The Americans Season 1, Episode 4 ‘In Control’
Directed by Jean de Segonzac
Written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
Airs Wednesday nights at 10pm ET on FX
Back when The Americans was announced, I wondered how much of ‘historical’ drama it would desire to be. Specifically, I was curious if the show was going to tackle the Reagan assassination attempt – and as it turns out, I wouldn’t have to wonder for that long. ‘In Control’ concerns said events of March 30, 1981, and frames the immediate fallout to both the US and Soviet factions smartly in the show’s emotional core: the Jennings marriage.
The different approaches of Elizbeth and Phillip to handling the growing tension between the two countries in the aftermath of the shooting is slightly problematic: Elizabeth’s tunnel vision continues to paint her as loyal to a fault, pulling the audience’s emotions to side with Phillip, who approaches everything with the same calm rationality (save for the moment when he mentioned defecting in the pilot, which Elizabeth reminds him of). At times, it can feel a little biased against Elizabeth, for two reasons: her husband is clearly thinking things through, and, of course, the simple fact that we all know the aftermath of the attempt on Reagan’s life.
What The Americans has to do consistently is make the threat of nuclear war tangible: as an audience enlightened to the future, we know that a nuclear war isn’t going to break out. The ‘one mistake’ Nina mentions to Stan essentially can’t happen, unless The Americans turns into some post-apocalyptic show later in its run. The first three episodes have smartly framed the drama around more personal issues, which provide the dramatic stakes the overarching global realities inherently cannot.
There are times early on when ‘In Control’ gets away from this dynamic: mostly because it’s Phillip and Elizabeth acting alone in the early stages of Operation Christopher. But as the episode continues and they spend more time together, it continues to paint a subtle, intricate picture of two people trying to make a marriage work – and actually takes it a step farther by contrasting Elizabeth and Phillip with Stan and his wife.
Although the show’s done a solid job characterizing Stan in his handful of scenes in each episode, ‘In Control’ is the first time Stan’s marriage gets some meaningful context. It makes a terrific (if convenient) parallel to the marriage across the street: Stan’s been away on assignment for a long time, and now that he’s time, his wife feels more distant from him than ever. But what can he do? Like Phillip, Stan’s slowly been changing over the years, something that would be hard to recognize in themselves – but to the person closest to them, it’s obvious. Unfortunately, the marriage starting on truth is starting to crumble (becoming a lie in itself), while the Jennings’ marriage is going through the exact opposite.
‘In Control’ is another hour that harkens back to a simpler time, where people had to scramble for hours to get good information, and secret contact had to be sent in the woods by hidden antenna attached to number pads. I’m not sure how often The Americans can dip into actual history and make it effective dramatically, but the mad scramble surrounding the events of ‘In Control’ manages to do so by keeping most of the conflicted grounded in its characters – the smartest move a history-drenched episode of a ‘historical’ drama can make.
– for secret KGB agents, the Jennings have quite a lot of friends around town, don’t they?
– Love Phillip’s face when Elizabeth says “I’ll signal Gregory.”
– Nina doesn’t find it amusing when Stan corrects her “cut-off chickens” statement.
– I hope Phillip gets his dues in flashbacks later this season. We learn why Elizabeth always wants things her way: her mother told her to trust nobody, after a man tries to give her gifts in trade for room in her bed.
– the news reporting of James Brady dying (which turned out to be untrue of course, because he’s still alive today)
– I don’t need ‘Paige getting a boyfriend drama’, but seeing her affected by the violence on TV makes an interesting cultural point: teenagers today wouldn’t even think twice about that news. Remember on The Wire when Namond turns off the violent news to play a shooting game?
– why Operation Christopher? I’d love just one scene of dark-haired Russians in a room, screaming ‘Nyet! Nyet! We call it Kristofer, not Operation Nadya!!!”
– Granny’s name is revealed, which disappointed me. I liked Phillip and Elizabeth answering to someone named Granny.