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The Americans, Ep. 3.02: “Baggage” slows the pace and ups the stakes

The Americans, Ep. 3.02: “Baggage” slows the pace and ups the stakes

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The Americans, Season 3, Episode 2: “Baggage”
Written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
Directed by Daniel Sackheim
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX

Last week’s premiere started off marvelously, in medias res at a breakneck pace but without feeling hyperbolic. In this week’s episode, “Baggage”, the speed of the narrative is greatly reduced, but the effect on the viewer is no less powerful. As creator Joe Weisberg understands, viewers need to spend time with characters and scenarios to care about them and this episode moves slower in the interest of introducing new elements to the show.

First among these is Nina, whose welcome appearance opens the episode. The medium close-up of her urinating in a jail cell appears to be shown somewhat for shock value, but it effectively conveys the dark side of both life in the Soviet Union and more broadly, the Cold War. Despite her service and loyalty to the KGB, her comrades define her by her moments of weakness and she’s condemned to spending time in a desolate jail.

The second half of the teaser further details the casualties, both violent and non-violent, of international conflict and the havoc it can wreak upon those who don’t quite seem to deserve it. As Phillip continues to cope with Annelise’s unfortunate demise, the viewer is reminded that Nina has been spared, at least for the time being. Less shocking, but no less heartbreaking, is Paige’s accusation of infidelity against Phillip. There’s a certain sweetness to the allegiance she’s formed with her mother, but her lack of trust in her father gives the scene a tragic tinge. It closes out a teaser that’s less tense than the action-packed beginning of “EST Men,” but no less compelling and essential to the show as a whole.

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The grotesque treatment of undeserving victims continues in the the episode’s first act. In a horrifying scene, easily among the most gruesome in the show’s history, Elizabeth, Phillip, and Yousaf break Annelise’s bones in order to make her body easier to transport. With the sounds of each sickening crack, our disgust at their actions becomes more and more severe. It’s not an easy scene to watch, but something like that shouldn’t be—the audience feels the effects of the violence in a way that’s missing from too many contemporary shows. Even though Yousaf’s killing of Annalise in the premiere was repulsive, his disgust as they deal with her body brings out an aspect of his humanity that is missing from Elizabeth and Phillip’s workman-like approach to the task. The horror from the sounds becomes magnified by Elizabeth and Phillip’s callousness as they deal with the body: as sympathetic as the two can be, The Americans never lets us forget the characters’ comfort with brutality.

This duality is also perfectly represented by the conversation between Yousaf and Phillip in the bowels of the hotel. Phillip’s initial sympathy with Yousaf’s regret over killing Annelise appears to humanize him in a way that’s missing from the earlier scene. The moment appears almost out of character, but just when Phillip seems to be genuinely connecting with him, he reiterates their need for information. Characters like Phillip are allowed to show their human side, but the show consistently affixes the displays with an emotional asterisk, reminding us of their duplicity.

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At the same time, their hardships certainly aren’t underrepresented. A flashback later in the episode reveals Elizabeth’s father’s history as a deserter. The revelation helps to explain her commitment to the KGB, and her willingness to give over Paige—she doesn’t want to repeat her father’s mistakes. Her loyalty to the KGB certainly overrides her loyalty to Phillip, as we see by her concealment of her thoughts from him. In the world of The Americans, the characters are always betraying someone, and the most painful treacheries are of themselves and those they love.

These betrayals make everyone suspicious and create an atmosphere of dread that pervades the show and colors our view of all of the characters. The blond Soviet refugee who Beeman and his colleagues are assigned to protect appears to be on the side of the Americans, but her true allegiance is difficult to discern. Oleg and the other KGB officers we follow don’t appear to think that she’s on their side, but the many levels of deception seen throughout the show leave open the possibility that she’s not who she says she is, suggesting a tension reminiscent of the taught early days of Homeland. Although her arc is merely introduced rather than fully fleshed out, the ambiguity over her loyalty makes for one of the coming season’s more fascinating subplots.

Still, it’s not like “Baggage” only consists of character exposition. Phillip and Elizabeth’s frantic race to track Yousaf showcases the gripping tension at which the show excels. This sequence is particularly striking given the quiet nature of the rest of the episode, but it also stands on its own merit. As “Baggage” proves, The Americans is a show that’s just as effective when it’s throttling at full speed as when it lulls to a contemplative crawl.

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