'The Americans' recap: 'Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?'
Elizabeth learns how easy it is to go wrong while trying to do right.
“You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?”
“I’m sorry. But it will.”
“That’s what evil people tell themselves … when they do … evil things.”
These are the dying words of a stranger, but they have wounded Elizabeth Jennings like no bullet, knife, or punch has yet. Tonight’s episode of The Americans, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” steals its title from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired Blade Runner—another story that questioned what it means to be both human… and inhuman.
The old woman who utters these words (played by a charming and riveting Lois Smith) punctures a hole in Elizabeth’s otherwise impenetrable devotion to her grim life’s work for the KGB. Until now, Elizabeth has seen herself as a spy, a saboteur, a soldier—but overall an agent of equality. In this moment, forcing an innocent elderly woman to commit suicide for the crime of catching up on warehouse paperwork when she and Philip break in to bug the FBI’s mail robot, opens her eyes to a different reality: Maybe she’s just a murderer, a thug, an oppressor. Maybe she is the enemy.
We’ll get into the mother-issues that allow this particular victim to strike such a nerve with Keri Russell’s usually stoic character, but let’s dive into how the episode starts: With Elizabeth breaking some unfortunate news to Hans, her young South African KGB recruit. She says that he may have been spotted by Todd, the pro-apartheid college student and would-be bomber she spared in the previous episode. After the fiery death of his terrorist handler, Todd confessed everything Elizabeth, Philip, and their South African revolutionary Reuben Ncgobo wanted to know.
Given what Elizabeth has to do to poor, heartsick Betty, the purely innocent bystander, later in this episode, the mercy she showed to potential mass-murderer Todd seems out of place, no? When she tells Hans that his, um, KGB internship is being scrapped because this Todd guy caught a glimpse of him… something else rang false, at least for me. I actually went back to the previous week’s episode to see if this really happened, if Todd really did see Hans, and sure enough, yes, he did. But, but—remember that Todd spent a lot of time not only looking at her, Philip, and Reuben, but talking with them and begging them for mercy. Surely those are some faces he’ll never forget. The kid he saw briefly at a distance, scurrying away—so what? How is that a threat?
Still, she tells him: “Hans, it’s over. Us. This.”
I’m no mail robot, but … this does not compute. Especially for a woman who is eager to draw her own daughter into this life. It’s never stated explicitly, but my theory is: This is a test.
The next scene has Matthew Rhys’ Philip delivering Elizabeth a one-two hit of more troubling news:
1. The FBI found the bug they embedded in the desk pen of Special Agent Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas.)
2. Gaad’s secretary, and Philip’s “other” wife, Martha Hanson (Alison Wright) knows he’s not the internal affairs investigator he claimed to be.
“The person they brought in to investigate isn’t me,” he explains.
But there’s a silver lining: Martha hasn’t ratted him out, and he doesn’t think she will. Elizabeth is incredulous. “How can you know?”
I loved Rhys’s hesitation here, and thought he was going to say: “Because she’s my wife.” I think that’s what the character was actually thinking, although what he tells Elizabeth, his “real” wife, was somewhat softer.
“Because I trust her.”
From there, we get a moment of high blood pressure as Philip returns to her apartment, casing it a little first before bearing down and heading inside as the “Clark” husband she thought she knew, but still doesn’t.
He could easily be walking into a trap, but no, there’s Martha at the stove cooking tomato sauce. The phone rings (a little conveniently), and Martha explains that it’s Children’s Services. “We’ve reconsidered. It’s just not a good time,” she says, like she’s brushing off a telemarketing call.
“Clark” isn’t sure how to take this sudden abandonment of her desire to start a family, even though he’d been trying desperately to suppress it all along. “It’s unrealistic to think about children. Not now. Clark. It’s okay. Really,” she tells him after hanging up. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”
So … she doesn’t mind that he lied to her, got her to commit treason by bugging her boss’ office, and still hasn’t explained who the hell he is? “I just needed to know,” she says. “And now I do.”
Except … she doesn’t.
Over dinner, Martha goes a step further, showing her commitment to this shape-shifter spouse of hers by downloading more information, more willingly than she ever has before: Gaad is freaking out and beat up the mail robot, and he did so much damage that the robot had to be sent away for repairs.
Let’s pause for a moment and analyze this: Why is Martha not melting down and taking “Clark” with her?
NEXT: A Martha conspiracy theory ….
Actually, I see two paths here:
Theory #1: This poor woman has a Cold War-sized case of insecurity and self-loathing, and she’s so desperate to maintain this (totally bizarre remote husband) relationship that she’s not only going to ignore it but will go with it with even more gusto than before.
Theory #2 (and this is the one I believe, because I’m a mistrustful sort): Martha has more nerve than we realize and confessed everything already to Gaad and the actual internal affairs investigator. Rather than just bust “Clark,” they’re going to keep him in the wild, study him, and pull a reversal—now Martha will be used to spy on him.
