MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION
Mutually Assured Destruction is an extremely strong The Americans episode in that we see that even the most dangerous work like espionage has inept leadership. It also shows that marriages, even fake ones, take a lot of work, and that sometimes the truth is far more brutal than what we expect it to be.
Things appear to be going swimmingly for Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys). They have built a solid partnership and have actually developed a pretty good marriage. So much so that they express mutual (though resigned) contempt for the ineptness of the Rezidentura and their decisions. They have been tasked to kill a West German hitman the KBG had hired to kill American scientists. They are not given the assassin's name, the assassin's targets, or the assassin's appearance but are told to eliminate him with extreme prejudice.
Typical bureaucratic nonsense.
Elizabeth's bliss is cut short by Grannie (Margo Martindale) who tells her that Philip and Anne had an encounter despite Philip's denial to her earlier. "If you start thinking of your marriage as real, it doesn't work," Grannie tells her. Their neighbor/nemesis Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has found bliss too, as the FBI has assigned a safe house for him to debrief the Rezidentura mole, Nina (Annet Mahendru), and he certainly will 'de-brief' her.
In any case, with some work thanks to Philip's unwitting mole, FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright), whom she knows as 'Clark' and Elizabeth's own investigative work, the Jennings track down the hitman. We also see that Martha's ex-lover, FBI agent Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez) is starting to feel a need for Martha beyond his player persona, which Martha rejects. However, by now Elizabeth has confronted Philip about Anne, and he confesses. While they still work extremely well, she won't take him back. However, the German has one final twist to play. He has already tracked down one of the scientists who had been under FBI protection and with a timed bomb has managed to kill one of the targets, along with a couple of FBI agents.
This means War.
As I think on Mutually Assured Destruction, I think of how the portrait of this American marriage is one of The Americans strongest points. At this point, the hard Elizabeth has let her guard down emotionally towards the more compassionate Philip and it looks like they will find love and happiness. Their interplay at the beginning as they discuss the difficulties and idiocies they are placed in is so great, having both humor and a bizarre element of truth.
We do like these people, and can even admire their amazing physical skills (the sequence where they track down the German and have a tense standoff really is one of the best sequences so far). We admire their ingenuity as Philip goes through the door and Elizabeth goes through the window to stop any possibility of escape.
However, these two scenes are at polar opposites in their relationship. The first has them all lovey-dovey and full of optimism (almost like for any newlywed). The second is already when Elizabeth knows that she has been betrayed. In this we see their professionalism, but see that both are now suffering: one with regret, one with anger.
I can wonder about Grannie. What was her motivation in revealing the truth to Elizabeth? Was it emotional payback for the brutal smackdown she got at Elizabeth's hands? Was it to protect Elizabeth from letting their cover become reality (and make sure both wouldn't end up defecting)? Was it because Claudia had a job to do? Maybe it was because Grannie is just a bitch...we don't know. That I think is why Martindale is so brilliant as Grannie/Claudia: she holds her cards close to the vest and while her actions are right the motivations are always suspect.
Again we see just how good Martindale and Russell are together: their scenes always brimming with barely hidden hostility mixed with grudging respect.
However, we also have to look at all the other relationships going on. There's Stan's growing weakness for Nina at the expense of everything he's worked at professionally and personally. There's Amador's inability to let Martha go. He's had many women (including Martha) but now he is falling in love with her. In her own way, Martha is an extremely tragic figure: she rejects (I think sensibly) a man who is real for one who isn't. She's getting played in all this and nothing can stop the incoming tragedy of when Martha realizes that "Clark" never existed.
Along with the great performances by Russell, Rhys, and Martindale, Mutually Assured Destruction has some wild twists that are fun to watch. As part of Elizabeth's investigation, she finds the German's only known contact. When she is confronted, it isn't by the man who supplied the German weapons, but by that man's tween DAUGHTER! Everyone, from Elizabeth to the audience, is thrown for a loop that this little girl can handle a weapon and make even a highly professional assassin like Elizabeth momentarily stumble. However, in many ways Lana (Sadie Sink) is also an average little girl. We have another great twist in seeing the German manage to get a prostitute to seduce the FBI agent who unwittingly carries the bomb to the scientist's safe house. It's a credit to writers Joel Fields and creator Joseph Weisberg and director Bill Johnson that in the brief running time of Mutually Assured Destruction, we actually cared about even minor characters like FBI Agent Milbank (Ryan Farrell).
The tangled lives of our characters now has taken a deadly turn, both physically and emotionally. Mutually Assured Destruction has great twists that tangle themselves so well and has us figuring that for all those involved, the chances of a truly happy ending are fading to oblivion.
Next Episode: Safe House