The Americans Season 1, Episode 11 ‘Covert War’
Directed by Nicole Kassell
Written by Joshua Brand & Melissa James Gibson
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
Inherent in the idea of ‘war’ is community; people can’t fight wars by themselves, whether it’s on the front battle lines or deep covert operations. Unfortunately, the stress of war (covert or not) tends to make individuals isolate themselves, withdrawing from the people around them as they struggle with the things they’ve seen and done. These kinds of individuals are all over the place in The Americans, and in ‘Covert War’ we see how hard it is to stay sane in their world alone.
The episode opens with Agent Gaad extracting justice for the recent deaths on US soil: for him, things are a matter of black and white now; “they kill us, we kill them.” He then details the assassination of three KGB officers, including Elizabeth’s trainer General Zhukov. Zhukov’s murder is the only one we view, setting up everything in the episode to follow as he dies alone in his hotel room, a victim to a silent killer sent by the US government to extract justice, a clear signal that this war is anything but cold at this point.
Once Elizabeth finds out, she goes into full-on rampage mode, sitting in the insurance office with a steely glare and informing Phillip that she’s going to kill him. As we learn, her anger is for good reason; Zhukov was like a father to her, explaining some of the more basic ideas of humanity that Elizabeth didn’t experience in her war-torn country and through training. The three flashbacks span from 1964 to 1976, filling in small blanks about Elizabeth’s hesitation to marry Phillip, and the ongoing trepidations she’s had about their relationship from the beginning (even hinting that she considered aborting her second child). It’s a little shoe-horned in, yes, but they are fantastic scenes that really give us some insight into why Elizabeth’s continued fighting for this marriage, since we’ve seen her less-than-enthusiastic approach to following orders.
In her fit of rage, she kidnaps the CIA Director of Operations, intent on killing him for revenge, despite her orders from Granny. Her anger here feels a bit contrived: I understand her anger at his death, but she does know the risks of this job, and until this episode, we had no idea she was so close to Zhukov (we didn’t even know his name). So trying to have her show this dedication to him while simultaneously trying to define it is a bit messy – and it nearly falls apart when CIA man Patterson starts calling her out while he’s tied to a chair, screaming about she’s a trained killer, and nothing more.
That moment – when she runs out of the warehouse crying – isn’t completely inexplicable for her character: at some point, she was bound to have a momentary breakdown (it’s happened with every single character this season; why not her?). But her allowing Patterson to get under her skin doesn’t really get defined until the 1976 flashback to Italy, which makes the connection that Elizabeth fears she’s becoming her old mentor: wise, sharp as a tack, but hollow, living a dedicated life to something that doesn’t give her anything in return. In other words, I don’t mind the moment itself, but the sequencing is quite odd, and makes her crying fit feel quite a bit out of place without the proper context.
She eventually lets him live, and later arrives at Phillip’s hotel with thank you beer and a hope that Phillip will return home. But he’s getting an apartment, set on the idea that he’s going to come home. This is another odd moment for me: normally those two are open with each other, unafraid of confrontation and unable to accept ambiguity. So Phillip being silent about getting an apartment when it’s clear he can read Elizabeth’s emotions is odd – as is her running away with nothing else to say, disappearing in an instant.
I suppose we can call the ending scenes to be the ‘Curious Trio of Elizabeth’ moments: her third comes when she gets openly confrontational with her boss, first accusing her of actually wanting Patterson dead, then calling her a liar, and finishing off with an open threat on her life. Another very rash decision by Elizabeth, with another somewhat unfounded basis for her emotions. Yes, we all understand the tumorous relationship between her and Granny, but their conversation (beautifully composed inside a car in a snowstorm, by the way) strikes a bit of a false note when Elizabeth starts engaging her in threats, smirking as she mentions how she bet her face in. There just isn’t that spark of confrontation in that conversation, even if I were to read Granny’s responses as directed and shrouded in ulterior meaning.
Elsewhere, we see the Brennan marriage continue to fall apart, as Sandra’s loneliness grew into drunken frustration over her husband’s lies and non-presence around the house. Like Elizabeth realizes later, she may have thrown the last 20 years of her life away: and for what? Sandra’s dedicated her life to her husband (as Elizabeth and Stan have to their cause), and the returns on those have been less than satisfying – she even asks Elizabeth while out for drinks if she’d ever considered cheating on Stan before. Like many characters as we head into the last two episodes, they’re on edge and trying to cling onto anything around them.
Of course, she’s not the only one: when he tries to break it off with Nina, she points out the only two things keeping her alive: her fear, and him. He can’t win: he knows he needs to separate from Nina before she finds out he killed her best friend (and his wife really finds out and leaves him), but he’s drawn to Nina. She understands him, knows him like nobody else – and in this world, having that connection can be the difference between life and death (look at Amador: his jealous act was out of his own loneliness – and cost him his life).
Despite the flaws with Elizabeth’s character, ‘Covert War’ is another acting tour de force for everyone involved, as emotions get rawer and the dramatic tension reaches its fever pitch. It’s also one of the more thematically unified episodes of the series to date, placing each and every major character right in front of the biggest fear they (and we) all share as humans (Soviet or American): living a lonely life, and dying alone.
– The Phillip/Martha scene was a jarring change from the rest of the episode, though it certainly accelerates their story line. She springs the parents on him, and by their reactions, it’s clear things are getting more serious than even Phillip/Clark wanted them to. His mission started to find information, and it all went to shit when he went seeking her out for comfort.
– If I had a dog, I’d totally teach him instructions in other languages. I’ve tried with our cat, but she doesn’t listen for shit to English, much less any other language.
– Two things that would’ve made tonight’s episode more effective: Zhukov’s influence and Sandra’s suspicions should’ve been established a bit earlier in the season.
– Zhukov: “play is serious… it’s how we learn to read the world.”
– Pete Townshend in the house! well, The Wheelhouse, to be specific. As always, great use of the soundtrack to accentuate the scene.
– Elizabeth made the crosswords sexy: she has become my dream woman.
– notice how Nina’s higher position has changed her posture: she’s teasing Stan now, trying to get information out of him, as he seeks emotional comfort. It’s a direct parallel to both her and Stan earlier in the season, and to Martha and Clark (minus the promotion: Martha’s still a desk lady.)