The Americans, Season 3, Episode 5: “Salang Pass”
Written by Stephen Schiff
Directed by Kevin Dowling
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are ostensibly co-stars on The Americans, but the former’s character has increasingly become the more interesting one. While Elizabeth’s unceasing dedication to the USSR has become a bit one-dimensional (despite her taking Paige to church), Phillip’s conflict between his commitment and his growing embrace of American life makes him a more dynamic and complex personality. Her steeliness makes her a fascinating “straight man” to his less disciplined self, but it’s Phillip’s lack of self-control that makes for the more human and fascinating conflict. This week’s episode, “Salang Pass,” amplifies the compelling nature of his character, having him act abhorrently and testing the limits of the viewer’s sympathies without completely severing our connection with him.
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The episode certainly does what it can to keep the viewer from empathizing with Phillip. The concluding scene of the first act finds him at a Dazed and Confused-esque high school bonfire, pursuing his fifteen year old target Kimberly in her adolescent element. If the depiction of him showing romantic interest (feigned or not) in a young teenager wasn’t enough to disgust the audience, the shots of jocks in varsity jackets certainly does the trick. Phillip acknowledges his discomfort, and the viewer can’t help but feel the same way.
Still, since this is The Americans, almost nothing any character says or does has just one meaning, and Phillip’s interactions with Kimberly certainly haven’t been an exception. Although he shakes his head at her invitation to her house, his arrival at her door later on shows a change of heart (or at least an ability to ignore his heart). It’s unclear whether his initial refusal indicates skepticism on his part or a flirtatious denial, and it’s likely that both feelings are at play.
He certainly receives encouragement to make it more of a flirtation. Even in an episode which features Elizabeth murdering a man by crushing him under his car (and rubs the gore in the viewer’s face by showing a close-up of the blood oozing out), her coldest moment very well may be the opening scene of the third act, in which she calls Phillip’s target “your girl Kimberly” with a venomous undertone. Her encouragement is topped by Gabriel, whose insistence on a mission’s success being paramount shows a lack of concern for the girl’s well-being. Despite his grandfatherly appearance, he’s become among the most ruthless characters on the show, and Frank Langella has navigated this dichotomy brilliantly.
Phillip takes their advice, and the fourth act finds him getting high at Kimberly’s place. “Salang Pass” does a brilliant job of emphasizing the disgust of his actions: her ignorance (she thinks that her father works in agriculture), complaints about her stepmom, and childish food cravings (Popcorn in ice cream? Perfect!) make sure that that the viewer understands just how young she is.
Equally appalling is Phillip’s paternal behaviour towards her. The shot of him picking her up and placing her in bed after she passes out from the pot he brings has undeniably fatherly overtones. Lest this not be disturbing enough on its own, the episode then makes viewers even more uncomfortable by having her kiss him. Although Phillip doesn’t appear to be happy about the situation, it’s only the surprise arrival of her parents that pulls him away.
His actions are made to seem all the grosser due to the emphasis on his relationship with Paige, which is a major concern of this episode and the season as a whole. Although Elizabeth nourishes their daughter’s interest in Christianity by taking her to church, Phillip gives her a more assertive show of approval by buying her an expensive dress for her baptism. The scene certainly reflects his embrace of capitalism, but it resonates most deeply as a display of father-daughter bonding. As a result, his relationship with Kimberly becomes even harder to stomach.
Of course, the two of them are far from the only ones whose personal lives get deeply affected by the tensions of the Cold War. Stan’s suspicions about Zunaida persist despite Oleg’s inability to affirm them. This season is doing a masterful job of concealing whether she’s actually an informant and the situation is above Oleg’s pay grade, or if it’s merely a figment of Stan’s increasing neuroses, and “Salang Pass” continues the trend. Even if the subplot winds up being nothing but a red herring, it will have been fascinating for the way in which it’s played with Stan’s personal and professional breakdown.
The blurred lines between personal and professional are ultimately at the heart of The Americans, and “Salang Pass” is no exception. The episode handles an icky subject with a fitting poise, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the season handles the relationship going forth.