans character could be.

I want to pivot a little bit and talk about the episode title. Titles on The Americans are pretty important (the show also has some of the best on TV, as you'll see from visiting the Wikipedia episodes list, which has the titles of all 13 season four episodes), and I love the way "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" seems like it's going to be some Soviet thing — maybe what Anton is designing back in the USSR? — and ends up being ... EPCOT Center.

Libby: Todd, that took me so long to figure out. I probably shouldn’t admit that on the internet.

Todd: EPCOT also ends up standing in for something that's always present on The Americans: the thing you want to achieve or the place you want to get to that remains frustratingly out of reach.

The kids want to go to EPCOT. Philip and Elizabeth see it as a solution to (some of) their problems. And everybody else probably wouldn't mind heading to some shining city on a hill.

But just as EPCOT ended up being a bit of a disappointment in our reality, it also ends up not really delivering anybody in this reality.

The Jennings kids are still in danger. Yes, even Henry.

Philip and Paige on The Americans.
Philip tries to help Paige get ready to talk to Pastor Tim.

Libby: Speaking of EPCOT, now seems like a good time to talk about Henry! His role as the comic relief of the Jennings family seems more important (but less effective) than ever.

Someone was telling me recently that Henry was becoming one of their favorite characters, but I’m having a little bit of trouble investing in him and his obliviousness at all due to everything else going on.

Todd: Henry is one of the better-executed versions of a semi-amusing dark TV drama trope: the younger son who doesn't seem to realize things are weird.

Why is it always a son? Why is he always so oblivious? Who knows! But the only dark drama that had time for both of its kid characters was The Sopranos, and even that show only turned AJ into a character very belatedly.

Libby: At least Henry has escaped the Bobby Draper fate of being played by interchangeable actors.

Todd: Chris Brody practices his karate sullenly in the corner.

Caroline: Credit where credit’s due: Keidrich Sellati is much better than he has to be given his small, less complicated part. I don’t think Henry and Stan hanging out is going away, and look forward to that inevitable shitshow.

Todd: Yes! Stan giving Henry advice is turning out to be a weirdly durable plot line, and it gives Henry a very minor sense of stakes. (Also, he has stinky cologne now, so he's moving on up.) It's just that Paige is so integral to the show as a whole that the two siblings are hard to compare.

Caroline: On the topic of Paige, I really loved that small scene between her and Philip, when he basically coaches her through how to make someone an asset. It was smart to send him in (versus Elizabeth), and even though it broke his heart to do it, he gave her really solid advice about how to make sure Pastor Tim doesn’t push her away and turn in her parents.

We haven’t seen Philip and Paige interact much one on one, and I have a feeling that as Philip gets more and more disillusioned with his job, and Paige learns more and more about it, their relationship is going to be crucial to how things shake out.

Libby: He manipulated Paige a little bit, too, with the news that Pastor Tim did tell his wife — this episode really brought out the symbolic resonance between a secret and a biological weapon. Once it’s out, it’s out, and you can’t control it.

Speaking of assets, watching Elizabeth sell Mary Kay, I couldn’t help but think Philip could use an assignment where he gets to have a little fun.

How The Americans is a story of immigrants

Todd: That was Tony Award–winning actress Ruthie Ann Miles as Elizabeth's new contact within the Mary Kay circle. She's apparently going to reappear in many future episodes, if IMDb is to be believed, and I couldn't be happier. The Americans makes great use of New York's stage-acting community to fill its smaller roles.

Ruthie Ann Miles on The Americans
Young Hee is the friend Elizabeth needs.

Caroline: I loved​ Elizabeth and Young Hee together. Elizabeth clearly likes her as a person — that is, outside of whatever asset she’s going to be.

And while their time together in this episode was mostly just for fun, between the Mary Kay lunch and the family dinner at Young Hee’s, there were also a couple of moments that made me realize ​why​ Elizabeth connected to her so fast. That moment when Young Hee complains about her kids wanting Cabbage Patch dolls is followed by Elizabeth shaking her head a little and deadpanning, "That’s America for you."

Elizabeth is a spy, but she’s also an immigrant who had to get used to American customs at hyperspeed. While Philip was genuinely excited about buying a Camaro, Elizabeth was blinking at it, trying to figure out why the hell it mattered. She’s never felt at home in the US.

But as she tells Philip in this episode, they’ve built something here, and going back to the Soviet Union, where their kids would probably need ​years​ to adjust, isn’t a great option, either. She’s stuck between two countries, working for one, living in the other.

It’s not that she can (or will) tell Young Hee any of this, but it strikes me as important that Elizabeth has found someone she can commiserate with on the level of being an immigrant — even if it’s just about how ugly Cabbage Patch dolls are.

Libby: That’s such a great point — particularly because I thought this episode showed that in some ways Elizabeth has softened since Philip bought that Camaro.

In The Americans' earlier seasons, I got the sense that she would have jumped at the chance to get the kids away from America, though of course this isn’t how she would have wanted it to happen.

Caroline: Elizabeth is also unwilling to admit defeat, pretty much ever. It’s one of her biggest strengths ​and​ weaknesses. But I get where she’s coming from in this episode, in wanting to take the Center’s deal that they’ll dispose of Pastor Tim while the Jenningses are on vacation.

I think Philip’s right to be concerned about Paige — I might have done a tiny fist pump when he basically told her and Gabriel not to underestimate Paige’s intelligence — but I also think Elizabeth’s firm stance that Tim is too big a threat is completely fair.

Then again, maybe Elizabeth just doesn’t understand how Tim could be nullified as a threat through conversation, though Philip clearly does. We haven’t seen her develop an asset with long-term emotional manipulation like we have with Philip, who’s invested body and soul into Clark’s fake marriage. But who knows? Maybe Young Hee will be Elizabeth's Martha.

Libby: The one criticism you occasionally hear of Philip and Elizabeth is that they’re too good at their jobs. But if they’ve made one misstep over the past couple of years, it seems to me that it’s Pastor Tim.

The irony is that they would have been much, much nicer to him if they’d realized just what a threat he could ultimately be; it’s one thing for "Clark" to come out as a Soviet agent to Martha, in a relationship he’d been building for years, and another for Philip and Elizabeth, after years of pushing Pastor Tim away — remember Philip’s terrifying season two outburst? — to suddenly turn on the spy charm and realize they need him on their side.

So Elizabeth is right that he is too big a threat — but Philip is also right that Paige would see right through any coincidental accident. (Unless she’d be, deep down, a tiny bit relieved.)

Either way, everyone is in trouble.

Join us next week for a discussion of a surprisingly explosive fourth episode.