The Americans had two narrative roads they could have chosen; to focus on the back alley waging of the Cold War or to focus on a struggling marriage against the back drop of back alley warfare. The first two episodes straddled that line, but this week it finally made its choice. And the right one, too.
While Beeman and the FBI figured out the identity of the Jennings’ fallen comrade, stalked his secret wife and generally drew closer to the Jennings themselves, Philip and Elizabeth were dealing with a decade long affair that threatened their newly established, fragile bond.
After discovering Robert’s secret wife and child themselves (though a coded message in the classifieds), Philip and Elizabeth needed to get to her before Beeman. So, Elizabeth enlisted the help of Gregory, a man we immediately knew she cared about and who cared even deeply for her (I’m sensing a pattern). We learned they’d met at a rally for Martin Luther King Jr. and Elizabeth had recruited him to the cause. She also confided in him, leaned on him, and found in him the emotional support she refused to let her husband provide. But, now that Elizabeth is finally interested in trying to make it work with Philip she ended it with Gregory, who did not take it so well. In the guise of caring for Elizabeth’s happiness Gregory confessed to Philip and he took it worst of all.
It seems that cheating within the confines of a cover is fine (at least excusable), but the fact Elizabeth told Gregory who she really was and shared things with she never shared with Philip hurt more than any physical relationship they had. At the end of the episode Elizabeth tried to explain herself, but Philip wasn’t interested in hearing it. We’ve been treated to many flashbacks already, but I’m hopeful that we’ll soon see the cause of Philip’s unwavering affection in the face of her coldness. Perhaps then we’ll better understand the level of hurt he feels every time he remembers how one sided this marriage is.
And, as Philip and Elizabeth maneuvered this rough patch, the backdrop highlighted the dangers spies face when they fall in love. Robert instructed his secret wife to contact the only people he trusted (though not enough to tell them about the secret wife) and while the Jennings did all they could to protect her, The Center had other plans. Their new handler (the incomparable Margo Martindale) promised that in return for completing the arms trade Robert was working on they would deliver his wife and child to the safety of Cuba.
But did anyone really believe that? I didn’t and I assume Philip and Elizabeth didn’t either, no matter how much they wanted to. Robert’s wife ended up dead in Philly and her baby was sent back to Russia, one more soul to be molded into the perfect Russian soldier. The situation is clearly not the same as Philip and Elizabeth’s, but the message is clear; The Center doesn’t care for emotional investments.
Focusing on the personal side of this conflict was the right choice because it’s the variable in the story. Sure, there can be tension in the chase, the will they get caught or won’t they, but in the end, whether they’re caught or not makes little difference in the greater scheme. We know who won the Cold War. But we don’t know how that war will effect the Jennings or their family and that’s what has kept, and will keep, this show compelling.