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On ‘The Americans,’ Sex Is a Double-Edged Sword

On 'The Americans,' Sex Is a Double-Edged Sword

“In our line of work, sex can be dangerous,” Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) warned KGB trainee Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) in “The Americans'” “Open House.” In the episode’s nail-biting slow-speed chase sequence — as he did in the first season’s “Gregory,” TV veteran Thomas Schlamme masterfully builds tension through a series of precisely interlocking shots — Elizabeth and Philip (Matthew Rhys) came as close to being caught as they have since the the first-season finale. But their risk paid off when they discovered that the teenage babysitter who works for a a recently divorced CIA agent turns out to be the daughter of the head of the CIA’s Afghan group, and, that she likes to flirt with older men.

In last night’s “Salang Pass,” Philip exploited that knowledge to get closer to Kimberly (Julia Garner). Uncomfortably close, in fact. Having ingratiated himself to her by procuring a fake ID, Philip — or rather his undercover Washington lobbyist persona— feigns shock at learning she’s not the college student she pretended to be, but Philip knows full well he’s playing on the sexual desires of a 15-year-old girl. “The Americans” has been making us squirm a lot this season, mainly by highlighting the fragility of the human body: “Open House” featured an excruciating sequence in which Philip extracted Elizabeth’s broken tooth with a pair of household pliers, and in the preceding “Baggage,” they sickeningly pulverized a woman’s body until it fit inside a suitcase. (The late, foolhardy Annelise was throttled by a Pakistani intelligence officer while they were in bed; sex can be dangerous, indeed.) But nothing they’ve done to, or with, a body is as disturbing as what Philip is verging on doing with his. Garner, so great as a teenage cannibal in “We Are What We Are,” plays her Lolita just right, with a mixture of instinctive allure and adolescent uncertainty. We never forget she’s a child, but we’re reminded how much power children can wield. That Philip’s Clark is simultaneously, and unwillingly, looking at foster children with his wife, Martha, only brings it home.

The sexual tension between Phillip and Kimberley is made more uncomfortable by the fact that she’s almost literally young enough to be his daughter. Paige (Holly Taylor) is 14, and the object of an entirely different kind of seduction. Ever since they learned that the KGB wants to recruit Paige as a “second-generation illegal,” her parents have been feuding over how to proceed. Philip, whose convictions have been softened by decades of living in the U.S., wants the American Dream for Paige: a normal life, and freedom from the ingrained deceptions of her parents’ existence. Elizabeth, who was not much older than Paige when she joined the KGB, would sooner blow up her daughter’s life than let her be corrupted by American decadence, which for her includes Paige’s attraction to the Christian church. 

As Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out in the Washington Post, “The Americans” treats Paige’s Christianity as a reasoned, respectable choice and questions the blind virulence of her parents’ anti-religious bias — a rare approach in American popular culture, if not in the culture at large. Paige, like her mother, is a believer, but the bone-deep ruse of Elizabeth and Phillip’s existence has made it impossible for them to teach their children their true convictions. They pretend to support the values they’re secretly working to subvert, and Paige and her brother, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), have bought into the act. In fact, part of what drove Paige to the church was her parents’ apparent lack of belief, their lack of visible commitment to anything beyond themselves. In the beaming, almost beatific Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), she sees a man working to change the world — unlike her parents, who are content to live in it.

Paige’s body, too, is at risk — of baptism, which she’s made clear to her scowling parents she wants. “You wash away your old self and make yourself clean for Jesus Christ,” she explains. That’s not, in a way, so different from what her parents did for Mother Russia, or what they do every time they sacrifice their bodies for the cause. At the end of “Salang Pass,” Phillip recalls how he learned to use sex as a tool of espionage, to “make it real” for himself while engaging in acts he might find unappealing or even repellent. It’s pretty unlikely that “The Americans” will follow through on the consummation of Philip and Kimberly’s relationship — TV audiences have grown accustomed to antiheroes, but not statutory rapists — but it does seem to be warning us that they’ll have to give up a part of themselves along the way.

More on “The Americans'” “Salang Pass”

James Poniewozik, Time

There’s an air of corruption around the whole operation, of youth being exploited cynically by the old. (And not just by spies or the Soviets; “Dimebag” included an actual Love’s Baby Soft ad, debuted in the 1970s, that depicted a woman as a “baby that grew up sexy,” sucking a lollipop and staring vacantly at the camera. If the KGB doesn’t get the kids, capitalism will!) As Gabriel (Frank Langella) advises/cautions him, Philip has a conscience; but he must never forget that the people he deals with (has sex with, considers adopting children with…) are secondary to the mission. Philip and Elizabeth both have given themselves to their country. All of themselves: their bodies, their emotions, their sexual volition. And with it, they’ve given up a sense of identity, even in their most private intimate moments. 

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

When Gabriel tells Philip that “so many lives rely on one man’s relationship with an adolescent girl,” he’s referring directly to Kimberly. But Philip’s relationship with the adolescent girl who lives under his roof is likely to have an even bigger impact on the lives of those immediately around him, and could potentially destroy the fake marriage both he and Elizabeth have tried to make real.

Allison Keene,

His relationship with Kimberly is a weird mix of parental and friendly. When she admitted her pent-up feelings about her father and her step-mother, and how if her father had another family she wouldn’t even be surprised (they’re both gone all of the time, and she has no idea he’s in the CIA, and maybe so is the step-mother). Did Philip imagine Paige saying something similar to someone else about him and Elizabeth? Later, the popcorn fight they had and the Philip taking her up to bed felt parental, but then she kissed him, and he had to dart out of the house “like a teenager.” Things are weird.

Christopher Orr, the Atlantic

It’s a miracle that Philip and Elizabeth can even tell when they’re pretending anymore. A couple of episodes ago, I noted a scene in which Elizabeth seemed to be trying to seduce Philip to defuse an argument and he replied, essentially, why don’t you go seduce Hans instead? As I mentioned then, I think it’s wise that the show doesn’t go to this well of sexual-marital tension too often; but when it does, it can make for extremely powerful TV.

Matt Brennan, The House Next Door

Philip, on the other hand, appears so uncomfortable with the implications of his dalliance with Kimmy, who’s only 15 years old, that he’s willing to defy Gabriel’s suggestion that he begin a sexual relationship. (Even for a series in which the protagonists are Russian spies, turning Philip into a rapist might be a bridge too far.) Indeed, the way Philip casts his eyes to the ground as Kimmy describes working in her father’s garden, or complains of her absentee parents, suggests that he may not be able to make the lie real with her much longer.

Ben Travers, Indiewire

Yet in remembering that training, Philip didn’t seem resentful. He understood and seemed to make peace with whatever will happen with Kimberly. It’s the most he’s sided with his comrades this season, and — not coincidentally — the closest he’s been with his wife. Philip still loves her, even if he sometimes has to “make it real” when they’re together. Perhaps this is what brings him back into the arms of Mother Russia.

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