April 15, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), FX
Spycraft is a work of deft improvisation, a combination of careful planning and quick thinking, an ability to adapt quickly as the situation on the ground changes. There’s a reason Carrie Mathison loves jazz music so much over on Homeland (an espionage thriller with half the quality and twice the prestige); the job is one in which the ability to create a new plan and put it into action quickly is an essential skill. Things go wrong. Goals change. The ways we accomplish them have to shift over time.
More often than not, the flaw that fells any of Philip and Elizabeth’s great plans is a human one. Usually, they can account for whatever security measures or technological impediments stand in their way. They memorize layouts, know shifts, and understand access codes. What throws off their carefully laid operations is the human element. The old woman who likes to stay at the office late to work on the books. The husband who is too controlling, too involved in the operation. The daughter who may have been given too much to handle, too quickly. The problem of espionage is a human problem; its greatest flaw is that people are flawed. No one can be fully predicted. No one can be perfectly categorized. People change. People snap. People aren’t what you expect of them, or aren’t what you’ve learned of them, not always and sometimes not when you need them to be. People have a tendency of counteracting your plans for them. Because people can have plans of their own.
This is the issue hanging over all of “I am Abassin Zadran,” but it is especially apparent in that glorious scene where Gabriel and Claudia meet at the diner, and discuss the unstable element that nearly shuttered Directorate S entirely. Jared was the first attempt at creating a second generation illegal, but he was more than the next step in an international intelligence scheme. He was a human being who found out his whole life was a lie and went mad enough to kill his whole family. It’s not that this couldn’t have been predicted (if there is a Directorate S equivalent of a writer’s room, someone had to raise their hand and ask, “Uh, comrades, what if the boy doesn’t take the news well? Like…really not well?”), its just that it wasn’t expected. Jared’s murders were not penciled in to the plan. The loss of assets and potential assets is cost of doing business. But when one is turned against the other, when your own potential agents are tearing down agents before your eyes, pause has to be given. Costs must be accounted for. Morality, perhaps, must enter the picture.
That’s Gabriel’s point, in that conversation. He wonders if perhaps the cost of bringing Paige in, what with the tension it has caused between Philip and Elizabeth and the risk that she will go rogue, revealing her parents or even hurting them, might be too high for the reward. But Claudia just smiles. She doesn’t reveal the information about the near-closing of Directorate S to agree the risk is high (nor even necessarily because it’s true). She offers it to play into Gabriel’s ego. Yes, this went badly before, but The Centre has faith in you. They know that you can do this. Ignore your moral hang-ups, this is the job you were meant for, and you’re the only one who can get it done. One of the reasons Margo Martindale is such an astounding presence on this show is because her Claudia is nearly always opaque. Everything is strategy with her. What she reveals, and how she plays those revelations, are wholly matters of who she is talking to and what she wants from them. She understands people, which makes her dangerous. But people are impossible to fully understand. That’s what makes anyone who steps into the web of spies a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.
That’s what makes Paige’s disappearance at the episode’s opening, and Philip’s revelation at its close, so tense. We don’t know what Paige is doing at Pastor Tim’s anymore than the Jennings’ do. Sure, we have a pretty good feeling she is not telling Tim her parents are Russian spies, but then, how sure are you The Americans won’t blow itself up if the story is good enough? Similarly, as the episode ends, Clark recedes and Philip emerges. Martha’s reaction can be guessed, but it cannot be known. Perhaps this revelation will make her trust Philip and love him even more. Maybe it’s the one last horror that will send her running to the FBI to confess. It was unlikely that Philip was going to kill Martha in that sequence, and yet the possibility hung over the whole thing. It all felt so human. It all felt so unpredictable.
Last week, we talked about trust and control as deeply important tools in the Jennings’ toolkit. But to a certain extent, trust is a leap of faith, control an expression of arrogance. All are slaves to the unpredictable nature of humanity, to the unknowable mystery of any person you encounter. It’s what makes people fascinating. It’s what makes them terrifying. It’s what makes people exciting. It’s what makes them dangerous.
- “We should both go. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
- “Why is there no war here in America? My country is always at war. And for what? Afghanistan has nothing. No planes, no helicopters, no medicine. Nothing of our own. All we want is to live in the land of our fathers in peace.”
- “I am Abassin Zadran. I am the one who slits the throats of the Communists. I have killed many people with my knife. I have cut them open. And watched them die.”
- “Think out loud all you like. It’s a free country. Or haven’t you heard?”
- “Martha, I know how hard this is. But I am trying.” “I know you are, Clark. But it’s not enough.”
How sure are you The Americans won’t blow itself up if the story is good enough?