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The Americans, Ep. 3.03: “Open House” builds characters through foils

The Americans, Ep. 3.03: “Open House” builds characters through foils

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The Americans, Season 3, Episode 3: “Open House”
Written by Stuart Zicherman
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX

Of all the elements that make The Americans among the most fascinating shows on television (it took the top spot on my top 10 list for last year), the parallels between relationships, organizations, and individuals may be the show’s most compelling narrative component. Whether it’s between the Beemans and the Jennings, the KGB and the CIA, or, more broadly, life in the USSR and the US, the series excels at revealing truths through comparisons between foils. This week’s episode, “Open House,” focuses on marriage, and the results are as fascinating as always.

The titular setting provides a fascinating contrast with the Jennings, particularly given how many sides we see of their marriage over the course of the hour. They appear to be on fairly poor terms with each other at the beginning of the episode, as the first scene they share illustrates. Elizabeth tells Phillip of the present she’s planning to give to Paige, and Phillip immediately betrays his jealousy. Their growing disagreement over their daughter has provided one of the season’s most interesting conflicts thus far, and the first act scene develops it even further.

It also shows how the dispute impacts their romantic relationship, a side we had yet to see prior to this episode. Elizabeth tells Phillip about a contact’s half-assed attempt to hit on her, and he responds by suggesting that she should have gone along with him. Although he claims that his reasoning springs from professional motivations, the discussion’s occurrence immediately after their argument suggests his growing detachment from her. The scene leaves the reasoning behind their reactions open to interpretation, and its myriad insinuations demonstrate the multivalence which the show does so well.

The scene also illustrates the wonderfully complex approach to characterization on The Americans. In the debate over Paige, Phillip shows himself to be the more emotional one (which would be an interesting choice on its own, given its defiance of gender stereotypes). However, Elizabeth’s reluctance to cheat on him makes her seem like the person in the marriage more likely to put her feelings above her mission. Rather than suggest character inconsistencies, the juxtaposition reveals just how fully realized the people who inhabit this universe are.

Still, this scene wouldn’t have the same impact if it weren’t contrasted with another flawed marriage. As Phillip and Elizabeth track the couple at the open house, we see how their marriage has been undone by infidelity and lack of time spent together. The man’s comment about how the overworking provoked by his home office destroys his marriage is particularly poignant, given how Elizabeth and Phillip live: in a lot of ways, work is their whole lives, and the show has yet to show us whether or not such an existence is compatible with happiness. The husband’s implied infidelities nicely echo Phillip’s dalliances with Martha, Annelise, and others, emphasizing the challenges posed by how he lives his life.

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However, Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage isn’t a total disaster, as the opening of the third act reveals. In one of the most moving images of the still-young season, the two embrace as the Star Spangled Banner blares from the TV. American life certainly hasn’t been entirely bad for them, the scene suggests, and they might even be enjoying it.

Of course, since this is The Americans, we don’t get any easy answers or conclusions about their relationship, as the second part of the scene shows. As Phillip removes Elizabeth’s teeth, we’re touched by his devotion to her, but the scene has an undeniably sinister edge: he appears to be taking pleasure in her pain, but the episode doesn’t go so far as to tell us outright what’s going on. Matthew Rhys does an excellent job in the scene of conveying the range of emotions involved with the action. As with their disputes over infidelity and Paige, we’re left to draw a number of possible conclusions, and the series’ refusal to explicitly point us towards any of them shows how good it can be.

Despite the strength of the relationships, The Americans is a thriller at heart, and “Open House” excels equally well in the genre-like elements. Elizabeth’s narrow avoidance of a CIA trap, courtesy of a well-placed car crash, makes for one of the most compelling set pieces in the season so far. The technical skill shown throughout the chase certainly helps to make the sequence work, but, as is often the case with the show, it’s the personal conflicts surrounding the scene that give it the emotional impact it has.

Finally, “Open House” also shows how well the show can build tension without giving us much in the way of explicit detail. Stan’s long looks at the Soviet women as she gives an interview in the last act continue to suggest that she’s not who she says she is. It remains to be seen whether or not she’s just a red herring, but, either way, it promises to be an intriguing development for the episodes to come.

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