The life of a spy is difficult. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, despite the rockiness of their marriage in the first season of The Americans, haven’t had too many issues in completing their missions when they only have to worry about each other. As the strategy game of the Cold War expands, however, the two find themselves in positions that force them to relinquish some control and trust to other people. Philip still isn’t quite taken with the new handler who has replaced Claudia (who made one mistake that has cost her her position, essentially). He’s even less enamored with Charles Duluth, who joins him in attempting to bug the episode title’s piece of machinery, the Arpanet–a precursor to the computer. Elizabeth is facing similar struggles in trying to contain Lucia, who is bent on taking down Laric in a move that is clearly a bad idea for all parties involved. After last week’s fantastic episode that featured some heavy material for Philip and Elizabeth to share, “Arpanet” barely touches on that central relationship and reminds viewers how nothing in The Americans comes easy to its characters.
The episode is divided mostly into two pieces leading up to the climaxes of Nina’s polygraph and Philip and Duluth’s infiltration of the lab where the Arpanet is being held. The latter is a plotline that’s much more marketable to people trying to find an entry into this spy series that isn’t always a spy series. More than in any scene from this season so far, the unintentional debriefing of the Arpanet job possesses a fun cinematic quality to it that isn’t unlike what you might find in an Ocean’s Eleven. Posing as one of his many characters, Philip asks about the device and one of the university’s representatives points up as the camera floats through the ceiling to the lab. It’s a jarring directorial decision when you see it play out (this is Kevin Dowling’s first crack at The Americans), but it contributes in such a way as to elevate the mission so that it stands toe-to-toe with what’s going on in Nina’s story. And when it comes time to execute the actual job, Dowling brings out the tension perfectly. Philip mostly has to clean up Duluth’s mess, including killing someone who is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (not showing the actual body being thrown in the janitorial garbage bin is a great decision). The real kicker is the conversation Philip and Duluth share at the bar after the fact. Part of why Philip is having an issue with his partner in “Arpanet” is that he’s a drunkard. Duluth does the liar’s trick of pretending to be completely open by asking Philip to try his drink, and after Duluth leaves, we find out that his cranberry and soda is really a cranberry and vodka. Though Nina is what makes so much of “Arpanet” effective, if I have one major qualm with the episode it is that it doesn’t end on the image of Philip after having had a sip of the drink. It might not be the most emotionally poignant, but it is absolutely the more effective conclusion in terms of communicating what The Americans is doing in this episode by making life difficult for everyone because of a lack of trust.
That said, everything on Nina’s end is beyond satisfactory. Again, director Kevin Dowling shines in the integral parts of the polygraph test. First, we see Nina turn directly to Stan when asked about Vlad’s murder. I was kind of hoping for some verbal interaction between the two regarding that issue after the test, but at the same time, there isn’t really anything Stan can say. Nina has got him wrapped so tightly around her finger that he probably isn’t willing to address something like that for fear of creating any additional distance. It’s enough that she says she loves him. The more impressive and affecting part of the test, though, is the way in which the camera focuses on Nina’s face as she turns to that empty part of the room to envision Oleg. Again, by not showing us something, Dowling allows us to contribute by using our imagination based on Nina’s facial expressions and when she decides to turn her head to face the corner. Subtlety is something The Americans wears incredibly well, and “Arpanet”–despite having a legitimate action set piece–is full of these subtle technical decisions that make the episode feel so tight. I’m not really convinced that we’ve been given enough material shared by Nina and Oleg to warrant seeing them becoming sexual partners in this episode. Oleg is spot-on that Nina is lying, to some degree, when she says she no longer harbors feelings for Stan. So, I could see it as a combination of relief after the adrenaline rush and a way to detach herself emotionally. Yet, Nina has been so cautious and private that opening herself up like this feels very out of place at the moment. Apart from that aspect, the scene works to solidify Dowling’s impressive first outing here by pulling back on the two in bed even if–again–I think it would have made more sense to finish with a disillusioned Philip at the bar, not unlike a Don Draper kind of figure.
The periphery stuff in “Arpanet” is much less important but remains somewhat interesting. In a rare episode for the series, we’re without a Paige but are given a Henry. The youngest of the Jennings family breaks into a neighbor’s house after spying on them through his telescope, rummaging through their stuff and playing their videogames. This is the first real plot point we’ve had for Henry this season, so I’m sure just whatever the heck is going through his mind will be addressed in some way just as Paige’s strange journey has taken some weird turns. It’s hard to balance some of these characters, especially when they can’t tie into the main plots without it being forced, but I’m hoping The Americans doesn’t lose its handle on Henry and create a curious inclusion in the name of actors who get billed as regulars (Stan’s wife is also a character who hasn’t earned that spot yet). In addition to whatever is being done with Henry, we get a little more from Lee Tergesen’s Laric, who has quietly brought a great presence to the last two episodes. Tergesen is always a welcome actor in a television series, and it looks like he’s going to be playing somewhat of a larger role based on Elizabeth’s scenes with both him and Lucia. The assets that Philip and Elizabeth have been working with have mostly played ball. Laric is, as stated, a wild card, fitting right into this episode’s focus on having to work with people who haven’t proven to be trustworthy. And now that we have just passed the halfway point of the season, we should start to see some of the repercussions in dealing with those kinds of people.
[Photo via Patrick Harbron/FX]