One of the things The Americans did so well last season was finally connect audiences to the story emotionally. Though Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage has always been a fascinating focal point of the series, there was still a disconnect in Season One when it came to stakes. In the second season, the show remedied that in a spectacular fashion, showing the horrific murder of the Jennings’ fellow spy friends and their daughter (and followed up with the trauma suffered by the surviving son). It was something that resonated deeply both onscreen and off.
The seed it planted late last season, which it is allowing to blossom this year, is that fear specifically coming home. While in the past Philip and Elizabeth have wrestled with contingency plans in case they are killed in the line of duty, now the question is, do they bring Paige into that line as well? At the same time, as Paige is getting older, she’s recognizing that her parents behave pretty strangely. Even if they don’t bring her into the spy game, how will they continue to stave off her increasingly pointed suspicions?
The issue of Paige being clued in to who her parents are causes Philip and Elizabeth to go down familiar paths. It is Philip who is against the idea, and doesn’t want Paige — as he graphically puts it — stuffing someone in to a suitcase, or being stuffed in there herself. It’s an unsurprising response from him, since he has always aired on the side of enjoying American freedoms and the life they lead here more than just part of his job. Though he is always ultimately dedicated to the work (see his approach to the Annelise situation in this season), and to the cause, he rebels more against the Centre than Elizabeth would ever dare.
But for Elizabeth, it’s not just an issue of authority. Her sense of duty is so deeply ingrained, and we have seen glimpses of why over the last few seasons. Her training was brutal; she was even raped in the course of it. She was so young when they married her to a stranger and sent her to foreign country that she had no choice by to focus solely on the work. Her connection with her mother is obviously deep, as we continue to see, and in “Baggage,” we also learned that when it came time for a young Elizabeth to make her decision about service, her mother “didn’t even blink.”
Her explaining this to Philip was heartbreaking and telling, but it also didn’t solve anything. She even admits before she tells him about her mother’s response that she knows this issue with Paige isn’t going away. It’s not something that will be resolved in one conversation, and that is something The Americans has been very consistent with showing in the most truthful of ways.
“Baggage” also showed why and how The Americans is not just a whiz-bang spy show. If all of the main characters were able to act in a vacuum, without family or lives of their own, it would be non-stop action with rapid-fire chess moves — assets and spies running around, attempting to outwit one another by taking increasingly bold risks. But that isn’t the case.
Paige brings up an issue with the Jennings about how Philip and Elizabeth look after one another, but aren’t so good about it when it comes to their children. They haven’t yet figured out how to operate while also having a family, and give equal attention to both. It’s something Stan has struggle with in a more transparent way for a long time. But when things got really rough (like when Oleg threatened him in the alleyway), the experience made him immediately reach out to his estranged wife and son, because that’s what matters most — even though he only sees it in dire moments. Oleg, too, is part of this with his connection to Nina. Later, his father even states the episode’s theme to her about parents and children.
It’s interesting, too, that the show has not let Nina go. It’s a good move in a way, because she’s likable, and an easy connection to the Soviet side of things. Her feelings also made her a poor agent, when she got stuck between Stan and Oleg. Yet, both are still fighting to save her. No one is completely free of these connections in The Americans‘ world, and increasingly, they are becoming an issue. The balance between the personal and the professional is becoming ever blurrier. And that is what makes the show even greater.
Episode Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Some heartbreaking moments in this episode that bumped it up from 3 stars to 4 for me, particularly Stan’s confession to Sandra that she is the only one he wants to tell things to.
— I also really loved the bar scene for three reasons: 1) the spy stuff was quietly awesome, 2) that Elizabeth was actually pushing the boundaries of recklessness to make up for her earlier mistake, which put Philip off his game, and 3) when Philip turned to Elizabeth and said, “we should do this more often,” re: shooting the shit at a bar.
— If the Soviet defector lady doesn’t think they will kill her on U.S. soil, she doesn’t know from a Milky Way.
— Nina somehow looks good in Soviet prison garb. She doesn’t actually seem to be working at the work camp, though.
— “This isn’t a prison for innocent people” – Nina.
— Not surprised that Nina was rude to her new roommate. She knows better than to trust anyone at this point. Same with Oleg’s father. She played that perfectly, asking after Oleg and saying she was not pretending with him, but also not asking to be saved or pleading in any way.
— We need to talk about the scene where Philip and Elizabeth put Annelise in the suitcase. This happens a lot on TV and in movies. What usually isn’t shown is the breaking of the bones to smash the body into said suitcase. So gruesome. To see the naked body laying out, too, with the joints all broken and limp was seriously disturbing.
— Elizabeth: “What do you want, a guarantee that life is going to be easy?” Philip: “For my daughter? Yeah.”
— “Screw you, Oleg. If you want to shoot me, shoot me in the back” – Stan being badass. I thought Oleg confronting him like that was strange and out of character for him, but the results were good.
— “When I was called, my mother didn’t hesitate” – Elizabeth. I would love to see her go back to the USSR and see her mother, though.