The Americans, Season 3, Episode 2, “Baggage”
February 4, 2015, 9pm (EST), FX
In life, things pile up. Issues get punted down the line, small grievances fester, the metric weight of being hurt by the world begins to weigh you down. The good things about your life, the small instances of kindness or the miraculous moments of triumph, can accumulate as well. Yet rarely do those feel as vast, complex, and ever-present as the little indignities and tiny cuts we all endure throughout our lives. “Baggage” is a fairly literal title for The Americans, and not only because Annelise literally ends up in a suitcase during its runtime. This is an episode about the way Philip and Elizabeth are weighed down by the choices they make, but also about the ways their baggage shapes their view of the world.
One thing that keeps the show as riveting as it remains is the way it manages to modulate the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth. They are a team, over the course of this series more than ever before in their lives, but that doesn’t mean they are a cohesive unit. Philip has always been more taken with the trappings of America, and his parenting opinions tends to come across as more American. He wants Paige to be happy and safe, to have a better life than her parents. He wants to shield her from the darkness in the world and let her be a person. Elizabeth (who last week remembered the moment when she tossed a terrified Paige into the pool for her own good) thinks of herself, and remembers that when her country called, her own mother did not hesitate to tell Elizabeth to serve. Now her mother is dying across the world and through the Iron Curtain, Elizabeth’s only comforts distant memories and tape recordings. There are consequences to living the life the Jennings’ do, and Elizabeth, with her dental issues and dying mother, her history of assault and her previous gunshot wound, knows that better than most. Yet still, she thinks of the cause, of her country, of the difference Paige might make in turning the tide in favor of the Soviets.
But “Baggage” isn’t just about the way the past shapes the Jennings’. It is also about the way that working with psychological scars becomes second nature to people in the espionage game. They carry their own baggage, but always, they are looking for someone with a load just heavy enough that they might accept a hand. Yousaf is that person tonight, backed into a corner to the point where Philip gains enough leverage for the Jennings to get a second shot at determining who is in the CIA’s Afghan group. The story of Philip and Elizabeth’s fight over what to do about Paige unfurls throughout the episode, but is backgrounded to three characters who are forced to bear the weight of their baggage. Yousaf has to begin working with the Russians and implicitly against his own people. Zinaida has made it to America, but will not get the freedom that name promised to her, secreted away by the FBI, unable to see the Lincoln Memorial (another instance of this episode laying things on a bit thicker than usual for this show). And Nina is in the labor camp, victim to her own decisions, but more a victim of an impossible situation. Nine Sergeevna never had any leverage to work with. She never had the upper hand. All she had was a chance to shift her weight to one man, then another, and hope that she could avoid bearing the brunt of it for as long as possible.
Still, in those small moments we do get with Paige, the show underlines one of its greatest tricks from last season—the sense that Paige Jennings is becoming a fully formed human being with her own thoughts and feelings, her own beliefs and passions. As a child, we are greatly shaped by our parents, and young children are easy to view as malleable. Philip and Elizabeth have been forced up against Paige’s growing independence and agency repeatedly over the last season, and both seem to find it a mix of intriguing and terrifying. Elizabeth thinks she can work Paige, just like she has for most of her daughter’s life. But that is getting more difficult. Paige is curious, she’s thoughtful, she is engaging more with the world independent of what her parents tell her. She points out to her mother that Philip and Elizabeth look out for each other more than they do their children. She isn’t hurt by this; she may even find it comforting when faced with her fears that Philip is having an affair. But it’s the sort of thing Philip and Elizabeth have been hiding in plain sight for years, and now Paige is looking at the corner of the room where they always instructed she not glance.
Over its last season or so, The Americans has focused less on the transgressive thrill of undermining the American Dream by showing it as a hollow construct created to house two people with very different agendas, a smoke screen to keep the truth just out of sight. In its first season, as I’ve said before, The Americans was the Cold War as American marriage, but the show dialed that back a bit in season two. That season told a beautifully executed espionage story while hinting at the dawning self-awareness of the Jennings children. This season seems poised to return us to some very interesting questions about how realistic Philip’s “American dream” for Paige (and, I guess Henry, who is still here) might be, and how fatalistic Elizabeth’s resignation to duty truly is in the face of a world where all you can cling to is the things you conceive of as vital. The truth has to be somewhere between Philip’s blinkered idealism and Elizabeth’s caustic pragmatism. The American Dream is neither as idyllic and attainable, nor as hollow and chameleonic as these characters seem to think.
Paige Jennings won’t grow up to be a normal person with a normal job, a normal house, a normal family and a perfectly happy life. None of us do. All of us are weighed down by things we control and things that were determined for us. We all carry with us baggage, some of which we never packed and wouldn’t have chosen. We are all compromised, and we navigate our way towards satisfaction with a further series of compromises. We fight our way towards good enough. Sometimes the tooth needs to be pulled, but there’s too much at stake to have it done. Sometimes it just has to sit there, and hurt us, and linger, a problem that cannot be solved without creating another. You’ll just carry it with you, for as long as it takes, until you can dispose of it. Some of your baggage is easy to get rid of. Some of it you’ll carry with you until the day you die. All of it matters. All of it changes you, changes how you view the world, changes how you can leverage and be leveraged. Things pile up, and the pile gets bigger until it crushes you or you figure out how to take another step. That choice is yours, even if the choice of what you’re carrying is not.
“Baggage” is a fairly literal title for The Americans, and not only because Annelise literally ends up in a suitcase during its runtime.