THE AMERICANS: IN CONTROL
In Control, the fourth episode of The Americans, is one of the most thrilling hours of television that I have seen. It's one of those stories where, even though we know all the facts beforehand, it still manages to make a tense 'race against the clock' scenario work to where we are kept wondering how it will turn out.
Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) have just enjoyed an actual romantic tryst with each other when they learn the shocking news: President Ronald Reagan has just been shot. The capital is thrown into chaos: no one knows anything. The FBI, particularly Agents Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his superior, Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), worry that the KGB is behind the assassination attempt, the first literal shot in a war.
The KGB, for their part, is highly terrified that the attempt on Reagan's life will be blamed on the Soviets, especially since General Alexander Haig has just announced on television that "I'm in command". The Soviets have reached the conclusion that this is a coup: the American President has been overthrown and the generals have taken over.
Grannie (Margo Martindale) informs the Jennings that they might have to launch into Operation Christopher: prepare for guerilla war. Stan is pressed to get his mole Nina (Annet Mahendru) to tell them what she knows.
Elizabeth and Philip, disguised as agents for Vice President Bush, find a nurse who attended Reagan, as all access to the President has been cut off. They learn that he will live, which they report to the KGB. However, as part of the KGB's plans, stakeouts take place near the homes of high government officials, including Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. Here, Elizabeth kills a local security patrol to stop him from calling them in. Once the Jennings get the intel, the suspicions of a coup grow when they overhear Weinberger say that Haig has the 'football' codes, which are the nuclear launch codes.
There is one catch to all this: the message is garbled and Philip has doubts that a coup has actually taken place. America is not like that, he insists. Elizabeth believes this news should be sent to Moscow immediately, but for once Philip insists they do things his way. The FBI is equally startled to learn through Nina (who says the Soviet Embassy has been running around like "cut off chickens") that thanks to Haig's bungled message the Russians do seriously believe General Haig has seized power.
The fact that the United States has never had a coup in its history never entered their minds. In the end we find that Philip Jennings was right: there was no coup. Oddly, this entire horror has brought Philip and Elizabeth closer together, while Stan and his wife Sandra (Susan Misner) are growing apart.
What thrilled me about In Control was that this story, drawing from real history, incorporated its own elements so completely one becomes immersed in it. The scenario is so well thought out and executed that it all appears so plausible. The Soviets could believe that this general, who made the egocentric comment about being 'in control' while the head of state was fighting for his life, had actually caused a coup to seize power and then blame the Soviets to get the American people to go to war.
Could it have happened? In Control makes the case that indeed, in the chaos and confusion of the day (several reports stated that press secretary James Brady, who had been hit, was dead...he wasn't), anything could be believed. No one knew what was going on, so everything could be believed.
I do not know if Joe Fields and Joseph Weisberg had September 11th in mind, but the parallels are there. Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) commented to the boy across next door, Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty) that the constant repetition of the shooting was ghoulish. This reasoning was used to stop showing the planes going into the World Trade Center towers (particularly in that it would disturb children, who might think it was happening again and again). Rumors ran rampant: just like there were false reports that Brady had died, there were false reports that the State Department had been bombed.
The performances still continue to be among the best in television. Russell and Rhys match each other with their mixture of intensity to the mission and the confused, and conflicted feelings for each other. We see that their relationship is built on the mission being accomplished but also that they have started to be a more complex couple, who have struggles within their family.
The argument between Philip and Elizabeth is not so much what they should do, but how they see America. "You don't understand these people," he says. Even after all these years, Elizabeth still thinks that Americans are 'the enemy', while Philip does understand that Americans have a different world view than the Soviets.
In her short scene, Martindale takes full command (a little Haig bit there) as Claudia, who tells Elizabeth that they need to get ready for full-on guerilla war .
I was actually on edge wondering how the Jennings would manage to figuratively stop World War III. They had something of evidence, and they had the same mindset that the Soviets had: this was a coup. In Control puts us in a 'you-are-there' scenario where things appear real and where despite what we know actually happened, we do wonder how we would get through it.
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Next Episode: COMINT