The Americans Season 1, Episode 7 ‘Duty and Honor’
Directed by Alex Chapple
Written by Joshua Brand
airs Wednesday nights at 10pm ET on FX
“You Americans think everything is white and black; for us, it is all gray.” – Nina
On the surface, duty and honor seem like very simple concepts – but as tonight’s episode of The Americans proves, there’s no such thing as ‘simple’ in life, be it normal life issues like the ups and downs of marriage, or more dramatic, fantastical fare like living under a secret identity, separated from the country you love and the person you thought you were. ‘Duty and Honor’ explores these ideas in every nook and cranny of the characters and plot, in one of the best hours of television in recent memory.
Although the episode is largely about Phillip, it’s Elizabeth who is the most interesting character to watch in the episode. Through the first season, we’ve seen how deep her loyalty to ‘the cause’ goes: there’s no questioning her ability to complete her ‘duties’ as the spy living a secret life. Part of that life is a long-standing marriage, one that’s finally developing some true meaning for Elizabeth. As Stan’s wife points out to her, their marriage is more of a partnership than most would ever hope for – a byproduct of the two fulfilling their duties no less, but Sandra views it from a completely different point of view. To her, they’re honoring the bond of marriage in ways she knows her and Stan will never have (they may have been close once, but those days are gone) – and simultaneously points out to Elizabeth how important their relationship really is, and for probably the first time in her life, she misses Phillip.
Phillip’s off in New York, on a mission to stop Andrei Bilowski from uniting the United States and Poland against Russia. Again, this situation isn’t a ‘black and white’ one – killing Andrei would empower the growing movement against the KGB, but letting him live and stay powerful will eventually have the same effect; the goal is to keep up the “fiction of Polish independence”. So his mission is to disrupt his career without him disappearing – a complicated act, that is made a lot more complicated by the presence of Irina (the girl Phillip tore up a picture of, in a flashback earlier this season).
It finally exposes the emotional conflicts only alluded to in previous episodes: Irina was a girl he was in love with, someone who broke up with him and told him she was seeing someone else before he went to America. We not only learn his name – Micha – but the hope he’s been holding onto for 20 years, going about his missions like a good solider in the hopes they’d meet again. But what may be black and white always turns gray as life pushes and pulls at our desires and goals: he’s got a wife and kids now, and can’t just run away to nowhere after the mission like Irina suggests.
She’s also not just in town to work together on a mission and have a quick round of KGB sexy-time: she drops a bomb (or does she?) on Phillip that he has a child. The answer to whether it’s real or not is left open (she’ll only say that “duty and honor” are the only realities in life), which would suggest the writers aren’t quite done exploring this. When Phillip lies to Elizabeth about finding out (telling her nothing interesting happened in NY, and that he most definitely did not hook up with Irina or still have feelings for her), it leaves the door wide open for the future, and the reprecussions Phillip would face if Elizabeth found out he lied to her when she finally made the choice to really invest in their relationship (to ‘honor’ their marriage and develop the relationship they already have, if you will).
Every scene of ‘Duty and Honor’ is soaked in this thematic material, right down to Nina and Stan finally having the sex they both wanted with each other. Stan’s a little drunk, and calls Nina for an important meeting, that’s not really a meeting at all. For both Stan and Nina, however, their fling flies right in the face of the whole ‘duty and honor’ thing: not only are they both lying to their bosses about what they’re doing, but now they’re lying to themselves and the people around them about how they feel. When Nina says “we’ll never do this again”, I don’t think either of them really buy it. They’re living in the gray, with nobody to trust at this point but each other.
A terrific episode from beginning to end, ‘Duty and Honor’ doesn’t waste a line or a moment, framing every conversation and moment around these abstract ideas of ‘duty’ and ‘honor’ – ideas that aren’t very abstract in theory, but in practice, can have wildly different consequences than one might expect. ‘Duty and Honor’ is simply a terrific episode of television, and a very interesting turning point for the season moving forward.
– something to think about: is Ann’s appearance in New York orchestrated beyond a shared mission? Her last line about ‘duty and honor’ could suggest that her plan to run away was merely another test to Phillip’s loyalty to the KGB. She certainly arrives at a convenient time, shortly after the mole hunt. There are a number of ways to interpret her presence and behavior… just another reason why this show is so damn engrossing.
– whether it’s with Elizabeth or Irina, Phillip’s learning a hard truth: there’s no such thing as pure, ‘true’ love when you’re living the lie-riddled life of a spy.
– old contact got his head blown off? Not a problem for Elizabeth: she slaps on a black wig and some lipstick (and $20,000), and she’s got Sanford, a new defense technology person under her thumb.
– Micha has the shittiest haircut ever – I love it. The wigs on this show are stellar.
– Elizabeth’s face when Sandra says “judging a cover by its cover” was great.
– best line of the episode? “I’m sorry I didn’t kill you, that’s my apology.” I love you, Elizabeth. Her strained relationship with Granny will be something to watch through the second half of the season.
– In one scene, there’s mention of the US and USSR just using people and not caring about them (like ‘pawns’), and later on, we see Paige and Henry nonchalantly playing a game of chess (with black and white pieces, no less). No overt connection to the plot here, just a very interesting visualization of the episode’s themes.