Last season Melissa and I became unabashed fans of the FX television series The Americans. Since then it has quickly emerged as one of the best shows on television for its complex and multi-layered characters, its authentic-feeling spy-craft and its relative faithfulness to Reagan-era Cold War atmospherics in costumes, pop-culture references and plot lines. One of the running themes of the series is the differing attitudes the main characters, Philip and Elizabeth bring to their jobs as KGB “illegals” living deep under-cover. Elizabeth is the more ideologically committed of the two, while Philip is more skeptical both about the wisdom of their Moscow handlers and whether America is really the mortal enemy – he even considers defecting early in the series.
Part of the pleasure of the show is that Philip and Elizabeth are both deeply drawn characters, yet their backstories are largely unknown even to each other and only gradually and piecemeal revealed to us. We’ve learned some about Elizabeth’s childhood and her time in-training for the KGB as well as a plot-line last year about one of Philip’s former loves from the USSR. But we haven’t learned as much about his family background, which led me to speculate in a post last year that he might be Jewish. I laid out my reasons and in doing so, also cited an interview by the show’s Jewish creators in which they alluded to “a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season…Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”
Last night’s episode (Season 2, Episode 4 “A Little Night Music”) brought that Mossad/Refusenik story to the forefront and positioned it for at least a multi-episode arc. The episode opens with Philip at a synagogue listening to Baklanov, a former-Soviet physicist addressing the congregation about how dismal it was to be a Jew in the Soviet Union, how grateful he is to be in America, and how it offered the best future for his family and his children (cut to a shot of his slightly homey-looking wife and geek-in-training son listening with admiration in the front row). In a wonderful non-verbal acting moment, Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) seems to envy the safe harbor that America has provided Baklanov. Given the anxieties Philip and Elizabeth have for their own children’s future given their occupation and exacerbated by the recent murder of fellow agents Emmett and Leanne (and their daughter) one can hardly blame him. Reporting back to Moscow, Philip claims there is no way that Baklanov could ever be “turned” to spy for the Soviets.
Moscow decides that if the physicist cannot be turned, then he will need to be “exfiltrated” – kidnapped and returned to the USSR. Elizabeth and Philip are put on the case and as the episode ends, the attempted kidnapping has gone sideways. They are ambushed by another male/female pair of agents, one of whom they incapacitate while the other escapes with their car containing the targeted physicist chloroformed in the trunk. Roll credits.
The scenes-from-next-week confirm my initial suspicion that the spoiler agents are indeed from the Mossad. Why they were protecting the physicist we’ll probably learn and how this blown operation compromises Philip and Elizabeth’s operational ability as Soviet agents will be interesting. However, in the snippet seen in the teaser for the next episode it would appear that the show-runners are also setting-up something of an identity crisis – most likely targeted squarely at Philip. In the teaser, we see the Mossad agent, tied-up and bruised saying to Philip, “I hide what I do, I don’t hide who I am,” – a conversation that takes us into a realm of morality and identity that the show has not yet fully considered. And, I maintain, if Philip has any Jewish ancestry, which I’ve shown before is plausible, the identity crisis will be further compounded as another tug on his multiple and conflicting identities – as a father, as a KGB agent, as a husband to Elizabeth (and Martha) and a friend to (and sworn enemy of) Stan the FBI agent.
How long can Philip keep these contradictions in perpetual tension? Waiting for the breaking point is what keeps me watching.