The Americans recap: 'What's the Matter With Kansas?'
In this installment of The Americans, Philip struggles with how to engage an especially dull target. That’s sort of how I felt about this whole episode.
After three stellar opening shows, the fourth one of this season just feels like it’s running in place. We open in Gabriel’s house, where they’re going over potential contacts with AgriCorps, the company that they uncovered in the previous episode as the outfit purchasing genetically engineered grain-devouring pests.
The suspicion is that this company is working with the American government to destroy Russia’s crops and create an artificial famine – something Soviets would have known a lot about.
The two marks are in Kansas, which means Philip and Elizabeth will be traveling to ensnare these two marks. Given that they’re already playing dual roles as Tuan’s parents, getting close to the Morozov family, and their regularly scheduled identities as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, they feel they’re a little overburdened.
Gabriel is unimpressed.
“We understand how important this is,” Elizabeth says.
“Good. Then I know you’ll work it out,” he tells her.
“Think we’re gonna get fired?” Philip asks as they leave.
“It’s not funny,” Elizabeth tells him.
This episode features the most we’ve seen lately of their son Henry. He is having some unspecified trouble at school. The teacher has called, requesting a meeting with his parents.
They want to know what’s going on, but Henry says he doesn’t know. Maybe this is building to something, but right now it’s just a midge, nibbling at the back of Philip and Elizabeth’s brains.
Philip ends up on a plane to Kansas, where he bumps into AgriCorps logistics manager Deirdre Kemp at a gym. Remember that essay “How to Talk to a Woman Who Is Wearing Headphones?” This scene feels a lot like that.
He interrupts her workout, makes small talk. She couldn’t care less. He tries flattery. That goes nowhere. This is stifling. Funny, but when the characters themselves are bored, it’s not exactly riveting.
Back in Moscow, Oleg confesses to his mother that he helped Stan Beeman and now is being blackmailed by him. (He’s actually being blackmailed by the CIA, against Stan’s wishes.)
“He’s trying to get me to do things that could put me in jail,” he tells her.
His mother starts crying. She has already lost one son to the war in Afghanistan. Now this….
A lot of things play out over a long period in this episode, but they can be summarized in just a few lines.
Mischa, Philip’s estranged son, gets smuggled through Yugoslavian checkpoint and ends up on a flight to America to find his father.
Paige babysits for Pastor Tim and his wife Alice, then spends the night going through their things, looking for… whatever. Really, she’s practicing the tradecraft her parents have been trying to instill in her – but they’re furious that she snooped on the pastor.
He and his wife know the truth(ish) about them, and they don’t want their suspicions being provoked again.
Paige is confused. Don’t they want her to be a spy? She was trying to help.
Back in Moscow, Burov is working with a new partner to bust corruption in the Soviet grocery supply system. They go back to menace the store manager he confronted in a previous episode, and this time – with his ominous new sidekick – she gives up the name of a supplier who has been giving her the good stuff.
Back in Kansas, Elizabeth takes her turn with a different AgriCorps employee – handsome and charming Ben Stobert. They have a meet-cute in a health food store that involves lots a lot of spilled carob.
He’s got personality plus compared to Deirdre, and if there’s any problem, it’s that Elizabeth may be too charmed by him.
Back home, Philip – in his guise as Tuan’s father – has a drink with the Russian agriculture expatriate Alexei Morozov, who again spends all his screen time trash-talking the Motherland. This is one of those places where I want to say to the writers – okay, we get it. Time to develop his story a little more. I’ve seen Alexei make variations on the same speech four times.
He asks Philip some questions about being a pilot, and Philip has an elaborate backstory about how he learned to fly at small airfield when he was 16, and then went to Vietnam running supplies, etc…
He gets Morozov talking about his own work, which involves telling the Americans how terrible the Soviet transportation system is, especially when it comes to moving food. “By the time it gets where it needs to be, it’s rotten,” he says.
It’s still not clear that he’s helping America poison or ruin Russia’s food supply. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I don’t think Alexei seems like the kind of guy who wants to make things worse back home.
We get an all-too-brief scene with Laurie Holden’s new character, Renee, who is Stan Beeman’s new squeeze. She does a lot of talking about her life as a tomboy, playing softball for her company’s team (even though she won’t let Stan come to the games).
This made me go, hmmm… What if there isn’t a company, or any games?
Could she be another agent, sent to defuse Stan in case he gets too close to the Jennings family? I’ve become conspiracy minded about this show. (I also thought Pastor Tim might not be who he says he is. But that suspicion has so far been unfounded.)
She has the same kind of quick-hit life story anecdotes that Philip and Elizabeth deploy in their covert operations, so that also set off alarms. Maybe it’s nothing. But you don’t hire an actress of her stature for a mere girlfriend part. She has to become a bigger part of the story sooner or later.
Back in Moscow, Burov meets with his boss. The suspected corrupt supplier – they have to do something about him.
One “weak point” is that he has a son in Afghanistan.
Burov, who lost his brother in that war, is reluctant to use threats against a solider as leverage against this supplier. “It’s not about being soft,” he says. “It’s about doing the decent thing. “
“The decent thing is what’s best for our country,” his superior says.
He sounds a lot like Stan, who said something similar in trying to get the CIA to stop blackmailing Burov.
Stan now has a new gambit. He tells the Assistant Attorney General about the plot to kidnap a young Russian operative in the Rezidentura a few years ago. That Russian was murdered by Stan himself.
“I shot him, once in the back of the head,” Stan tells the Assistant AG.
“And… you want to be arrested? Prosecuted?” the official asks.
“That’s up to you. But if the CIA uses the tape I made to blackmail Burov, I will go public and confess. The U.S. government killing innocent people — splashed across the world’s newspapers.”
This was the high point of the episode. Stan using himself as blackmail against the U.S. government. Bold, fearless move. Kind of noble, too. Even though he’s a murderer.
“I’m guessing you’ll keep quiet like the rest of us,” Stan tells the Assistant AG. “And you will find a way to make sure the CIA leaves Oleg Burov alone.”
Back at the Jennings house, Paige has a fight with her mother over her snooping around Pastor Tim’s house. She found a diary, which didn’t include anything about their family but had coded references to various people in the congregation.
“Paige, you can look different after you do something like that,” her mother says. “If there is any slip, if they sense anything from you, Alice wouldn’t come to us next time. She would go straight to the FBI.”
Back in Moscow, Burov has his own heart-to-heart with his mother, who confesses that before he was born, she was sent by the government to a prison camp.
“It happened that way sometimes,” she says. “They took the wives. And not the husbands. I was there for five years.”
Burov is shellshocked.
“I did what I had to to survive,” she tells him. “You do what you need to do.”
Back in the U.S.A., Mischa has just arrived on American soil, and Philip and Elizabeth are in bed, talking about Paige’s snooping and their new work in Kansas.
Philip is bored beyond belief with Deirdre, but Elizabeth suggests she might be developing feelings for Ben.
“You like him?” Philip says, thinking he understands why she’s troubled. He cared deeply for Martha, after all.
But no. Elizabeth isn’t soft like him.
“I have to sit there with him while he makes his jokes,” she says. “The guy’s laughing while he’s trying to starve an entire country.”
Ice cold, our Elizabeth.