The Americans Season 1, Episode 9 ‘Safe House’
Directed by Jim McKay
Written by Joshua Brand
Airs Wednesday nights at 10pm ET on FX
In film, spy work is often glossy, explosion-filled affairs where instincts and good cheekbones make for a perfect hero, a man who always makes the right decision – and even when he doesn’t, is usually let off the hook, only having to face a minor setback before saving the day yet again. The Americans has often played the antithesis of that, and takes it to a new level in ‘Safe House’, a fantastic episode where everyone’s instincts are as wrong as they can be.
At the beginning, it appears that ‘Safe House’ is going to be a kid-heavy episode: Phillip and Elizabeth break the news of their separation to the kids, who expectedly greet the news with a less than enthusiastic response; Paige loses her appetite, and Henry loses the ability to articulate (his paper on the Revolutionary War consisted of “American won.”). However, it gets moved to the background for the majority of the running time, although those opening scenes do a fantastic job of setting up the themes of the episode. ‘Safe House’ is all about characters acting in service of their emotions (in completely justifiable ways) – and more importantly, it’s about the unintended consequences of these hasty reactions, which range from stressful (the children’s reaction to the separation) to deadly (Chris and Stan’s many individual decisions), but all with wide-ranging impacts on the season’s narrative.
It comes about in a bit of a contrived way: after Phillip (as ‘Clark’) spends a loud, sexual night with Martha (who then confesses her growing love to him), he runs into an angry Chris, who doesn’t like the idea of this new stranger with his old girl. Phillip wasn’t even there for information, having nowhere else to go after separating from Elizabeth, and manifesting his frustrations with his “marriage” with a visit to the woman he’s been wooing for information. Of course, Chris is only there to defend Martha, appearing to have no idea who Phillip really was. Convenient or not, Phillip’s emotional reaction to Chris’s own emotional-driven behavior leads to him getting stabbed, and the precarious ‘peace’ between the Soviets and the US quickly falls apart afterward.
The confusion over Agent Amador’s disappearance plays out with both the FBI and the KGB: Arkady has no idea what’s going on, and the FBI are so pissed off over the recent loss of agents (and the scientist Elizabeth assassinated) that the disappearance of Amador sends them into full-scale revenge mode, green lighting Gaad’s plan to exact vengeance on the KGB by taking out Arkady, the new resident leader in D.C.
But it’s not Arkady they pick up – frustrated by the lack of intel on his missing partner, Stan orders them to take a first-tour soldier who is jogging on Arkady’s normal route (having just burned his hand on a potato, Arkady wasn’t with him today). He doesn’t know anything, of course – but once Stan’s seen the body of his dead friend and heard how slowly he died, he barely hesitates before putting a bullet in the back of the rookie KGB agent’s head.
Forget about FBI protocol for a minute – this is a dark turn for his character, a man whose shown his disregard for ‘extrajudicial’ activities in the past. But like the other characters on the show, his emotions got the best of him, and he let them guide him to a scary place. If anything, ‘Safe House’ is just a vehicle for Noah Emmerich, who chews up scene after scene as we see just how unstable Stan’s mental situation and state of morality is.
In a flashback near the end of the episode, Chris talks about how ‘Nam changed him (he went from being a choir boy to a tail-chasing bachelor): Stan may or may not have been through ‘Nam, but the assignment he was on before coming to D.C. certainly has had some effects on him, devastations that manifest in violent fashion at the episode’s conclusion. We see other glimpses of it, too: he grabs Nina’s arm rather violently when trying to get information from her, and later, gives a bone-chilling monologue about hunting dogs and birds playing dead to the KGB rook.
Throughout ‘Safe House’, every character is making what appear like sane, logical decisions – but they aren’t, driven by blinding emotions that threaten the very fabric of their worlds, putting many, many more lives on the line in the process. What’s fascinating is how it all almost feels accidental, like every single event of the episode could be prevented, right down to the failed marriage and the dead, jealous lover, if given some perspective. But when you’re always looking over your shoulder, trying to fight external and internal wars, one slip-up is all it takes to incur devastating consequences.
– so much American pride in the episode: Paige and Henry want fried chicken all the time, Henry’s Revolutionary War paper, Stan’s love for American fast food, and Chris telling Elizabeth that America’s going to kick the “motherland’s marbled ass.”
– watch your mouth, Paige!
– I liked the flashback scenes with Stan and Chris, but I feel like it was material that could’ve easily been shown in previous episodes. It’s a bit of a reach emotionally, although both actors handle the scenes so well it plays seamlessly.
– Keri Russell does her best John Lennon impression in this episode, and it’s hilarious.
– multiple dog references, whether it’s Stan to the Russian kid or Phillip and Elizabeth talking about putting Chris out of his misery. Also, many references to a ‘pause’ button.
– I love this show’s dark humor: Phillip and Elizabeth debate how to let Chris die, only to find out that he’s already expired.
– I thought Chris bumping into Phillip would become a larger moment during their argument, but it unfortunately doesn’t.