Something that The Americans is doing noticeably well in its second season is surrounding its central characters with interesting people. Some of those people are ones we know from last year who have simply become more nuanced and given clearer intentions or purposes, and some are new faces altogether that command a surprising presence. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the Jennings couple would be enough to carry a series without it dragging its feet. The first season of The Americans, though, was lucky enough to have Noah Emmerich, Margo Martindale and Annet Mahendru complete a slightly larger roster. Now, that number has increased to allow for characters like Lucia and Oleg to both challenge the status quo and remind viewers how far we’ve come just in the space of a year.
Lucia acts as a somewhat obvious mirror for Elizabeth to see the idealistic person she once was. We were introduced to Elizabeth as the more gung ho of the main couple when it came to issues of nationalism. Lucia is a more animated and naive version of that version of Elizabeth–one we could imagine her having been years ago. And unlike the new handler (who, to be fair, gets a bit more to do this episode and shows some kind of personality), Lucia’s story in “Behind the Red Door” has a lot of weight and evokes genuine emotional response. For the past two episodes, echoes of Elizabeth’s assault have been heard here and there. There’s a more overtly reminiscent scene regarding that elsewhere in the episode (more on that below), but Elizabeth having to overhear Lucia as she’s trying to retrieve some locked files is painful even given that Lucia has consented to the tactics being used. That’s who we see Lucia as in “Behind the Red Door”–someone willing to do what it takes to get the job done at the same time she’s struggling to come to terms with that necessity. She might be falling for the guy she’s stringing along for information, but that doesn’t stop her from cutting off ties by poisoning him. Her character at this transitional stage is especially interesting because when we began the series, Philip and Elizabeth were already very, very good at their jobs. Lucia is still learning how to do things, and allowing the poison scene to include her trying to comfort the guy by reminding him of the things he’s willing to die for is a show of legitimate compassion that we couldn’t imagine either of the Jenningses extending to their targets.
But, as I said, this is not the only circumstance that trudges up old, bad memories for Elizabeth. The problem here is that she is partly responsible for the unfortunate thing that happens between her and Philip and which serves as one of the most deeply affecting moments in any episode of The Americans. After her brush with Martha last week, we see an endearing amount of jealousy creeping into Elizabeth’s mind as she probes an understandably reluctant Philip about what Clark is like with Martha behind closed doors. It begins in a teasing, flirtatious manner and it ends in complicated horror. No doubt many viewers will label it some form of rape, and that we have Elizabeth’s backstory certainly supports that avenue of thought. Yet, without clear definitions, I would be hesitant to call it that. It’s more like a situation gone wrong, rectified before the point of no return. Elizabeth wants to be intimate with Clark to see what it’s like, and when she pushes too far, a combination of frustration and cold distance overcomes Philip in a sharp, almost involuntary turn that takes a few seconds to set it for either to understand. Both characters have to take time after to recognize how awful they feel about it, Elizabeth weeping on the bed and Philip just one degree away from punching the bathroom mirror. Season two of The Americans immediately established the Jenningses as a happier couple, capable of reconciling their intimacy with their duties. This isn’t permanent damage done, I would say, but it’s a huge blow in journey they’re on towards establishing a working routine. What’s more heartbreaking is Elizabeth asking Philip if he’s mad at her, as if she carries all of the guilt. Of course not, he says. It’s not enough to put it completely in the past, but it’s enough to move on.
It’s such a huge contrast, too, with some of the other scenes we see between Philip and Elizabeth. When Elizabeth is so stressed out that she can’t even get her boot off, Philip calms her down and comforts her before engaging in much less complicated lovemaking. Watching the scene that follows is somewhat strange since it features rather explicit rear nudity but is somehow anything but titillating or graphic. There’s such a warm sense of love and shared compassion when the couple is lying on the bed, Elizabeth completely nude, that makes the days of season one seem so far removed from the present. This is no longer a struggling marriage in which one or both participants feel uncomfortable being natural around the other. It has passed that threshold and is mostly a marriage that stands as what the ideal kind might look like, having to deal mostly with external issues.
“Behind the Red Door” is full of similarly deep relationships or lack thereof. Director Charlotte Sieling does a remarkable job at capturing what Stan’s going through, for instance. She slowly pulls back from the Beeman dinner table as Sandra and Matthew are chatting and eating. The initial shot gives off that powerful detachment from the long dinner shot in the film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and I almost wish Sieling would have done something similar by letting Stan zone out for a while longer. But as the episode is packed as is, the scene works perfectly fine and also brings in the title, referring to the new red that Sandra has painted the front door. What additional significance this has beyond pointing to the obvious ideas of Communism (now that Oleg is trying to turn Stan) are up for speculation, but it’s kind of fascinating to see Stan’s world fall apart like this. He’s as distant from his family as ever. Nina has left him after being accused of lying and asked to take a polygraph. Even Agent Gaad airs his grievances and the bitterness he harbors towards Stan, bluntly shooing him out of his home. Everyone in “Behind the Red Door” is a bit lost at sea, trying to make sense of the decisions they’ve made. Claudia isn’t exempt, either, after she tells Elizabeth that her own lapse in judgment might be the reason she’s lost two of her operatives. For as deeply troubling and plainly sad as some of the events of “Behind the Red Door” are, the season appears to be at some sort of peak, stringing together a series of marvelous episodes in a row. Maintaining that consistency is something else, but there’s been such improvement this year in The Americans that I wouldn’t put it beyond Joe Weisberg.
[Photo via Craig Blankenhorn/FX]