It echoes what the Rezidentura forced Nina to do when they found out she was aiding the FBI Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich)—keep helping him, but actually help us even more. Maybe it’s far-fetched, but hear me out: Let’s just entertain the idea that gullible Martha has been enlisted as a double-agent.
Isn’t it a little odd that the “Children’s Services” call came in just as “Clark” arrived at the apartment? And that it was dispatched so cleanly?
Maybe that was the FBI checking that everything was copacetic after “Clark” entered the apartment. If Martha hadn’t answered the phone, or felt endangered and uttered an alarm word, that apartment could have been flooded with agents.
Instead, she keeps her cool, goes about dinner, and supplies Philip with a handy little piece of actionable intelligence: the mail robot has been damaged and sent off-site for repairs.
This tidbit leads the KGB handler Gabriel (the smoothly intimidating Frank Langella) to conclude that the mail robot must be bugged so Mother Russia can get their ears back on the FBI counter-intelligence office.
Philip resists. Maybe it’s time to just let Martha go and count their blessings. But Gabriel isn’t willing to do that just yet. Bug the machine, he tells them. End of story.
Gabriel likes to present the image of a sophisticated, avuncular presence with his two top field agents, but Langella shows a little teeth by rejecting their fretting with one sternly delivered sentence: “You should trust the organization.”
If Theory #2 is taking place, and Martha is helping the FBI spy on this person who infiltrated her life, Gaad & Co. may have wanted Martha to dangle the bait of the disabled mail robot knowing the KGB wouldn’t be able to resist bugging it. Knowing that it may come back wired for sound gives them a perfect opportunity to whisper bad information into Mother Russia’s ear. If they know the bug is there, they can control what it hears.
But there are a couple of holes here. Let’s see if I can patch them: If Martha is working as a double-agent, surely they’ll grab a picture of “Clark,” and Stan will immediately recognize his best friend, neighbor, and fellow EST member Philip Jennings in a creepy wig.
Except … notice later in the episode when Gaad and Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) urge Beeman to go home after he gets a can of whoopass opened up on his skull? Beeman departs, and the two other men share a long, silent look freighted with some unknown meaning.
Maybe they suspect Beeman is in on it. If they even think there’s a chance of that, they’re not going to let him know what Martha (may have) revealed. Not until they’re sure.
Which brings us to why Beeman had that gash in his head: He and Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), loose cannon of the Rezidentura and fellow paramour of the exiled Nina, plan to save their shared love by outing the defector Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya (Svetlana Efremova) as a double-agent.
We see Stan standing watch over her hotel room, checking his watch repeatedly as he waits to give Oleg enough time to threaten her with assassination unless she recants her criticism of the U.S.S.R. and its operations in Afghanistan.
Oleg tells her she can return to Russia as a hero. “A lost daughter of the revolution who was seduced by the west and has returned to her senses.”
She has two weeks to do this before he blows her brains out.
Stan checks his watch. That should do. He barges in, gets clobbered in the dome, and a disguised Oleg runs for it.
Notice that Gaad and Aderholt seem not-so-impressed by Stan’s valor in this botched bit of security? Maybe that fits a pattern. Maybe they don’t trust their old buddy so much anymore. And maybe keeping him on the outs accidentally helps the writers maintain Philip’s secret identity a little longer.
Lotta maybes here. Let’s get back to what we know for sure.
NEXT: The blurry, bloody line between right and wrong
Now we learn that Hans did not take his dismissal easily. We see Todd the wannabe-terrorist wheeling a stack of books through a lonely university warehouse—then he hears a sound.
Surprise! That sound is Hans. And the next sound Todd hears is his eyeball bursting as a low-caliber bullet blows off the side of his ocular cavity.
He’s not dead! But, damn—maybe that would have been easier. Hans’ pistol is jammed. Time to do this by hand…
We get an ugly knock-down, drag-out between them that ends with Hans choking the life out of the mutilated Todd. This was a worse end than Elizabeth had threatened Todd with in the last episode, a clean, simple shot to the brain. But … it beats being burned alive inside a big tire, I guess.
Hans lets Elizabeth know what he did. (And, hey, if she was so eager to kick him to the curb before, why even agree to this meeting? I’m telling you: she only spared Todd to test Hans’ killer instinct.)
She accepts that Todd’s death means Hans can come back to the program, but her South African protégé is a bit shaken. “It was, uh, messy,” he tells her.
But like Elizabeth, Hans is a true believer that sometimes blood must be spilled to stop a larger tidal wave of it. “My people, what we’ve done to the blacks in my country … it’s wrong. It has to stop. I will do whatever is asked of me, for the cause. For you.”
That brings a little smile from Elizabeth. I think it’s just what she wanted to hear. But by the end of the episode, I’m no longer sure she believes it herself.
That’s because when she and Philip break into the warehouse to bug the mail robot in the middle of the night, they discover … your grandmother.
