The Americans Watch: Episode 4, In Control

Two weeks ago, I would've said that The Americans was good tv, but was missing a little something. Mark my words: by the end of this season, this show will be right up there with Sons of Anarchy as talked-about, appointment television, and it's because of installments like the one we were given last night. "In Control" is an example of super-engaging and challenging television; like Mad Men, it forces the viewer to pay attention and plug in, and gives a rewarding experience if those two criteria are met.

I'm surprised, given my concerns about it after the pilot, that Philip and Elizabeth's marriage is the heart of the show, as these two goal-oriented people start to thaw and learn to actually care for one another. I went to high school with more than a few friends who ended up in arranged marriages, and there are absolutely real-life parallels; if their love story continues to be cultivated like this, it might just end up one of the most unique and talked-about relationship on tv for years to come. It's this close to the anti-Moonlighting, and that's a good thing.

Last night's episode was built around John Hinkley's assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan; Elizabeth sets up a romantic getaway to spice up the marriage at a nice hotel. Via lobby television, they learn of the shooting and transform instantly from lovers to spies. Philip is off to get information from a press contact, and Elizabeth heads out to find Claudia, their handler.

It was chilling and cool to learn of "Operation Christopher," the KGB's plan for on-street commandeering and warfare in the event of total chaos in Washington. The details are hazy but definitely terrifying; the big "whoa!" moment for me in the episode was Elizabeth traipsing off into the woods and producing a bunch of sniper rifles and explosives from an ominously-buried crate. Yikes.

The mission at the heart of this episode, though, is one of intelligence-gathering; the pair go undercover to track the president's health, and when Secretary of State Haig claims he's "in control here" (title of the episode, right there!), our lovebirds take an unmarked van into a rich neighborhood and prepare to shoot some people. They do, in fact, kill an innocent security guard and discard the body in the woods (lots of woodland activity) and prepare to send coded messages back to Russia.

It's here that we see another twist on their relationship; Philip is calm and methodical, making sure to collect unbiased, clear and unemotional intel. It's chaos, after all, and he doesn't want to trip off a nuclear war based on wrong information. Elizabeth takes the flip side, citing Haig's claim of control as an actual war cry.

This brings us to Stan, who has checked in with his contact, Nina, at the Russian Embassy. She confirms it's chaos over there right now, too. And then we get an AWESOME neighborly-wine-date scene between the Jennings and the Beemans, and Stan confirms Hinckley acted alone and that it happened because he was in love with Jodi Foster. Afterward, we learn how deeply unhappy Stan's wife is, and that he's disappeared into deep cover work before; how many sham marriages can one show take?

We end with some pillow talk at the Jennings' house, Philip is concerned that Moscow will find out how careful he's being, and Elizabeth has a tiny flashback to childhood, where her mom tells her to be self-reliant. Then everyone goes to bed.

What I liked most about this episode is that Philip's absorption into American culture has previously been laid out as a weakness and a liability; here, it saves the day. He's careful and immersed, and it leads to the Jennings making the right call. Philip has an awareness of the exact cultural issues that make historical moments like this so complex and politically fragile in America; it represents something bigger and has far-reaching ramifications. Philip's keen understanding of checks and balances pretty much saved us from World War III.

Also, after the beltway sniper events of 2002, I found the idea of two trained shooters in an unmarked van kind of chilling.

All in all, it was fun and exciting to see history come into play on The Americans, and I welcome more installments just like this. I'm pumped for next week.