Since its premiere, The Americans has casually dropped in real-world events and people to securely set the show in the 1980s Cold War era.
In its fourth episode, “In Control,” the show tackled one of the biggest historical events of the decade—the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. In the years that followed the shooting, Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s declaration that “I’m in control” has become something of a national punchline. “In Control” offered up a fascinating fictional take on Haig’s hubris—the KGB thought Haig was staging a coup.
Each side assumes the worst of the other. The FBI worries that John Hinckley, Jr. had communist connections. Elizabeth and Philip are told to prepare for Operation Christopher, which basically is them digging up their arsenal of weapons and mapping out how to kill the country’s leaders. The episode highlighted the couple’s differing approach to handling classified information and their superiors. Philip wants to wait until they knew more—fearing that they could inadvertently start World War III. Elizabeth wants to blindly obey orders.
What I loved most about this episode is that even though we all know how everything eventually played out, the hour was still fraught with nail-biting tension. And once again, the show reminded viewers of just how ruthless Elizabeth and Philip are. When stopped by a security guard, Elizabeth kills him without hesitation. I also enjoyed seeing yet another manifestation of their aliases. They approach one of the nurses who treated Reagan claiming to be from the Vice President’s office, even giving her a pin as a token of their appreciation. While they will kill when necessary, they try to avoid it—not because they will feel guilty but because the more dead bodies they leave in their wake, the more likely it becomes that they could be caught.
Stan also harasses Nina, the woman he turned last week, for information. He calls her at work, insists that they meet and nearly gets her caught. I do not see things ending well for Nina. Stan, it appears, can be just as ruthless in pursuit of his goal.
The show leaves so much open for interpretation. When Elizabeth and Philip go over to Stan’s house to casually ask what he knows about the shooting, I am still unclear if Stan suspects them and how much thought he is giving into what he’s telling them.
But more than historical fiction, the episode highlighted the show’s two central marriages. Elizabeth and Philip’s afternoon delight in the hotel was rather sweet. We are watching a love story blossom between two people who have been married for 15 years. “I’m glad we did it your way this time,” Elizabeth tells him after they realize that Haig is not attempting a coup and Hinckley acted alone. They both know the consequences of withholding classified information from their superiors, and they vow to not betray each other. That might be the biggest declaration of love they could give each other.
Stan’s marriage is showing cracks from his time undercover with a white supremacist group. His wife, who carved out a life for herself while Stan was away, wonders why he never talks to her. “It just doesn’t feel like it did before,” he tells her. It was a brutal conversation.
The personal and professional stakes on The Americans remain exceedingly high. The Americans is quickly shaping up to be one of the best series of 2013.