Even though it was a heavy focus during the first few episodes of this season of The Americans, I had not expected the murders of Emmett and Leanne to serve as an event that the entire season would pivot around. Yet, here we are, ten episodes in and Stan is slowly closing in on the shaky facts surrounding what had happened in the season premiere. Other shows, like Justified, do this kind of thing more overtly (such as with the Drew Thompson case in that series), but The Americans has always downplayed its smart, serialized narrative structure by filling each episode with great genre- and tension-based material that almost makes the viewer forget that something is being built up to at all. I don’t know if the endpoint in The Americans is always something to be excited about, since most of the payoffs in the series have to do with the characters and their relationships with one another. Also, not having much for Stan to do right now (more on that below) other than moving him forward a step here and there in the plot means that one large area of the season is basically a waiting game. But in the moment of each episode, including “Yousaf,” there are enough things going on that the good and engaging often outweighs the uneventful and dragging.
After a much more focused episode last week, “Yousaf” actually checks in on just about every running thread from this season. Even Sandra, who doesn’t appear in the episode, is mentioned in Stan and Nina’s short conversation. So, that makes this as good a time as any to say that that part of Stan’s arc this season has fallen comparatively flat. It’s at least somewhat interesting to see his reaction to Sandra’s infidelity–that he’s surprised despite having been in an affair with Nina for quite some time–but that’s about as far as it goes. I get the same reaction from his scenes with Agent Gaad, which just scratch the surface of potential there. After that visit to Gaad’s home and being blamed for his part in Gaad’s fate, the two are back working together in relative peace. It’s completely logical, since Gaad neither seems like the kind of person to let a vendetta affect him nor the kind of person to bring personal business into work. That said, there’s no energy to any of the scenes with Stan. There’s no charge. On paper, he’s had plenty to do, including his collision with Oleg, but Stan’s scenes have yet to pop this season in some of the ways that Philip’s and Elizabeth’s have. It’s not a huge concern, but given that Emmerich is the closest thing to a third lead that The Americans has, it’s weird when I realize that I’m just not invested in everything he’s doing and going through.
It’s a quibble that doesn’t bring down the rest of the episode (or the season, for that matter), though. The great contemporary Japanese writer, Murakami Haruki, said in his first novel that an author can’t tell a good story with sex or death. That idea undergoes cosmic transference here, since the brilliantly directed sequence by Stefan Schwartz cuts back and forth between Elizabeth killing Javid and Annelise (from season one’s “The Clock”; hopefully I’m not the only one who had to look this up, because I couldn’t remember her from last year) giving away her body on Philip’s behalf. Intertwining the these two ideas is not something original, and Murakami was hardly the first to directly address the importance of the connection in fiction, but The Americans handles the sequence with flare and stunning execution, making it a highlight of the episode for me.
We also get to see more of the aftermath of Philip going off on Paige last week. When she walks into the kitchen to help unpack the groceries, there is a brief moment that suggests that all might be well with that relationship. Paige is playing her game, though, and appeals to Philip to let her go to a three-month camp with her church. How both Philip and Elizabeth react to this not only makes for some great exchanges between the characters; it also shows that their parenting styles coincide with how each character handles the job of being a spy. Philip tends to choose the path of least resistance, lashing out only if backed into a corner. So, it’s not that he’s the traditionally easy-going father figure. When it comes to confrontation in general, he tries to figure out the route that will cause the least amount of unnecessary pain. Elizabeth, on the other hand, reacts to conflict with more conflict. She would be the type of person who would have to have the last say in an argument, or if caught in a battle of revenge, hers would need to be the last action. This allows her to make quick, effective and brutal decisions in the field that Philip might take more time to consider (which, really, could also get him killed in the wrong circumstances), and it also forces her to come down harder on Paige, taking a stance of superiority that she feels she’s earned. I don’t think “Yousaf” tries to portray either as being more correct than the other, which works to its credit. This is why Philip and Elizabeth make such great partners–the fill in some of the gaps in one another, allowing them to see different perspectives, even if they are perspectives that are never going to change them.
The rest of the Russian side of things in “Yousaf” creates some decent tension going forward between Gaad and Arkady. Their conversation outside Gaad’s home in the snowfall works wonderfully because of how well both actors are able to convey the purpose of the dialog. These are also two characters who operate on the periphery in The Americans. We usually get Arkady through Nina’s perspective and Gaad through Stan’s. Seeing both of them–incredibly powerful in their own rights–play this game of wits in this episode is so enjoyable that I hope we get a few more scenes with just the two of them (last week’s diner scene was also a highlight). In the meantime, I still don’t know what the second season intends to do with Nina, who is still tied up with both Stan and Oleg as they go after each other. But hey, as long as Annet Mahendru is on the screen, does anyone really care?
[Photo via Patrick Harbron/FX]