Spoilers for last night’s The Americans below:
Not to get all hippie on you, but if people understood one another perfectly there would be fewer wars, hot or cold. Yeah, there would still be competition for resources and ancient grudges and flat-out evil. But conflict is bred from misunderstanding, and it also breeds misunderstanding. If someone is your enemy, you assume the worst about their intentions, and more than that, you project your own worst tendencies onto them.
And because you’re enemies, you’re guarded from your adversary and he from you. You become black boxes to each other, boxes that you fill up with your least charitable assumptions and your own least-proud history.
That’s the dynamic behind “In Control,” which The Americans starts from an already-familiar milestone—the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan—and goes to a less-familiar place: What do the Soviets, and Elizabeth and Philip in particular, make of all this?
The title comes from Secretary of State Alexander Haig‘s aconstitutional claim to reporters that “I’m in control here” while Reagan was incapacitated. It’s a historical footnote now, a moment of chain-of-command slapstick that reinforced the idea of the gung-ho secretary as a loose cannon.
That’s how it may have looked here, but to the other side? It’s an incapacitated leader and a general—a top general!—claiming command of the government. It is, potentially, a coup. All it takes is taking your own history of less-than-gentle transfer of power and screening it through your worst perceptions of your mortal enemy.
We know how the story ends, but Keri Russell plays Elizabeth’s concern with such earnest intensity that I could have, for moments, believed I was watching alternative history. Maybe there was going to be guerilla warfare! This is what a top-tier drama, which The Americans is threatening to become, can do: make you accept its characters’ perceptions so thoroughly that they supersede what you know about reality.
Reality, as Elizabeth knows it, says this: things go to hell. A leader is incapacitated and all bets are off. We get a further glimpse of her past in a flashback to Stalin’s death, when her mother turns down a sexually freighted offer of security, in the form of canned goods. You have to rely on yourself, she says, a belief that now animates every inch of Elizabeth’s tense frame.
Elizabeth has been in this country for years. She sounds like us and looks like us; she has the outside gestures down. But America is still a black box to her. (Less so to Philip, who more quickly catches on that things don’t go down the way Elizabeth fears and imagines—maybe because his true belief in the cause has been shaken, although I look forward to the show filling in his background and worldview more.)
You can live in a country for years and years and yet have so much to learn about it. Not unlike a marriage.
By the same token, I’m loving the phase that we’re in with The Americans, the first stage of a relationship, in which we’re still learning about it and so it can still surprise us. The scene with the security guard, for instance. After the clock caper, you might think that we’ve learned the ground rules for this antihero show. Philip and Elizabeth are ruthless people, but they’re not monsters. They will go to certain lengths to avoid killing, especially the innocent, if they can. And by extension, after that episode, you might think you know how The Americans works. It’ll take the couple right up to the edge of cold murder, but at the last second it will yank the pillow away.
So when our couple got stopped outside Caspar Weinberger’s house, I just naturally assumed that, yes, it looked like they were in a tight spot, but obviously the show was going to find some way to have Elizabeth sweet-talk the guy out of HOLY SHIT SHE JUST SHOT HIM IN THE HEAD. Like that.
I like that The Americans–inverting the usual TV gender dynamic—has made Elizabeth the more fervent, committed hardass, and Philip the one more conflicted (though not too much so) about their mission and what it requires of them. It’s just one of the changeups The Americans throws at us; the show may not be entirely unique, but it departs enough from the standard formulas of cable antihero drama that I don’t know what to expect yet when I watch it.
And I mean that in the best way. I hope that The Americans matures into a great show that runs for years. In the meantime, I’m loving this early phase, in which it’s still a wonderfully disorienting foreign country.