There’s nothing like an incredibly satisfying denouement to a TV episode: The creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce at the end of “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” (Mad Men); Jesse Pinkman calling 911 to rescue a little boy from his neglectful meth-head parents in “Peekaboo” (Breaking Bad); and now, Elizabeth Jennings admitting, out loud, that her chosen profession has put her children’s lives at risk in “Cardinal” (The Americans). There was plenty of tension throughout the episode – it’s impressive Elizabeth found the time to play a board game with her kids, let alone mentor a young Sandinista in the middle of all her paranoid window-watching. But instead of a shocking death or revelation, the big buildup only led to a bedroom confession to Philip: “All these years, I never worried about Paige and Henry being safe.” Because for all the high-impact excitement of scenes filled with brush-passes, bewigged sex and Margo Martindale smackdowns, The Americans is more a show about a marriage and family than it is about the good ol’ days of the Cold War. It’s a shame it took the death of an innocent teenage girl (Emmett and Leanne‘s daughter, Amelia) for the Jenningses to realize their biggest fear shouldn’t be whether or not their kids embrace capitalism, but whether or not they’ll live long enough to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At least now there could be a whole new – dare I say it, humane – dimension to Philip and Elizabeth’s spy work.
Speaking of Indy, although every Americans episode is a nostalgia trip for anyone who came of age in the Reagan era, “Cardinal” was so jam-packed with distracting early Eighties references that unless you were paying close attention, it was easy to miss some actual plot movement. Still, it’s hard to care about some propeller factory changing locations when a character is reading a Time magazine cover story about a blippy newfangled game revolution that’s already turned young’uns like Henry off from classic family pastimes like LIFE. (Note: Between the cover date of that particular issue of Time and Rezident Arkady dictating a memo regarding the mysterious World Bank employee “walk-in,” Bruce Dameran, this episode firmly establishes the action as taking place in late January 1982, as opposed to fall 1981 as previously stated.) However, Elizabeth’s brief detour from taking the kids to see Raiders of the Lost Ark to help out a Central American freedom fighter in need was a nicely added global dimension to what at times can be an oversimplified view of the Soviet Union vs. United States geopolitical situation. “Your revolution is beautiful,” Elizabeth tells the “graduate student from Costa Rica,” after advising her to refrain from smoking cocaine with congressional aides in the future.
While Elizabeth has her hands full with – or, rather, down – the passed-out congressional aide’s throat and giving the Sandinista some free on-the job advice (“Don’t party with him anymore. Be his girlfriend”), Philip goes to Chesapeake, Virginia, to get some answers regarding Emmett’s and Leanne’s deaths. The bug Philip had Martha place in Agent Frank Gaad‘s office last season has already cleared the FBI of suspicion, so the next move is to track down the man with whom Philip did the amusement-park brush-pass, Fred Timbrook. Philip’s visit to Fred’s house produces little more than guest appearances by a vintage Playboy magazine with a cornrowed Bo Derek and an AT-AT Walker model kit. But, other than establishing he too had nothing to do with Emmett’s and Leanne’s murders, Fred does offer one vital piece of intel: The propeller information he handed to Philip in the Bayer aspirin bottle during the brush-pass? It’s time-sensitive – the factory where the propellers are being grinded is moving, so Philip and Elizabeth need to act immediately if they’re going to step in where their friends left off before their untimely expiration.
Philip and Elizabeth aren’t the only ones who have a vested interest in these propellers, though. The new KGB Line X director, Oleg, stops short of throwing a tantrum when he’s barred from joining Arkady in a meeting that addresses the murder of two Directorate S operatives. Turns out that Bayer bottle contained items “critical to the science and technology mission.” So, he does what any cunning spy would do – flirt with the pretty female agent who has also been excluded from the “cone of silence.” Nina could not be more bored with Oleg’s small talk about Blondie and demonstrates that it takes way more than lame patriotic pickup lines like “I’m a feminist. I work only for Mother Russia” to get a good Soviet girl into bed. Besides, Nina’s sexual preferences seem to lean toward tall, handsome all-American FBI agents like Stan, anyway. Despite her still-impenetrable gaze and her ability to provide Stan with just a mere hint of information to whet his appetite (one mention of a “walk-in” to the Soviet Embassy and next thing we know, Stan and his colleagues have combed enough surveillance footage to ID Dameran), Nina’s emotions begin to betray her as she types up her latest report for Arkady. The cold clinical description of how she “serviced the subject orally before allowing him to penetrate [her]” belies the replayed rendezvous in Nina’s head, which has her and Stan tenderly making love at their “safe house.” And unless Nina is actually a way better spy than Elizabeth (which isn’t beyond the realm of possibility), she seemed to be enjoying it.
It’s these little cracks in the missions, at the hand of human emotion, that are what drive the narrative of The Americans. For the first time, Philip abandons his scheduled visit to Martha – potentially harming his relationship with such a crucial FBI source – in order to return home to be with Elizabeth and the kids. Placing love over duty, as I suggested last week, can be a deadly choice for the Jennings family. If anything, “Clark” should be spending more time with Martha, especially since she’s voiced an interest in possibly leaving the counterintelligence department. And what good is a sham marriage if you’re not at least getting something out of it? Then again, now that Paige has done some sleuthing work on her own (calling the operator to get the address and phone number of “Great-Aunt” Helen Leavis), perhaps some increased family time isn’t so bad after all.
Previously: Comrades in Arms