The Americans: Season 2, Episode 11 - “Stealth”
May 7, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (EST), FX
“Stealth,” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, all about people struggling to be seen or to remain unseen, to be noticed and acknowledged or to remain in the shadows. It has a lot of heavy lifting to do to set up The Americans for the final two episodes of this season, and yet it manages to be an incredibly tense, subtle, and thrilling hour of television all the same. Larrick continues to haunt the edges of this show like a malevolent spirit, slowly and methodically dismantling the Centre’s entire DC network. Philip uncovers the ultimate secret of RAM (from Zeljko Ivanek, who is predictably excellent as a terminally ill former designer on the project). Elizabeth works to keep her identity a secret from Jared, even as Kate has clearly revealed more to him than she has told the Jennings about. Things are coming to a head in “Stealth.” Poor decisions are finally coming home to roost. Our characters have all found themselves shrouded in darkness over the course of this season, and now that darkness is seeping into the parts of their life they try to keep compartmentalized. The rot is spreading.
This is perhaps never clearer than in Nina’s story, which is finally approaching the climax it briefly flirted with at the end of last season. Arkady is manipulating both Nina and Oleg in hopes that one of them will push Stan to finally actively betray his country. He threatens Nina with deportation and a trial in Moscow unless she can convince Stan to give them the Echo program, and then finally drops the bomb to Oleg about just how precarious Nina’s position might be. It seems abundantly clear to me that Arkady understands more about Oleg and Nina’s relationship than they think he does, and he is using that to his advantage. Nina has been living in gray areas for the entire life of the series, becoming a double, then a triple agent, always dance one step ahead of the blades that are swinging at her. We always knew this wasn’t a dance she could do forever. On some level she knew it too. Nina has been angling for an exit strategy from every direction—asking Stan to extract her last season, confessing to Arkady in hopes of absolution, seducing Oleg for his powerful connections (and I do not buy that there isn’t at least some ulterior motive to their relationship)—hoping to stay alive just long enough for an opportunity to escape to prevent itself. Now her back is against the wall. Arkady has given her an ultimatum. Oleg tells her to turn Stan or run. And Stan, whose life is the shambles the Russians hope, tells Nina that nothing will ever tear them apart. What exactly that will mean remains to be seen, but Nina Sergeevna’s vulnerabilities are more apparent than ever, and on this series, showing weakness rarely bodes well.
This season has been methodically isolating Stan Beeman, taking away everything that matters to him until even that commendation doesn’t seem to pierce his loneliness and sadness. All that he has left is Nina, and he clings to her in that safe house like a buoy in a storm. This season has been playing slowly with the idea that, in the right circumstances, anyone could be turned, and been pushing Stan closer and closer to those circumstances. His wife is considering leaving him. His work has become mired in bureaucracy and threatened the livelihood of the one man truly trying to get things done. Stan risked his life for his nation, and all he got was a lousy certificate, handed to him on the sly, because no one is really proud of what he’s done. He solved a problem, but not in s way that can really be vaunted. Stan is, increasingly, unseen, a ghost in his own life. This slow disappearance makes barriers that used to be impermeable seem less difficult to cross (after all, ghosts can walk through walls). Stan has nothing left to live for, or to fight for, except for Nina. He joined the FBI to fight bad guys, but it is getting harder for him to see who the real villains are. It’s getting harder for him to be seen as a hero.
The Americans is all about what we see and what we don’t when we look at another person, what we can know and what will always be conjecture. The greatest liar in the world will look more honest than someone telling the truth. The best monsters are indistinguishable from men. As spies, Philip and Elizabeth have lived decades undercover, hoping to never be seen as they truly are. The search for the perfect stealth technology that has underpinned so much of this season’s plotting, is a perfect metaphor that never feels shoehorned into the story. This is a show about hiding in plain sight, about lying for a living and then being asked by your family to tell the truth at home. It’s a show about how much of yourself that would swallow up. And this is a season about the way the best stealth in the world would make whatever its hiding functionally disappear.
The other way this theme has been explored this season is through the foil of Henry and Paige, who are just reaching an age where they are beginning to find themselves as real people. Paige has a heart-breaking moment in “Stealth,” when she expresses this burgeoning struggle for self-expression. “I understand you have control over me. What I do, where I go, and who I see, until I’m eighteen,” she tells her parents solemnly, “But who I am, and what I think and feel and believe, is mine. I’m me.” Beliefs can come to define us, to make up our complete identity. Stan Beeman saw himself as a patriot. Philip and Elizabeth believe themselves to be soldiers in a war for a just cause. Oleg sees himself as a dedicated model for the next generation of the Soviet Union. Yet each of these people has been forced to learn that these beliefs do not encompass all of them, that even their most dearly held ideologies can be compromised in the right circumstances. Set up the exact chain of dominoes, and they’ll all come tumbling down.
Early in “Stealth,” Kate reveals herself, her real self, to Jared (probably not for the first time, but this is a revelation for us). She comes out into the open in a way no one on this series ever really does, and by episode’s end, she has lost her life. The two aren’t necessarily tied (although, of course, they are: Larrick wanted to kill Emmett and Leanne, and Kate’s last act is to try to save Jared from the same fate), but they underline the costs of living in the world these characters do without a strong coating to cover up your real self, to disguise your vulnerabilities, to keep your weak spots unclear.
Season two of The Americans has also returned, again and again, to the idea that Philip and Elizabeth’s real selves are starting to reveal themselves through their various disguises. They sublimate their real selves for the cause, but their true feelings still manage to seep through. Philip gets something he can’t get from Elizabeth when he has sex with Martha; Elizabeth gets to vent on the pain of her sexual assault when trying to pull out information on Larrick. She can discuss her marital troubles while posing as a new member of AA; he can discuss his disillusionment with his country in the guise of an embittered Vietnam vet. Two moments in “Stealth” define this episode, and this season I think. The first is that little Paige moment, culminating in her timid declaration, “I’m me.” The second is the exchange between her father and Skeevers, a man who proves very easy to break: “Who are you?” “Does it matter?” For a young girl just finding herself, that is enough for the moment. But in a world as complex, confusing, and malleable as this one, identity itself becomes more slippery. Who are the people in your lives, in their hearts? Who are you, really? Do you know (and if so, are you nearly as sure as you first think)? Does it matter? It’s easy for this line of questioning to devolve into nihilism, but this season is showing us that who you are does matter, always matters, must matter, even if you try very hard to make your true self disappear.
- -“Marriage. No time outs.”
- -“They say it’s unrelated, my cancer. Anecdotal.”
- -“What’s it say?” “Get Jared out.”
“Stealth,” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, all about people struggling to be seen or to remain unseen, to be noticed and acknowledged or to remain in the shadows.