Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of The Americans. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.
Love and death, Americans style
Todd VanDerWerff: It's sort of fitting that one week after The Americans ended an episode by taking a life, it ends "Clark's Place" with the act that creates it, as Philip and Elizabeth have passionate sex — during a montage scored to David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure!" — while they try not to think about how they're, uh, under pressure.
Sex is one of the most human, most alive things we do, and it's been curiously absent in this season of The Americans, at least until the end of this episode.
I'd speculate as to why that is, but I mostly wanted to point out how "Chloramphenicol" and "Clark's Place" function rather neatly as mirrors of each other, with Nina's death and Martha's potentially blown cover acting as ways to push the story to a new place.
Libby Nelson: I hadn’t noticed the glaring lack of sex scenes so far this season until the final moments of "Clark’s Place," but it is unusual for a show that has had so many memorable ones.
This season, when characters have connected it’s been through tortured and honest conversations. Still, Philip and Elizabeth seem to be at a point where words aren’t enough — and to me, that scene looked like two people clinging to each other on a sinking ship, grasping for normalcy as they realize how close everything is to falling apart.
When Elizabeth hiked up her skirt near the end of the episode, I also wondered if she was trying to stake a claim on Philip. I don’t know if Elizabeth can read lips, but when Philip told Martha that he loved her as they spoke on the phone, I felt like Elizabeth heard it — and knew that, in a way, it’s true. Just like it’s true, in a way, that Martha really is dating a married man who will never leave his wife.
Maybe one reason we haven’t seen sex scenes is that season four, so far, has been devoid of characters who are short-term assets in spycraft (with the exception of the endlessly delightful Young Hee, and, I suppose, William).
Todd, since you care about Paige and Pastor Tim as much as I care about the Martha-Clark/Philip-Elizabeth triangle, what did you make of their scene together? Am I right that she’s inherited a bit of the family talent for manipulation?
Todd: The problem of how to handle Paige and Pastor Tim is a tricky one for Philip and Elizabeth, because on some level both Paige and Pastor Tim are fundamentally good people who want the world to be a better place.
And while Philip and Elizabeth ostensibly want that too, it's easy to imagine that Paige and Pastor Tim's version of "a better place" involves much less murder than Philip and Elizabeth are responsible for. (As in probably no murder.)
Libby: Is this where I get to crow about how I totally called the El Salvador strategy?
Caroline Framke: Yes.
Todd: In some ways, "Clark's Place" represents an attempt to reduce the Pastor Tim storyline to a simmer (so others can take precedence for a bit), with Philip and Elizabeth's rather convincing performance for him with the not-really-a-priest, but I also love the way it's very slowly drawing Paige closer and closer to her parents.
Her subtle manipulation of Pastor Tim is another example of this. Blood is thicker than water, even if I'm still pretty sure the other shoe — the murder shoe, if you will — is going to drop and throw everything into chaos.
And, yes, Libby, please commence crowing.
Libby: I’m just saying that CISPES brochure was a big red flag, though I didn’t think it was going to conclude with a quite possibly fake priest. He was definitely a fake, right?
Even though the murder shoes are looming over our heads, this episode felt less tense — and a little less action-packed — than the previous one. It felt like an episode devoted to the aftermath of all that tense drama, filled with scenes where we’re not sure if characters are confiding in each other or working each other.
And now I get to ask Caroline if I’m right! Caroline, you spent a huge amount of time with this part of the story as you wrote about how an Americans episode goes from idea to reality. So give us your insider perspective. What role is this episode playing in the overall arc of the season?
In which Caroline takes us behind the scenes
Caroline: It's true — I spent six months living with "Clark’s Place"! It was fascinating, and only reinforced my suspicion that The Americans is the smartest-run show on television.
"Clark’s Place" is very much a series of reactions to "Chloramphenicol," and the final product was much more exciting than I even thought it would be, having read the outlines and scripts before any scenes were filmed. I also had no idea the episode was using "Under Pressure" until I saw it a week before it aired, which was just the best — and most fitting — surprise.
Sure, the song is on the nose, but as we’ve been saying all season, this chapter of The Americans is really about how this line of work takes its toll on the people involved, on an incredibly personal level. Letting everyone react to Nina’s death, having Martha fall even deeper into a double life, and ending on Philip and Elizabeth having desperate sex is all absolutely them "under pressure" — and something has to give.
Libby: Okay, so now I want to know everything about watching this get made. What surprised you? Are there things about the show you look at differently now?
Caroline: It's obvious The Americans pays close attention to the details, but I was still surprised by just how much consideration goes into, well, everything.
Everyone who works on the show is incredibly fastidious, to the point where Peter Ackerman — the writer of "Clark’s Place" — wanted to include a Trivial Pursuit question he found online about I Love Lucy, but cut it when he learned it wouldn’t have been in Stan’s March 1983 edition.
One especially cool thing about The Americans as a set and workplace is how much everyone respects each other. This is especially important for something like that final sex scene in "Clark’s Place," which was obviously more revealing and vulnerable — and directed by Stan Beeman himself, Noah Emmerich.
Libby: That Trivial Pursuit scene did two things: It made me care about Henry, which is a hard thing to do, and it made me want to see Philip having American pop culture cram sessions as part of his training.
