The Americans Season 2, Episode 10 “Yousaf”
Written by Stephen Schiff & Stuart Zicherman
Directed by Stefan Schwartz
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
The Americans has always been great at balance: balancing attention between its two main characters, balancing the intelligence and effectiveness of both American and Russian operations, and fantastic at keeping proceedings from becoming too outlandish, soapy, or preachy. That careful construction is what makes an enjoyable episode like “Yousaf” feel a bit off: as season two continues to focus more and more on Philip’s breakdown, “Yousaf” goes a bit into left field, transforming Larrick into a Super Villian, and bringing back an unfamiliar face from season one to draw parallels to Elizabeth, who is sidelined for most of the hour (left to deal with Paige and her new Bible-loving ways).
And in reality, “Yousaf” doesn’t really do much to move things forward – the real plot movement comes from Larrick, who is on a one-man rampage to destroy the KGB after their recent attack on the Contra compound. Larrick’s been a wild card up to this point, but clearly he’s ticked off about Elizabeth and Philip killing three of his men, and has taken it upon himself to take down the area phone operator in a local basement. To do all this, The Americans turns the SEAL-trained commander loose in suburban America, a jarring increase in Crazy Factor for a character we don’t even fully understand yet. Sure, we understood that Larrick was a threat, but his instant transformation from arrogant commander to silent assassin is bit of narrative whiplash – as is the sudden reappearance of Annelise, who plays Elizabeth surrogate for an hour with Philip (in full Swede costume), attempting to keep his wife safe from a job he believes she doesn’t “have” to do.
But like Elizabeth’s experiences with Paige, attempting to protect someone from something naturally creates friction between what someone wants to do and what they’re being told to do – and it’s in those instances that “Yousaf” finds some interesting material. Again, much of this is focused on the men of this episode (both Elizabeth and Nina are used to explore the men in their lives), but watching Annelise get pushed into a sexual situation by Philip pushes back against some of the more humanizing Philip material of earlier episodes. Last week, he hurt Martha’s feelings to get her to push forward his mission; this week, he engineers an emotionally traumatic situation for one woman, so another (his wife) wouldn’t have to experience it.
It furthers the most intriguing aspect of Philip’s character: where Elizabeth remains steadfast to the mission, Philip’s been wavering since the pilot episode, unable to reconcile what he does and how we lives with who he wants to be (a husband and father who doesn’t have to murder young, innocent people and exploit others for a living). It’s a classic mind vs. heart dilemma, but The Americans (and Rhys, thanks to his fantastic performance) are able to wring a lot of mileage out of, even in trite moments like Philip telling Annelise how hard it is to send her (and more importantly, his wife) into such comprimising situations, for a mission they don’t understand, and a war they’re increasingly less involved in (Elizabeth points out that “the war’s going to be won in the third world”, during their mission to kill a Palestinian covert official and disrupt their internal power structure).
However, in doing so, it minimizes Elizabeth’s impact as a character, a side effect that carries most noticeably over to Nina, who is beginning to become a character we only see naked in bed or smoking in a safe house room. Her double manipulations are making her as ambiguous a character as Larrick, a wild card that only distracts from the other, arguably more important story lines happening in the foreground. The regression – as it is with Elizabeth, though on a much smaller scale with her – is distracting, a reduction of character that has reduced her to a person who listens to men tell her how important she is, or how much potential she actually has. Holding her in a stagnant pattern playing both sides has removed a bit of her edge, something “Yousaf” can only try to remind us through overt dialogue.
Although I’ve spent a lot of words on them, these complaints are really minor ones; “Yousaf” is still a plenty exciting episode, pushing things dramatically forward as Larrick runs loose around D.C., Arkady and Gaad make nice, and Philip shows his cards to Elizabeth about where his true loyalties lie. I don’t mind when a show nudges certain pieces and ideas into place; there are just a few moments where it feels “Yousaf” is shoving things into place, lacking the normal nuance and even-keeled approach The Americans usually brings to the table.