The article below contains spoilers for "Safe House," the April 3rd episode of "The Americans."
From the (relatively) safer perch of 2013, we can look back at the Cold War with the knowledge that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. never ended up in open combat despite decades of tension and ideological disagreements. The idea of the Communist threat can seem almost kitschy in our age of roaring capitalism, while international skirmishes play out in cyberspace and the worst attack on American soil came not from another nation but from a stateless group of extremists. But the characters in "The Americans" live in 1981, when the fear was very real, and all they know is that the two superpowers they represent are poised on the brink of bloodshed -- they're ready for it, and some are even eager for it.
The characters don't know much else, despite representing two organizations supposedly in the business of intelligence gathering -- the KGB and the FBI. And last night's episode "Safe House," directed by Jim McKay ("Girls Town") and written by Joshua Brand, explored how terror, anger, bad luck and assumptions led to an escalation of aggression and two unfortunate deaths, in the process underlining how little the two sides understand each other. They all think of themselves as the good guys, even as they feed an unarmed and as far as we know innocent man a burger and then shoot him in the back of the head.
"Safe House" continued and built on themes of that fundamental lack of comprehension back in episode four, when the assassination attempt on Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig's famous claim to be "in control here" until the Vice President returned to the White House led undercover Soviets Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) to assume a coup had taken place, because that's the type of politicking with which they're most familiar. But there was no power struggle, no instability and overthrow of the government -- their fears, as Phil put it, came from their not understanding how the country in which they were living worked. By passing along that information, they could have started a war over what turned out to be the actions of a mentally ill man trying to get the attention of Jodie Foster.
Unfortunately for both of them, the guy is Phil, who's been sleeping with Martha for information and the occasional moment of human comfort. The two fight, and Amador ends up in Phil's trunk with a knife in his gut -- oops. There's no backing away from the incident, even before the stabbing, even if Amador didn't seem to recognize a bewigged Phil from Stan's dinner party the day before. He wanted to bring Phil in, to find out who he is -- obnoxious ex behavior at best, but far worse for someone under an assumed identity like Phil.
As viewers, we get to see both sides of the not-quite-war, as represented by the Jennings and by Stan, all likable characters capable of dire things in the name of national service. We know that the death of the scientist and the agents protecting him in "Mutually Assured Destruction" was an accident of sorts, or at least something the KGB has decided on and then tried to take back, and that wasn't intended to take out the three FBI members who with the target. But the FBI takes it as an outrageous act of aggression, and Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) comes up with an off-the-books plan to take out someone on the Russian side for revenge.
It's what you assume other people know that really hurts you. What "The Americans" has done so well in this potential game-changer of an episode is to show the dangers of assuming your foe is more competent than you. Both the Jennings and Stan are smart and good at what they do, and yet in assuming they're reacting to aggression from the other side, they're in danger of ramping their two countries up to actual war again.
The show is both one about spies and one about an extreme immigrant/assimilation story, but in "Safe House" the two sides of the narrative, the international intrigue and the domestic dramas, intersect wonderfully without needing to lean too heavily on one another. Elizabeth and Phil have separated, trying a very American-style "pause" in their fake-but-sometimes-real marriage, one that shouldn't affect their espionage work but that is shaking up the cover stories that are, also, their lives. And to observers like the neighbors, or even from the perspective of their kids, there's no difference between the two -- a person's true intentionality is only something you can guess at from the outside, and plenty of times you're going to be wrong.