Tuned In

The Americans Watch: Rides With Strangers

A kidnapping, or "kidnapping," adds more strain to Elizabeth and Philip's marriage, or "marriage."

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Craig Blankenhorn / FX

Spoilers for last night’s The Americans follow:

I didn’t have time to write a full, proper review of “Trust Me,” mainly because I’ve been on deadline writing a full, proper midseason review of The Americans for the print TIME magazine. But this installment was so good that I wanted to get something on the record before you all forgot about it, so here’s a quick, unpretty hail of bullets:

* You knew, I knew, everybody knew well in advance that Elizabeth and Philip’s abduction was a ruse by the KGB. This was not a failure of storytelling; if the producers wanted us to think anything else, they would not have kept cutting to scenes at the FBI, where Stan and his colleagues were entirely unaware of what was going on. But that freed us to focus on how the faux-kidnapping unfolded, and how it played out afterwards.

* One of the things that struck me most in that regard was Philip’s terror when the interrogation started. Or rather, Philip’s “terror”: clearly he wasn’t reacting genuinely but playacting how innocent, American travel agent Philip Jennings would behave if he were nabbed off the street, shoved into a van and tied up in a dark room. His commitment to character is complete, and as with a lot of things on this show, there was a parallel to Elizabeth in “Comint,” who took a beating from a perv and escaped only by screaming—because she needed information from him and because her “character” would not be able to snap his neck.

* Elizabeth fights with a knife, again, because that’s what you do on The Americans. Spy dramas have a lot of hand-to-hand combat, of course, but the violence on this show feels staged to be especially intimate—lots of face-to-face cutting, brawls in close hallways and close-up shootings. The Americans wants you to see its face when it kills you.

* Speaking of hand-to-hand combat: I didn’t dislike the kids-in-peril subplot as much as some other critics did, maybe partly because I liked the idea of showing the Jennings’ kids placed in actual peril because the KGB put their parents in fake peril. Elizabeth beat hell out of Claudia for nabbing her and Philip—and what a fierce scene for Keri Russell—but she would have killed her had she known about this. That said, my biggest problem was that the show had already gone to the child-perv well once in the pilot. (It was a nice touch that the show raised the idea, through Henry, that the guy may not have meant any harm; I don’t think we were meant to see it that way, though.)

* The dynamic in the Jennings’ fight wasn’t totally new—Elizabeth feels Philip has gotten too soft in America, he feels betrayed by her—but it underlined a big problem in their marriage, or “marriage.” What are the obligations of trust in a relationship that is a sham by design, in which you intentionally have avoided revealing real details about yourselves? Is Philip really going too native, or is he simply playing his role—a happy American—too well? What is the baseline for trust and honesty between two people whose entire lives are a performance?

* I’m giving Stan short shrift here—I always give him short shrift and need to make up for that sometime—but his closing scene with his wife was an example of the exact opposite problem. Like Elizabeth and Philip, he’s an actor—there’s that deep-cover white-power gig in his past he doesn’t like to talk about. But the way he’s dealt with that in his relationship is to tell his wife nothing, maybe so as not to worry her, maybe so as not to lie. It seems pretty clear that has not worked out much better.

* The Jennings’ crashing their car as a cover story was maybe more brutal than any fight scene I’ve watched in this show: how casually and stoically they strap in and resign themselves to bashing the hell out of themselves against a tree. Likewise when they come home, aching, and get ready for bed—just a couple of lugs with a sometimes-crappy job where, every now and then, you end the day with a few bruised ribs.