The Americans Season 2, Episode 4 “A Little Night Music”
Written by Stephen Schiff
Directed by Lodge Kerrigan
Airs Wednesday nights at 10pm ET on FX
“Training the body to lie… is hard on the soul.” – Oleg
It’s hard for anyone to be honest with themselves, much less a couple of spies buried underneath a dozen different identities, lives, and wigs, trying to juggle entire personalities and elaborate lies, all in pursuit of preserving a lifestyle and ideology they dedicated themselves to decades ago. And they’re trained so well, they know how to use weakness as a weapon, be it to shame, manipulate, or incriminate someone – but all those lies come at a cost to one’s morality, an existential weight that comes to light in another standout episode of The Americans.
The easiest to notice this effect with is Elizabeth; while she’s able to use her manipulative powers to turn a very familiar-sounding sexual assault story into a sign of vulnerability to draw in a recruit, she’s unable to face the fact that she’s not quite prepared to be out in the field yet, especially with the image of her colleague’s dead family (and the depressing realities of their living son) still weighing on her mind. Disillusioned by those murders, distracted by the return of Claudia, irate at Paige’s sudden interest in Christianity (the “opiate of the masses” that her new friend Kelly’s gotten her hooked on): Elizabeth is not in a comfortable place, and it nearly causes her to ruin the mission in its first, simplest phase.
She recovers quite well – her scene in the diner with her unknowing informant was just astounding – but her well-maintained facade is clearly breaking. It’s happening to Philip, too, but it’s much subtler: Elizabeth’s mental struggles are front and center this season, from the up-close shots whenever a child is mentioned, or it comes time for her to put her paraonia aside for a moment and complete a mission. When your colleagues are quietly, efficiently murdered, it raises all sorts of questions: chief among those the timing of Claudia’s return, and her role in growing fiasco in and around the KGB.
Where Elizabeth is just now coming to terms with the harsh realities hidden behind her ideologies and wigs, Claudia’s age and experience have taken their toll on her conscience for decades: to the point we saw her cold, calculating ways seep into every conversation and action she was a part of in season one. There were a lot of parallels drawn between her and Elizabeth in season one: and in “A Little Night Music”, there are hints that Claudia knows how to use her weaknesses even more efficiently than Elizabeth can, not tied down by the trappings of her false identity, or desire to protect her own children.
(And here’s where this review shifts from character motivations to wild theory. You’ve been warned.)
Honestly, I don’t think Claudia is telling the truth in this episode. Compare her scenes talking to Elizabeth with Elizabeth’s scene in the diner and the marine’s motel room: just as Elizabeth is able to use truths to give real emotional depth to her lies, something about Claudia’s reappearance and sudden concern for the woman who smashed her face in a few months ago doesn’t smell right. It would be awesome if she was just back on the scene, going about her job – but like Arkady dealing with Oleg, there’s a hint of professional dissatisfaction in Claudia’s voice (not to mention the fact she assigns Philip and Elizabeth to interrogate someone deeply protected, without permission from, or knowledge by, the Rezidentura and KGB)… could she be the architect behind the murders? Is she so distraught over what’s happened – or what she is about to do? Or is she using her anger a mislead, setting up Philip and Elizabeth to investigate the murders of their co-workers to take out the Jennings, a pair of effective agents who dared to challenge her revered authority?
I’m not sure this is a terribly sound theory: but there’s something about the timing of her reappearance in this episode, and previous mention of her in the season premiere, whose climatic moments featured the secret murder of KGB officers. It just feels like there is something more to Claudia than a revenge mission: she either thinks the murders were committed by a loose cannon inside, or Claudia’s putting up one last stand against the organization that seemingly fails to protect anybody, even the soldiers giving their lives for a homeland they’ll most likely never step foot on.
There are other threads happening on the outskirts of “A Little Night Music” – primarily Paige’s new religious streak, which pisses off Elizabeth to no end, furious that their daughter would succumb to the most popular brain-altering substance in the world (to paraphrase her harsh critique) – but the episode really hits home when it looks at two confident women who’ve been shaken by the recent events threatening their very way of life. Ending on a devastating clever cliff hanger (I honestly thought there was more episode until the credits started rolling; the cut to black disrupts the episode’s rhythm in a very, very effective way), “A Little Night Music” is another handful of reasons why The Americans is one of the best shows on television.
– boy, Martha is pissssed. But so is Clark, as he should be: who washes their hair in the sink??? GROSS.
– Oleg’s Creeper ability gets a +1 in this episode, earning a security clearance to read the details of Nina’s “operation” with Stan.
– Stan admits to Philip he’s been having an affair, looking for acceptance: again, lies are hard on the human soul, even when love is involved.
– Henry still wants an Intellivision; shut the fuck up, Henry.