Seriously, the sweetness and incandescent decency of this woman can not be overstated. Lois Smith did a remarkable job of making her endearing and adorable in just a few scenes, someone for whom even the stone-hearted Elizabeth can empathize.
Betty is just here to do paperwork at night. The quiet helps her commune with Gil, her late husband, who started the business. But for this wiretap operation to succeed there can be no witnesses. Elizabeth knows this right away. It takes the old lady a little longer.
She talks about her World War II veteran husband, who helped liberate Jews from German concentration camps during his four-year stint in Europe. He came back to found a business that kept growing even after his death. These are working people. They were once on the same side as Elizabeth’s people in stopping a great evil. She’s having a hard time seeing Betty as an enemy, or merely a piece of collateral damage.
Philip, who never lays eyes on the woman, has no such sympathies: “She picked a bad time,” he says.
Betty likes to talk and gets Elizabeth to do the same as she stands watch over her. She tells the old woman her real name, and admits she’s not there to steal anything. This puzzles her prey. Betty keeps talking, mentions her father, who was a farmer. She asks Elizabeth what her father did for a living, still unaware of who she’s dealing with.
“He was a coal miner.”
“An office worker,” Elizabeth says. Ah, there it is. An office worker, not unlike Betty. We’ve seen Elizabeth worrying about her ailing mother lately. And now here she is, about to execute someone else’s.
“Where does she live?” Betty asks.
Elizabeth waits a beat. “Russia.”
That’s when it dawns on the old woman. She’s not going to get out of this. “Your English is very good,” Betty says.
Elizabeth wants to make this as easy as possible on the woman. There is no malice in this murder. But her version of mercy is to dump the woman’s heart pills out onto the desk in front of her. The implication is clear: take the easy way out.
Easier for Elizabeth, that is.
In one of the most agonizing scenes in The Americans’ history (and I’m counting the dead body “luggage packing” scene from earlier this season), we watch as Betty reluctantly nibbles pill after pill like butter mints.
“Do you have children?” Betty asks.
“And this is what you do …?” the old woman croaks. She’s starting to lose it. “…. Why?”
“To make the world a better place,” Elizabeth says flatly, but there has never been less conviction in her words.
“You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?”
Elizabeth swallows: “I’m sorry. But it will.”
Then comes the final blow, the death blow—only the person who falls is not the one who loses this fight. “That’s what evil people tell themselves,” Betty says, struggling to get the words out as her life slips away. “… when they do … evil things.”
Later, as she and Philip are leaving, Elizabeth hides her tears.
So what now …?
The episode ends with Gabriel and Philip playing Scrabble, with Gabriel delivering a patronizing monologue about the difference in language between “amatory,” which means loving, devoted, or adoring—and “wedlock,” which he says comes from Norse words meaning “perpetual battle.”
Last episode, Gabriel was surprised to discover that Elizabeth knew about Philip’s illegitimate son, currently fighting in Afghanistan. He seems to want there to be a little mistrust between his two agents—that means the only person they truly trust is him. Gabriel wants these two watching each other, keeping each other on track—not covering for one another.
Gabriel asks Philip about his apparent attitude problem, which obviously stems from his contempt that the KGB has successfully pressured Elizabeth to begin converting their teenage daughter into an agent.
“The problem is you, Gabriel,” Philip says, in a bit of candor that can’t possibly be welcome. Gabriel would prefer his agents be just a little bit afraid. “You think you can wrap me around your little finger. But I’m not Elizabeth.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“I trusted you, and your job was to look out for me,” Philip says. The paternal relationship between these two is boiling over. Philip looked at Gabriel as a surrogate father, and now that father figure is making him turn over his own daughter.
“Now my job is to look out for my family,” Philip says, in a line that ends the episode. “Because no one else will.”
So much for trusting the organization.
1980s Watch: Not too much in the way of Reagan Era pop-culture references this show. Back at the Jennings home, we see Henry playing a pre-GameBoy handheld videogame, while Paige reads from a Bible stuffed with Post-It notes. If this were the present day, I wonder if Gabriel and Philip would be having their Scrabble exchange over Words With Friends.
Betty’s Rubble: Lois Smith will have only one appearance on The Americans, obviously, but it leaves behind tremendous aftermath. This performance needs to be considered for an Emmy in the guest actress category. Where have you seen this actress before? For me, she stands out as Sookie’s grandmother from the first season of True Blood, but that’s hardly her most famous role. The 84-year-old co-starred opposite James Dean in East of Eden, Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, and was part of the ensemble in How To Make An American Quilt.
Best Line: It’s a bit of a throwaway, but when Martha toasts “Clark” during the awkward dinner in which she reveals she will keep helping him, she says: “… To turning the page!” For Philip, discovering he has protective feelings for Martha as she switches over knowingly to his side, this had to conjure complicated feelings about the other “Paige” in his life. A clever bit of wordplay. Kudos to writer Joshua Brand for slipping this one in there.