Tonight’s episode of The Americans begins by launching us unceremoniously into another unfamiliar Jennings casefile, without any explanation. We see Elizabeth (Keri Russell), blonde-wigged, undergoing training to be a door-to-door makeup salesperson. Throughout the episode — which take turns in a few too many directions, from taking initial steps toward fixing the problem of Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) to an unexpected Glanders-related quarantine — the exact purpose of Elizabeth’s mission with the companies remains unclear.
What we see of her seemingly low-stakes covert mission simply demonstrates the extent to which Elizabeth has warmed up to American culture over the years — specifically, in the “melting pot” sense. Her sales partner invites her over for a traditional Korean dinner, and Elizabeth seems as happy as we’ve ever seen her on the show. She even opens up, however vaguely, to her new friend to indicate that she is having family trouble (that is, whether to kill her daughter’s best friend). Later, she tells Philip she had “fun.”
This plays in, clearly, to her conversation with Philip (Matthew Rhys) later in the episode, about whether to return to Russia and spare Pastor Tim, or go the more difficult route and stand their ground in the United States. Philip has been advocating running away, pointing to the fact that Paige will “blame” and “hate” them for Pastor Tim’s death, even it can be effectively proven that they are not the perpetrators (Frank Langella’s Gabriel provides them with an alibi: a possible Florida vacation). But Elizabeth advocates staying in D.C., and this episode makes clear that her position is not simply because she does not want to abandon her work, but because she has truly become acclimated to American life. The new experiences and sense of familial unity at her co-worker’s dinner table is something she perceives as being distinctly of America, and something she knows will be lost forever if she and Philip take Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and Paige (Holly Taylor) with them to Odessa, a Ukranian area “by the water” where Philip once hoped to live.
So though we have no idea why Elizabeth was put on this mission — it is clear from her conversations with Philip that her makeup specialist jaunt is work-related — we do know how it reflects back on the other primary conflict of the show at the moment: whether to remain “Americans” or not, and by proxy, whether to kill Pastor Tim or not. It is therefore less perplexing than the episode’s other opening gambit: Philip and Elizabeth meeting with Pastor Tim openly at church to try to convince him that they are something less than ruthless spies.
The question here is less about why Philip and Elizabeth went to the Pastor so quickly, without really deciding on a plan of action. It seems possible that they would have gone through with this in an effort to feel him out, and figure out whether he had passed the information onto anyone (he did, of course, to his wife). The difficult-to-understand element is: Why would Pastor Tim meet with them in the first place? In terms of issues of character motivation and common sense, one of the strangest things about this sense thus far is the fact that the pastor has not seemed more horrified by the news about Philip and Elizabeth — that he doesn’t seem to be more worried about his safety. Surely he’s seen a spy movie or two; there is, usually, a protocol, and it doesn’t even well for the fictional equivalent of himself.
There’s an implicitly cynical view of blind (Christian?) faith here, it seems. The meeting with Elizabeth and Philip makes Tim seem more doltish than cautiously considerate and decent. It will be interesting to see how the show chooses to deal with his character, and solving the problem. Increasingly, it feels like a matter of some urgency. The Americans is getting bogged down in a number of relatively uninteresting or nebulous plot threads: not only the makeup plotline of this week, and the Glanders diversion which ends this episode, but also Stan’s suspicions of Martha, and the cutaways to Nina’s bleak prison life. These plotlines feel like they have been treading water since the end of last season, and it feels like it’s time to take a step past them, and toward Philip and Elizabeth finding a way out, or deeper in.