The Americans doesn’t know the meaning of sophomore slump. It had a stellar first season, a season that kept raising the bar every week and then successfully clearing it. It is a tricky show to do properly — the spy aspect ran the risk of coming off silly (it doesn’t help that The Americans shares a network with Archer), the show could have been violent for violent’s sake (and I admit that I thought that a few times last season), and, if not done carefully, the marriage/family parallels could have lost all subtlety. Yet The Americans surpassed my expectations and has been going strong this season, too. Six episodes so far, barely any missteps.
Every episode is engaging, every scene is beautifully (if not darkly) shot, and every line of dialogue seems polished to perfection. “Behind the Red Door” is another example of this and I’m steadily getting more and more impressed at the hot streak The Americans has been on.
Elizabeth and Philip are still struggling with solving the murder of KGB officers Emmet and Leanne. They think they have come close with Naval Officer Andrew Larrick but he denies responsibility. He wanted to kill them, sure, but he didn’t. I like Larrick — not as a person, of course, but as a character and an enemy on The Americans. He’s so cocky, so straightforward, and he thinks he’s more clever than Philip and Elizabeth which makes him a great person for them to try to take down. He’s mentally tougher than most of the people they target, and it makes for a better episode. He returns toward the end, at a gay bar. “You’re not CIA,” Larrick says simply and confidently.
The kicker here is from Claudia, though. “If Larrick didn’t kill Emmet and Leanne, who do we look at next?” asks Elizabeth and Claudia plainly responds “Me.” Claudia admits that she got “involved” with someone (“This business can be lonely.”) and it may have resulted in compromising their safety. “You’re lucky to have [Philip],” Claudia says in the final scene of the episode, before saying goodbye. Is this the last we’ll see of Claudia? I wouldn’t be surprised.
As always, the most engaging storylines for me are the domestic and marital ones, not the espionage out in the field. In “Behind the Red Door” Elizabeth is still preoccupied with “her” meeting with Martha last week, when Martha got drunk and shared that Clark is a “wild animal” in bed. Sure, Philip and Elizabeth have been getting it on more than usual this season — FX sure loves those post-coital shots — but now Elizabeth can’t help but be a little jealous and a little curious about what Philip as Clark is like in bed. She goads and pries, only to be interrupted by the news that Paige quit the volleyball team because she “lost interest” and then, right after, interrupted by a work call. Oh, it’s hard to have sex with your husband’s alter-ego when you have to parent a newly-religious child and also do a bit of murder on the side.
This episode also teaches us more about Lucia, a new agent (that Elizabeth previously helped out) that has sex with and then kills a Congressional Aide. It runs alongside the further introduction of Nina, the new handler who is perhaps just as green. Elizabeth goes into a type of mothering mode when she talks to Lucia, Philip just wants to teach Nina to order more “American” drinks when they’re at the bar.
But Elizabeth and Philip remain the most captivating characters, as they should be. In what is sure to be the most talked about scene, there’s a bit of roleplay where Elizabeth wants Philip to “be Clark” and engage in some of the animalistic behavior that he does with Martha. It’s an uncomfortable scene for many reasons —Elizabeth regrets it almost immediately, it’s not at all what she wants, and it’s reminiscent of her own rape (something that I thought would remain in the background as it did for much of the first season, but is creeping up in plenty of scenes this season). It’s unnerving and brutal.
It also says a lot about their marriage and the way it’s gone from a business deal to something real, where Philip and Elizabeth are actually in love — and that’s what causes her to ask for this and what causes him to follow through, even though both have to know that it’s not exactly the best thing they should do. It’s a scene that ends with Philip in the bathroom, disgustedly pulling off his Clark costume. In a devastating shot, Elizabeth is seen from above, laying in a near fetal position, crying softly while the fan slowly spins above her. Later, in the kitchen, when she asks “Are you mad at me?” It’s a killer. This show is diving deeper and deeper into this marriage and it’s harrowing.