The Americans’ long cons, also known as “honey traps,” are always—forgive the pun—sticky situations. Consider Philip’s secret marriage to Martha, near the end of which he finds himself defending her strengths, or Elizabeth’s friendship with fellow immigrant Young Hee, sacrificed at the altar of the Soviet cause in the closing stages of Season Four: In order for the ruse to work, its orchestrators must risk real attachment, placing themselves in the same vulnerable position as their lonely, dissatisfied marks. Though it might seem a soft landing after the dramatic heights of “The Midges,” “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” treats this topic with the series’ usual rigor, its methodical arrangement of images and ideas building, in the course of an hour, to an artful, emotionally resonant whole. Here, as if to suggest the conversation Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) haven’t had with Paige (Holly Taylor), The Americans broaches the subject of “the birds and the bees,” and with it why sex is so stinging.
In fact, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” renders the euphemism literal: The episode’s most cunning scene, beset by his unhappy silence, finds Philip in front of a nature documentary, and director Gwyneth Horder-Payton is at pains to show the flowers and honeycombs flashing on screen. Elizabeth slumps down on the couch, exhausted from her trip to Topeka—during which she mounts an ingenious “meet cute” with her strapping, bearded target—but it’s her husband’s stiff expression that commands our attention. As she reports on her upcoming hike with the handsome AgraCorp scientist, then proffers a bottle bought by a flirtatious man on her flight, Rhys, with impeccable control, tightens the muscles of his face and swallows hard, suggesting that Philip is suppressing his discomfort. What lends the moment its unspoken tension, though, is the understanding that there’s more than one factor at play here. The residual guilt of his relationship with Martha, which crossed the professional line; his own quarry’s ego-bruising indifference; Elizabeth’s seductive success; even Morozov’s (Alexander Sokovikov) barroom echo of Philip’s concern, in “The Midges,” that the Soviet system is to blame for the country’s intractable food shortages: The Americans is always thickly descriptive of its characters’ troubles, and “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” condenses Philip’s until they fit into his fiddling hand.
It’s the uses of sex—as power, as pleasure, as trial, as trap—to which the series turns tonight, each suggestion of its intimacies, whether sincere or feigned, adding new layers to the portrait. For instance, Philip and Elizabeth’s resistance to Gabriel’s (Frank Langella) plan, described as a problem of having too much on their plate, also points to their foremost occupational hazard: The psychological fatigue that comes with closeness, even—or perhaps especially—when it’s predicated on lies. As Elizabeth explains to Philip at episode’s end, her work is no less trying for the speed of the outdoorsman’s attraction; she expends at least as much effort to listen to his disquisitions on woodpecker tongues and carob pods as Philip does in failing to land a first date.
“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is clear-eyed when it comes to the illogical lure of sex—the way it can cudgel you into submission to the wrong decision, the wrong relationship, the wrong man, the way it can worm itself into cracks in even the sternest façade. Though Elizabeth is aghast when she learns that Paige spent her time babysitting for Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife, Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt), by nosing through their telephone messages and bedroom drawers—turning up a conspicuously framed box of Lifestyles condoms in the process—she also suggests that his journal may contain a heretofore unidentified pressure point: An affair with one of his parishioners. (As if for added emphasis, the episode cuts from Paige perusing the pages to Elizabeth making out with her mark, recalling, and reversing, the construction of “Pests,” in which Paige fools around with Matthew Beeman while her mother moves through that Illinois greenhouse. For the Jennings women, sex and romance are especially fraught, despite their oft-impassive demeanors.)
It’s from Yelena Burov (Snezhana Chernova), however, that we hear the most harrowing elaboration on the episode’s theme, and as with Philip’s resentment, its force stems not from text but subtext. After Oleg (Costa Ronin) admits that he’s been in contact with the CIA, his mother—until now a fragile figure, in his eyes and ours—recounts her five-year imprisonment in a Siberian camp, and alludes to the “ways” she endured it. “I did what I had to do to survive,” she says, and her intimation of trauma shadows the entire episode: Sex without consent, whether had by deceit or coercion, is as damaging in The Americans as any bullet or broken bone, its violence amplified by the fact that sex is, in other contexts, an act of affection, of attraction, of love.
Among the many echoes that shape “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”—Oleg’s plea to his superior to do “the decent thing,” mirroring Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) demand that the CIA back off Burov; Pastor Tim’s recommendation that Paige read Capital, reminiscent of her mother; Mischa’s (Alex Ozerov) disembarkation at JFK, as bewildered at America as his father once was—this one, this intimation that one of our most important forms of connection can also cause irrevocable harm, is almost too painful to reckon with. In the end, Yelena’s exchange with Oleg contains another echo, this one of Elizabeth’s conversation with Paige in “The Midges”: “You do what you need to do” and “You hold back what you need to” are both forms of advice born of experience, and both might be heard as a warning.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.