March 11, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), FX
The Americans is in the middle of the kind of season you write home about, the sort of consistently excellent, thematically rich, deeply compelling run of episodes that makes a great series one of the absolute best things on television. Week in and week out, this show is knocking it out of the park, and “Walter Taffet” is no exception, a pulse-pounding episode that manages to build suspense and action into intricate character work and detailed espionage like only this show can. It’s The Americans at its best, and there is not much better.
This episode is so full of suspense, it could easily have coasted on that. From Gaad’s discovery and Martha’s breakdowns to that stunning final sequence set to “The Chain,” this is an hour that plays like the climax to an all-time great espionage thriller. Yet there’s more going on here, as there must always be. The tensions between Philip and Elizabeth continue to rise as they vie for Paige’s loyalty and affection. Martha reaches a breaking point after the bug is discovered, and the repercussions of her actions lead her to wonder if she can really trust Clark. Alison Wright is absolutely fantastic here, as Martha silently panics in the bathroom, and then slowly shuts down in front of Clark. If there’s one thing the characters of The Americans keep learning again and again, its that secrets can tear couples and even lives asunder. And now, Martha has a secret.
The role of Hans is also made clear tonight, as is Elizabeth’s affection for the kid. He is doing something akin to what Gregory did for them within the Civil Rights Movement, keeping tabs on a different faction so that potential allies can be cultivated and potential enemies taken care of. And then, of course, there’s Walter Taffet himself, brought in to find the source of the bug, and poised to create problems for Martha (as well as Stan, Aderholt, and Gaad, I’m sure) for a long time coming. It’s clear The Americans is on a roll because “Walter Taffet” is ostensibly a filler episode in a lot of ways, setting up developments likely to pay off further down the line. And yet it hums like the rest of this season, turning out scene after scene of excellence and providing a few set pieces that will likely be lodged in my head for a long time coming. That final sequence is one of the greatest action scenes this show has done, an endlessly tense, brutally quick succession of gunfire, fisticuffs, and inventive uses of an automobile, all scored perfectly to Fleetwood Mac.
Yet in the face of all that, one of the episode’s quietest moments also sticks out, as Philip decides to tell Elizabeth he has a son. It’s a huge show of trust at a moment when the two have every reason not to trust each other, and a further wrinkle on this increasingly complex relationship. Philip and Elizabeth are at odds this season, in a conflict that threatens to break them apart permanently. And yet, they haven’t stopped loving each other. They haven’t stopped trying. They haven’t stopped striving to find some common ground and a way to make it through this dark time with their love intact. And when Philip jokes, with a sardonic hint of sadness, that he doesn’t need another kid as they talk about solving the Martha problem the next morning, it’s the joke of a man who knows his mistakes will be accepted, who understands that even in his worst moments, he has someone who will support him. Philip and Elizabeth take care of each other, even when its hard, even when they don’t want to, even when their differences threaten to pit them against each other.
“Walter Taffet” marks the halfway point of this third season, and yet another home run episode in a season that is shaping up to be absolutely phenomenal. There are a lot of balls still in the air, and The Americans is at its best when it has a complex array of things to accomplish. At roughly the same point last season, Philip Jennings walked into a church wearing a pair of black gloves, and while he doesn’t do anything quite so drastic here, there’s a feeling of defeat that permeates his every move. He cannot protect Misha from the Afghans. He cannot protect Paige from Elizabeth. He can’t reach Martha, and he’s forced to be wary and keep his distance with Elizabeth. Philip is a dangerous man to put in a corner, but then, so is everyone if pushed hard enough and far enough. Circumstances conspire to do just that in the back half of this season, and if the first half is any indication, it promises to be a hell of a ride.
- “I still believe in those things. You just get older. And…other things become more important.”
- “Is this how its gonna work? Am I just going to come home one day and Paige will tell me she knows who we are?” “I, honestly, I don’t know.”
- “You always play against the odds in this work.”
- “This could be a janitor that got fired a year ago. It could be one of your agents. It could be you.”
- “You’re not a part of this discourse, Paige.”
Week in and week out, this show is knocking it out of the park, and “Walter Taffet” is no exception, a pulse-pounding episode that manages to build suspense and action into intricate character work and detailed espionage like only this show can. It’s The Americans at its best, and there is not much better.