Caroline: That reminds me: One thing the showrunners and writer made clear to me while talking about this episode is that while some people don’t understand how Henry can be off in his own world for so long without anyone caring, he is absolutely a product of the 1980s. A "latchkey kid," if you will.
Keri Russell was actually a little perturbed by how much he was off at Stan’s and not the Jenningses’ house, which prompted a quick script revision that made it clear Elizabeth and Philip were aware of the situation.
But as Henry gets older, I do kind of appreciate that he’s getting more screen time in a way that makes it clear just how far down the rabbit hole the rest of his family has gone. As they grapple with life and death and trust, he’s just playing video games. He’s still living in a world where spies are just cool stories in a movie or something.
How The Americans builds camaraderie between its male characters
Libby: It’s a little thing, but "Are you high, Mr. Beeman?!" cracked me up for so many reasons — not the least because it seems so right that Henry still calls Stan Mr. Beeman even though he’s practically living at Stan's house.
The scenes with Henry and with Young Hee felt like a breath of fresh air this episode, when the tension could otherwise get almost claustrophobic.
Caroline: Those scenes with Young Hee weren’t actually in any script draft I saw! That makes me think they were moved into this episode from either episode four or episode six — a strategy The Americans uses often, to restructure stories so they make thematic sense. In this case, it would have been to keep Elizabeth’s asset in our minds while Philip struggled with his.
Todd: Emmerich also directed last season's pivotal "Walter Taffet" (the one that featured Gaad discovering the bug Martha planted in his office and ended with Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain").
And while The Americans has a strong enough overriding visual style — tight shots that make most of the characters feel as if they're pinned down under glass — that it's sometimes hard to distinguish one director's contributions from another's, he has a real ease with the intimacy that has developed between these characters.
In particular, I was struck by the way he framed Martha all alone in her scenes. She's increasingly out to sea, and there's no real indication she'll be saved.
Caroline: As Russell put it when I asked her about Emmerich’s direction: "He seems to always come from a true sense of story."
Todd: He also has a good eye for the camaraderie between the various male characters. In particular, when we dropped back into the Rezidentura, it was the first time I've truly been engaged by that story in a while.
Some of that is just, y'know, Nina's death providing a natural window into that world, but some of it is the way Oleg and Arkady now have something to talk about.
Libby: I said I wasn’t interested in a post-Nina Rezidentura last week, but I might have to backtrack on that a little bit.
Oleg’s discussion with his father was such a great example of how The Americans plays variations on a theme — in this case, parents who are worried that they aren’t passing on their own values to their children. And it was flipped around and echoed again with the snippet we saw of Reagan’s speech, where the president was claiming that the military and public service were cool among American youth again.
I’m glad you mentioned that about male camaraderie, Todd. Stan’s scenes with Philip and Oleg were each moving in their own way. My whole body cringed when he asked Philip if Sandra had mentioned him. Oh, Stan. You never learn.
But this episode had some great female camaraderie as well, though I’m still not sure where Young Hee’s character is going.
Why The Americans handled its big death better than so many other shows
Todd: I've actually been thinking about this in the wake of the (justified) concern about how many female characters died on TV last week. While all of those deaths happening in such close proximity were a huge coincidence, I started considering why Nina's death on The Americans didn't bother many TV fans (including myself) nearly as much as some of the others.
The simple answer is that Nina's death was inevitable, but she also left behind a show with a strong bench of other women characters, who offer plenty for fans to invest in. Indeed, I couldn't help but think of that as "Clark's Place" began with Martha sitting, quietly stewing.
But there's also Young Hee, the very definition of a minor character, who at this point is far more important to the plot as someone for Elizabeth to bond with than as a part of the bioweapons arc (which increasingly seems to be about how the Soviet Union is doomed to fail at accomplishing everything it holds dear).
So even if the overarching spy plot is a little opaque, the underlying emotions are immensely satisfying. The Americans never feels cheap, and that's why it can do things like kill Nina and make fans sad without making them feel exploited.
Caroline: The Americans is very good at giving characters interior lives in very little time. Between the writing and the performances, so many characters who should be footnotes feel instead like real people we should be aware of. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of not just Young Hee but the Rezidentura’s Tatiana, whom I would not be surprised at all to see more of now that Oleg’s back in America.
I was actually sad to see that Nina got lumped in with the other female TV deaths last week. Her story has been so rich, and so complicated, that her fate absolutely wasn’t the product of a show deciding to kill someone for the sake of it. I think "the world of this show is brutal" can be a cop-out, but when you give horrific acts as much depth as The Americans does, I’m much more likely to understand the choice.
Libby: If anything, I think we got much more time with Nina than any of us might have expected. And I appreciate that The Americans explores all the ways you can be collateral damage even while you’re still alive.
Caroline: For example: If — and probably when — the show destroys Martha, I will understand why.
Libby: When Philip took the picture out of the apartment and walked away, I honestly thought he was going to just walk out of her life and never come back. He seems determined to save her, but as Stan learned when he joined counterintelligence and now has relearned, brutally, this can happen: You can lose someone.
Todd: Remarkably, The Americans has kept many, many, many characters alive long after I figured they would die.
A more trigger-happy show would have killed them long ago, but this series understands there are often fates worse than death. It's just a matter of figuring out what those fates are, then turning the screws. This show, above all else, understands that patience is its own kind of terror.
Programming note: Comments are open below! I (Todd) will be dropping in throughout the day to chat about this episode with you. Please join our fun!