February 25th, 2015, 10:00 PM, FX
For all of its serialized tension and intricate character work, The Americans frequently enjoys reveling in the procedural. I don’t mean this in the sense that the show does a lot of one-and-done episodes (it doesn’t), but simply that this is a series that takes great joy in depicting the process of espionage on a frequently granular level. We know the basic steps of the various ops Philip and Elizabeth are running tonight by this point (so much so that the lingering shot of the Northrup pass on the car of the man Elizabeth murders felt almost too on-the-nose), because we’ve watched the show and we know how they work. But The Americans doesn’t show us these moments simply because espionage is detail-oriented work. It takes pleasure in showing us this work being done, step by step, and it orients us inside Philip and Elizabeth’s heads, keeping us with them step-by-step as they get deeper into holes they may want out of.
“Salang Pass” sells itself a bit like a check in on the various women in Philip’s life as his relationships to them become more complicated. Let’s start with the one most under-served this season: the Clark-Martha marriage. The show is taking a lot on faith that we will just believe things continue on pretty much as they have been there, but now with Martha wanting a kid, but it sort of feels like we’ve lost the thread here, like Martha has ceased to be a person and become more of a plot point the writers occasionally remember to revisit. Philip’s cover—that Clark is an internal investigator who travels frequently—is a pretty good one, especially in the early going, but it seemed like something that was straining Martha’s credulity last season. Now, though, she just has baby fever, which is I guess blinding her to the fact that Clark is a total dick whenever the subject of children comes up, and that her husband is never around to help her raise whatever child she might take in anyway. The arc of Martha is a tragic one—she is living a lie and burrowing deeper and deeper into it, perhaps ignoring any dawning realization of the delusion—but by pushing her this far into the background, some of her sympathetic points are obfuscated in favor of a one-note baby crazy distraction Philip has to sleep with every few episodes. Is he even getting good intel from Martha anymore? It seems like she stopped doubting him, or telling him anything, right around the time she stopped wanting anything more than a child, any child to fill the void in her marriage the show has stopped exploring.
Philip isn’t just maintaining his identity as Clark, though. He is also keeping up appearances as James, the “cool, super chill” older man who is wooing Kimberly to get at her father. For all that denying Martha a child gnaws at Philip, it is the increasing specter of sleeping with a child that seems to really haunt him. There’s a beautiful, fluid flashback near the episode’s end of the training Philip went through when learning the art of seduction, training in which he had to have sex with a wide variety of people (including an elderly woman and an overweight man) and “make it real” with each of them. There’s no doubt something about Philip was lost in this process, some ability to meaningfully connect and differentiate that from a totally false connection, and he freely admits even having to struggle to make it real with Elizabeth. I suspect this is not a feeling unique to Philip, but one that is in fact near-universal among people in long term relationships. Sometimes, you have to “make it real” even when it isn’t, just to get through the day, to maintain something that you want or need in your life and that is real most of the time with a little play-acting to cover up the cracks in the façade. But for Philip, it is infinitely more complex. How real can he make these encounters? From what we’ve seen with Martha, and what we’ve been told by various handlers, Philip is very good at this. But the line between “making it real” and it becoming real is one that has likely blurred for Philip over time. After decades of “making it real” with Elizabeth, it has become real. To “make it real” with Martha, Philip has to access parts of himself he usually keeps hidden away. And it’s impossible to imagine there isn’t some reality creeping in with Kimberly. I think what haunts Philip is not the idea of having sex with a fifteen-year-old (though I am sure he isn’t fond of that either), but what making that real will do to him, how it might change him, or what it might reveal about him. Some masks fit too well. Sometimes we forget we are wearing them. Sometimes we lose what was underneath.
As much as “Salang Pass” is about Philip and his women, it is also about parenting more generally. Philip takes Paige dress shopping for her baptism, and it’s definitely partially a play—he wants Paige on his side should it come to a decision between him and Elizabeth—but it’s also just Philip being a dad and trying to do right by his daughter. Stan confesses to Philip that he doesn’t understand Matthew now, hasn’t really since the kid was young enough to like what Stan told him to like and do whatever Stan wanted. The Americans has always been savvy about the subtle horror of children developing their own personalities and agency, and slipping out of the control of their parents, but in “Salang Pass,” the parents aren’t even thinking in terms of asserting their world view or keeping their kids’ safe. They just remember when things were simple, when walking without falling over was the triumph of the moment, when they knew how to make their kids happier, when they knew how to be just a little bit better. This is, in part, at the core of the simmering conflict between Philip and Elizabeth. She wants Paige in the Directorate S so she can shape her daughter, mold her into the person Elizabeth always dreamed she would be. Philip wants Paige to be able to choose a future for herself. He isn’t necessarily comfortable with this growing agency, but he prefers it to the alternative of an early grave.
Philip’s parenting instincts inevitably bleed into his relationship with Kimberly, who, try as he might, he cannot really see as more than a child (which is fair, because that is what she is). When she talks about her feelings of abandonment and reminisces about the garden she and her father used to tend together, you can see the James persona threatening to recede. Philip wants to approach this girl on her own terms. He wants to give her what she needs. But he can’t. She is an asset, and the right play remains being the cool older man she is into. Philip sees a lot of his own mistakes as a father in that moment, and he can’t quite fit them into the character he is playing. It’s a complex emotional moment, deftly deployed by the always-excellent Matthew Rhys.
For all that the episode focuses on Philip, Kerri Russell has some phenomenal moments as well, conveying the complexity of her current relationship with Philip and the conflicting feelings she has about all of this. She needs the plan with Kimberly to work, but she doesn’t want it to work. She wants her husband back on her side, but the Paige conflict is somehow intractable. She loves and hates Philip in this episode, and the way she plays every shade of that is fantastic stuff. These characters have to “make it real” every day. Sometimes that means losing something of themselves. Sometimes it means revealing something of themselves. And sometimes, it means a confusing mixture of the two, where who they are and what they want become muddled, confused, and conflicted. We’re all of us different people on different days, but for the Jennings, the work of reconciling the amount of people they are, and the levels on which those people resonate with their true selves, is becoming a larger and larger burden.
- “Next time, say 10, Yousef.”
- “No matter how old you get, you’re still working for the man…”
- “I don’t know what we would talk about. I couldn’t talk to Sandra, and we lived together.”
- “Do you have to make it real with me?” “Sometimes.”li>
As much as “Salang Pass” is about Philip and his women, it is also about parenting more generally.