THE AMERICANS: ARPANET
ARPANET has a great sense of its time, almost retro in looking at how far we've come technologically. It's a credit to The Americans that rather than laugh at how big the computers were back in the early 1980s, or how the World Wide Web was just coming into fruition, ARPANET becomes a riveting and intense hour thanks not to the techie throwbacks, but to the emotional conflict the characters go through.
Nina (Annet Mahendru) is pushed to take the polygraph test. To help her cheat, her KGB coworker Oleg (Costa Ronin) gives her methods to get around the test. Still, she is extremely concerned that failure means exposure and death either by the KGB or FBI.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are still working to get to Martial Eagle, the secret training camp the Reagan Administration is creating for the soon-to-be-named Contras against the Marxist Nicaragua regime. Their new minder Kate (Wrenn Schmidt) tells Philip he has to bug the ARPANET, a precursor to the Internet, and acquire the information for the Soviets. To gain access, Philip turns to his agent Charles Duluth (Reg Rogers), the conservative columnist who is really still a Communist: a Rachel Maddow disguised as William F. Buckley. Speaking to Professor Rosenbloom (Geoffrey Cantor), Philip finds the whole thing amazing. The bug, which according to Philip is the size of a rat, is placed on The Beast, the massive computer. However, thanks to a mix of bad timing and Duluth's ineptness, Philip is forced to kill an innocent student who happened to have wandered in. Duluth, too happy and drunk to really care, finds the whole thing exciting. Philip, for his part, finds it all despairing.
Elizabeth for her part is doing her best to keep her agent Lucia (Aimee Carerro) from going through with her plan to kill Captain Larrick (Lee Tergersen), the closeted Navy captain who is a major figure in Martial Eagle. Lucia wants revenge for the killing of her father, but Elizabeth tells her that she has to put the mission above all other concerns, including her need for revenge.
In typical American family tradition, both parents are completely unaware that their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is breaking into their neighbor's home...to play video games.
ARPANET continues the solid The Americans tradition of simply strong, solid performances, and this time, it's Mahendru who is the star of the episode. ARPANET is Mahendru's finest hour as Nina. We see her being both tormented and tormentor whenever she is put in a position of answering questions. She is clearly uncomfortable when taking the practice test and understandably nervous when having to face the American interrogator.
However, when she is asked if she knows who killed her friend Vlad, she faces her minder/lover Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and answers almost defiantly, "Yes", as if she is in her own small way taking a stand against her friend's murderer. This is an extremely strong and beautiful moment, with Mahendru expressing so much with just her voice and face. Emmerich is equal, in his quick downward glance and quietness acknowledging that she knows what he's been trying desperately to hide, perhaps from himself.
Seeing Mahendru in the last scene with her literally in bed with Oleg leaves us wondering what game she is playing. Oleg tells her that she has survived thanks to her wits and beauty. She certainly is in bed with the enemy, but which one is her enemy? Is it both of them? Time will tell.
Equally strong is Rhys as the conflicted Philip. His killing of the student who stumbled into his bugging of ARPANET appears to be one that he actually feels bad about. It might be because this one was caused not due to the mission but to his unreliable agent, who is not taking this seriously. Russell herself has a great moment as she confronts Lucia. Despite herself, she has turned into a version of Granny, trying to put things in a deeper perspective to her wayward and impetuous protégé.
Fortunately, ARPANET also has moments of actual lightness. Philip in the beginning tells Kate that she looks like a spy from an old movie with her choice of wardrobe. Rhys also has a nice moment when learning of what ARPANET actually is, looking as befuddled as anyone would be when having the precursor to the Internet presented to him. One unintentional moment of comedy was when Elizabeth tells Lucia that her father was a miner, of coal.
Honestly, anyone else not want to start singing Coal Miner's Daughter? How Russell got through those lines without cracking up I don't know.
As if hearing Philip talk to Henry about a new car with a singing of Eddie Rabbit's Driving My Life Away wasn't already a nice nod to the 1980s. Then again, could the lyrics also serve as Philip's own life: a descent into darkness and a desire to "look for a better way for me"?
ARPANET is another solid The Americans episode, where work and family are colliding in shocking ways, where sacrifices emotional and physical are taking their toll on those who are trying hard to balance it all without losing their minds or souls.
Next Episode: New Car