The Americans Review: Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow

I guess we’re not going to Epcot. — Philip Jennings

Not every hour of a top drama can be filled with heavy moments. Within any season, there are placeholders, but you’ll also find many episodes designed to move things along and build suspense. Tonight’s story didn’t feature an assassination or a constant stream of big, bulbous, in-your-face haymakers, but it set the stage for what’s to come.

Last week, Elizabeth and Philip found out Paige told Pastor Tim the family secret, and immediately the plot was hatched to remove him from the equation. The daughter’s conscience was a stay of execution for her spiritual mentor and friend, but we all feel pretty confident in Tim’s exit from the show coming before the end of the season. With that said, Joe Weisberg and his team have done a good job of coming up with clever ways to keep him around, first with Paige’s admission to her parents and again last night with the Gabriel issue.

This was by no means the best of the three episodes we’ve seen this month, but it was a necessity to slow things down just a bit. We have been on a breakneck pace since the midway point of the season opener and especially the events of last week, and we needed the emotions to slow and the dialogue to take over. This week, The Americans focused its attention on details that will lead to major climactic sequences later in the year. Some worked better than others, but I’ve yet to find an episode of the show that I didn’t like, and “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” was no exception.

I’m still not used to it. — Martha Hanson

Stan is starting to suspect Martha of being involved in the circumstances that ultimately led to Gene’s “suicide,” and based on how awkwardly she acts within the office, it stands to reason someone would finally take notice. He’s engaging in surveillance activities and has even brought his colleague into the fray, but as of yet, all he really has to go on are two nights where she didn’t return home. It was somewhat amusing that when Dennis suggests she might have a man in her life, Beeman continues along his same train of thought as if that couldn’t even be possible. Of course there is a man in her life, but Philip isn’t there for the fringe benefits of the relationship.

Nina is in a world of trouble due to her actions last week, but Anton Baklanov revealed himself to be a true friend as he gave her just a bit of cover with his explanation to Soviet authorities. Often times, the show’s trip to the gulag is the least interesting part of the show, sometimes the opposite, but tonight it was kept short, which was to the episode’s benefit.

Paige feels betrayed by Pastor Tim, and I’m still a bit stunned that Philip and Elizabeth had a sit-down conversation with him about their secret. It’s even crazier that Tim actually told his wife, Alice, and had no problem telling the Jennings family about it. He clearly has no idea what’s coming, but he just placed his better half in front of the same firing squad that has its sights set on the good reverend. That was a surreal scene, because Tim seemed so woefully unprepared to avoid revealing details that make his existence that much more of a concern to a pair of Soviet spies that already have shown they aren’t particularly fond of him.

You need to help Paige work on keeping Pastor Tim quiet, just for a little while longer. — Gabriel

Using the Florida trip and the Epcot Center vacation as a cover was a nice touch, though Paige appeared to be wary of it from the second it was mentioned to her in the kitchen. Gabriel, leaving nothing to chance, told Phillip and Elizabeth never to be out of her sight, and to be asleep before her, so not one snippet of time existed where they could have snuck out and ordered the hit or taken part in something nefarious. It’s all designed to leave as much doubt in Paige’s mind as possible, because her suspicions could never be proven unless her parents told her that Tim and Alice didn’t have an accident and were in fact killed.

Everything appeared to be in order and Tim’s fate sealed, along with that of his wife, but then came Glanders from the blind side. The only person caught more off guard in Gabriel’s apartment than Philip and Elizabeth was me. I didn’t anticipate that complication, but it was a perfect example of why The Americans works so well. While they’re always a step ahead, it’s virtually always a proper, gradual step, and not two or three. This is a story where the writers always show their work. We can get from Point A to Point B, and in the rare case where the jump finds C or D; we’ll get a flashback to explain what we missed.

Trying to bring their daughter in was a mistake. It’s time to bring them home. — Gabriel

I’m hoping against hope that somehow, Gabriel survives, mainly because I’d hate to lose Frank Langella from the show, but I’m not holding my breath. Glanders is just as terrifying as William made it out to be, but watching him attempt to run away from the Jennings adults was a needed piece of levity. I laughed, because it was absurd to think he would succeed in shaking them, and Philip punished him by spitting in his face, making sure the virus would take him down along with everyone else who was exposed. That was definitely the funniest scene of the season thus far, though the show isn’t known for its jokes.

Elizabeth seems resigned to Tim’s death, seeing it as the proper option, while Philip seems ready to head back to Russia. Strangely, the wife is more reticent to leave Washington than the husband. It’s odd because up to this point, he’s always been the one more open to America as a home and she despises everything about it. Philip sees Paige as the unfortunate loser, regardless of what ends up happening, and Elizabeth wants to continue the mission.

I find it a bit difficult to buy into the idea that the Centre wouldn’t have reeled them both in once Pastor Tim learned the truth, but we shouldn’t ever forget that no person, no family, no group, is more important than the Communist cause and the fall of the United States. So, leaving them in danger might not be a factor that bothers them all that much, even if the stakes are high and both Claudia and Gabriel are torn between what’s practical and what might be buried within their hearts.

Shifting gears without a particularly clever segue, I’m actually starting to wonder about Sandra Beeman. She shows up to say hello to Philip (and maybe to Elizabeth and the family) and accepts his offer for a cup of tea. The two have clearly connected at EST meetings and both are involved in complex individual relationships and enjoy one another’s company. I see less from Philip, but I don’t doubt for a minute we might see Sandra make some kind of a move at some point. Maybe it’s just a friendly platonic thing, but this is television, and usually there’s more to repeated encounters between male and female characters.

It could also just be a smokescreen to drive a wedge between Philip and Stan, but Sandra is getting closer to her new friend, not staying put and certainly not moving further away. She’s not aware that Stan nearly knocked Philip’s block off in the garage, and her response was simply, “He always has to be the tough guy.” She never says he’s off base, and Philip understands where his neighbor is coming from, but she doesn’t acknowledge that fact.

You have to love the Mary Kay stuff, if only for that magical back and forth where Young Hee talks about the banality of Cabbage Patch Kids and Elizabeth gets that Communist dig in about American consumerism and the constant desire for more earthly possessions. I’m also interested to see where we’re going with it, because we get to watch Keri Russell play a con-woman, but potentially one who doesn’t entirely despise her mark. And, as always, there’s a larger Soviet matter at play within the multi-level marketing story arc.

The more times Pastor Tim inadvertently finds ways to dodge his own death, the more I revel in all the “almosts” that The Americans provides. Some shows would never kill him off, but I have no doubt he dies before the end of Season 4. This isn’t a writing team that doesn’t pay off what it foreshadows, even when the conclusions are inevitable and telegraphed for many weeks.

It could happen at the end of the year, but makes more sense to occur sometime around mid season. He can’t cheat the mayhem forever, and eventually the Jennings family will find their way to a figurative Epcot. I do like that it’s being dragged out, and it showcases true skill within the script to pull it off without the near misses feeling like tactics to get through more episodes.

Another good episode, but back in second gear and on cruise control. Suspense is ramping up on multiple fronts, but this was an hour used to build anticipation and to leave us asking a few questions. We’ll get our answers eventually, but once again, The Americans masters pace and tone, slow burning its way straight to hell in its created world while simultaneously elevating its storytelling to high altitudes of entertainment and obscene levels of audience immersion.

I’m @GuyNamedJason. My alarm is also telling me to “run, run, run,” but I’m lazy, so I usually take a nap instead.

Written by Jason Martin