‘The Americans’ Season 2 Episode 2 Recap: “Cardinal”

Some of our best TV shows bring stock characters into three dimensions. What The Sopranos did for gangsters, The Americans is doing for spies: giving them children and backstories and internal conflicts about all the carnage they cause. Although movies have also taken on the task of deconstructing pop-culture stereotypes, television is a better medium for it, since it has so much more time to devote to building complex characters.

In its first two episodes, The Americans Season 2 has been almost entirely devoted to the slow work of destabilizing the family we met last season, making us see their anxieties and hesitations. Elizabeth may have physically recovered, but the psychological wounds of her injury are far from healing; even before she laid eyes on Emmett’s and Leann’s and their daughter’s bloody bodies last week, she had become skittish and paranoid. In last night’s episode, “Cardinal,” we saw her go into full-on lockdown mode, obsessing over her children’s safety. The only work she did this week, rescuing a young female spy whose night of partying with a congressional aide ended with him overdosing, also qualifies as pretty maternal. However Elizabeth emerges from this bout of anxiety, it’s difficult to imagine she’ll ever be the same steely, purpose-driven spy anymore.

Philip, meanwhile, is haunted by the screams of Emmett and Leann’s son when the boy found his family dead in their hotel room — and the decision he made, to bring his children into his work. With all sources coming up empty, he dons a long-haired disguise (am I the only one who thinks he looked a whole lot like present-day Rust Cohle from True Detective) and goes off in search of Fred, the contact who gave him the package at the fair. In the midst of snooping around his house (and touching his Playboys, yuck), Philip finds a metal box below the floor boards… and it electrocutes him, because it’s booby trapped.

When he wakes up, Fred’s returned home and has him tied up, ready to shoot the intruder. Philip tries several angles in his attempt to escape, assuring Fred that he’s a friend and complimenting the nervous asset on taking exactly the precautions he’s been instructed to take in this sort of situation. Philip isn’t getting anywhere until he brings up the model planes he found in Fred’s closet — surely intended for Emmett’s son, who’s a big fan. This is the observation that saves his life, and it’s worth slowing down to think about it: Fred doesn’t even know Emmett by his real name. He doesn’t recognize him in the photo of the slain family that has appeared on the front page of the newspaper and all over the TV. But he’s formed an attachment to Emmett, to the extent that he buys the spy’s children gifts and, once the rest of the family is dead, inquires about giving his son money.

This gets at a major theme of The Americans, especially this season: the way real life and the fantasy they create blurs together for the spies, as genuine emotion floods into relationships that at least one person knows are charades. Last week, we saw “Clark” confess Philip’s real, thinly veiled professional stresses to Martha. Beyond that strange, poignant moment between Philip and Fred, this episode finds Nina typing a report that reduces her affair with Stan to a mechanical series of tactical moves and sexual positions — and looking visibly conflicted about it. (Nina’s also got a great, pseudo-antagonistic office-flirtation situation going on with Oleg, who tells her he loves “new wave music” and has a crush on Blondie, before ending their conversation with the entertainingly ridiculous crack: “I’m a feminist, Nina. I work only for Mother Russia.) As she tells Stan about the walk-in, it becomes tougher to figure out where her true loyalty actually lies, how much she’s actually been authorized to pass on to the Americans in order to maintain her credibility. Stan, meanwhile, is still betraying his wife — even as, last week, he seemed poised to repair his relationship with her.

Except, crucially, for Elizabeth and Philip’s kids, everyone on this show is living some kind of double life. But as they become ever more ensconced in these manufactured relationships, the decision to keep privileging real over the fake (which, remember, is family life for Elizabeth and Philip) gets harder and harder to make.