'The Americans' Recap: Everyone Runs Around Like 'Cut Off Chickens'

Note: Do not read on if you have yet to see Season 1, Episode 4 of "The Americans," titled "In Control."

It's not easy being a Russian spy, or being married. This week, the Jennings were set into motion as "The Americans" took on the 1981 assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan.

After baring her soul to Philip last week, Elizabeth manages to arrange a romantic tryst a' la "Hope Springs" to put the passion back into their marriage. After packing the kids off to school, they rendezvous at a fancy hotel for the afternoon. Leaving, they spot the television in the lobby. Reagan's been shot, along with Press Secretary James Brady and their secret service men. They immediately switch from lover mode to spy mode. Philip heads to get intel from a contact and comrade in the press, while Elizabeth goes to meet their handler, Claudia.

Claudia informs Elizabeth to prepare for "Operation Christopher," the KGB plan for guerilla warfare in the event of a coup taking place at the White House. No one, not even the KGB, knows what's going on, but orders from Moscow are to be ready at the trigger. Channeling her inner John McClane, Elizabeth goes into the woods to unpack sniper rifles and dynamite from a booby trapped crate they had buried for just this moment. Things are getting serious.

The real mission is finding out what the White House is doing and where their suspicions lie. Philip manages to get names of hospital staff and he and Elizabeth pose as Deputy Chiefs of Staff and confirm the status of the president's health.

When Secretary of State Alexander Haig claims "he's in control here," Moscow starts to get nervous, and Philip and Elizabeth are told to start mapping their targets. From an unmarked van, rifles in tow, they plot their shots in a gated community. A neighborhood patrol man stops them, and Elizabeth promptly shoots him in the head when he asks for identification. They go off to discard the body and send coded updates to Moscow from the woods, and head home to listen in on the bug they planted in Haig's office.

Philip has been calm the whole day, slowly and carefully collecting intel. The point is that no one really knows what's going on, and the last thing Philip wants to do is send a message that the Americans are preparing for nuclear war. Elizabeth fights him on this, of course. She's loyal to her country and doesn't understand that Haig claiming he's "in control" is just a case of American political ego, and not a call to war.

Meanwhile, Beeman gets word out to Nina, his informant from the Russian embassy. Nina is almost made by a tail sent by her boss before she manages to get into Stan's car to report that everyone is running around "like cut off chickens."

When Beeman gets home that night, the Jennings head over to be neighborly. Over wine, the couples commiserate over the day. Elizabeth gets Stan to confirm that the White House is convinced that the shooter, John Hinckley Jr., acted alone, shooting the president to prove his love for Jodi Foster, as is written in the history books. No KGB conspiracy here.

But this show is about marriage! Or at least that's what the show-runners and actors keep telling us. After all is said and done, Beeman's wife has a moment loading the dishwasher. She's lonely here in Washington. He promises to try harder. Their marriage needs a personal day.

Next door, after fighting with Philip all day about how quickly to act and and having to admit that her perception of America -- and how she fits into it -- is wrong, Elizabeth has a flashback of her mother telling her she can only ever depend on herself. When Philip comes to bed, he's worried that Moscow will find out that he held back intelligence of Haig's readiness to go nuclear in the name of keeping calm during the mess. But Elizabeth promises to never tell, and they go to bed happily ever after.

Some Thoughts:

  • Elizabeth is insane. In her readiness for war, we see how naive, almost adolescent, she really is. I think she also really saw that Philip was right this week. He called her out, demanding to take things slow. He sees that she doesn't, despite the years spent here, really get it at all. He gets it. He gets that the political process and political theater in America means that the KGB are fighting an enemy of their own imagination. He sees that the Cold War is almost over. In the pilot, he almost defected for closet space and fast food. The gloss of the "American Dream" has got to him.

  • Call me crazy, but I was positive that Beeman's wife was going to call the Jennings out today. Instead of rushing home from work, the Jennings leave their kids alone to watch television next door? Sure, it turned out the shooting didn't disrupt the world as they know it, but when a president gets shot, doesn't everyone sort of drop what they're doing? Are people really booking cruises? I was sure Beeman's wife was going to confirm his suspicion that these people are loony, but instead she just wanted to have a "talk" about the state of their marriage. Boring!
  • And that's sort of the thing about this show. It's smart, well written, and the characters are, in a way, compelling. But it's so serious. I'm not saying there needs to be a laugh track, but when the only human moment is Beeman chuckling at his informant's English -- the phrase is "chickens with their heads cut off" -- there's a problem. For a "suspense" show, it's not exactly thrilling. In fact, it didn't even feel like everyone was running around like cut off chickens tonight. It just felt ho-hum. Even Dostoevsky cracked a joke now and again. The show lacks that sense of impending doom that other good serious shows, like "Homeland" or even "House of Cards," have. Instead, it feels episodic. Things seem to keep resolving themselves. Coming into episode five, I'm hoping some serious twists are en-route. Otherwise, I'll feel like Elizabeth; all this fuss for nothing.
  • "The Americans" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST on FX.

    The Americans