The best and most telling scene in tonight’s episode of The Americans is the one following the moment that gives “I Am Abassin Zadran” its namesake. Gabriel and Claudia (Margo Martindale, returning the only way she can: triumphantly) meet in a restaurant to discuss how operation Turn the Paige is proceeding. “14 types of omelettes, 20 kinds of hamburgers. How does one choose?” Gabriel wonders, a dilemma Claudia dubs “the paradox of being American.” “Isn’t this a Greek diner?” he continues, a little tilt of his head saying more than he has to about how well they’ve adjusted to their adopted home. Claudia and Gabriel have been doing this job for decades, but the land of too many opportunities is still foreign to them.
The burden of choice was something Alvin Toffler wrote about in 1970’s Future Shock. Toffler theorized that there may one day come a point where an overabundance of options would paralyze consumers with the fear of selecting something suboptimal. Robert Frost only had to worry about the road not taken, singular; how are you supposed to feel when the path you take is just one of many that could have turned out greater or grander?
The only people in tonight’s episode that seem content with the choices they make are the ones who see themselves with having the fewest. Not coincidentally, they’re both survivors of wars, past and present, ones that left their homelands free of the decadence found in the United States of 1983. In a clever twist, it looks as though Claudia has kept her claws in the Jennings this whole time, pressuring Gabriel into pressuring Elizabeth into pressuring Philip into pressuring his daughter into joining the Cause. In a season all about parents doing “what’s best” for their kids, even if it goes against their own desires, it’s fitting that a father figure like Gabriel is himself doing not what he wants, but what he feels he must for people he seemingly does care about.
Claudia is still Claudia, though, a veteran of the Second World War, and a true believer in her mission. She mourned the murder of Emmett and Leanne by Jared, as she says others at the Centre did. But one failure can’t stop a program with such potential. “They think you can do it,” she tells Gabriel, who takes her hands back in his after hearing this. They’ve worked together long enough for Claudia to figure out what makes Gabriel tick, and how best to handle the Jennings. If Philip and Elizabeth knew Granny was the one trying to have Paige recruited, they’d likely put an end to things. But with Gabriel acting as a diplomatic middleman, the illusion of having a choice in the matter is guiding the Jennings into making a decision they never wanted to in the first place.
The scene before this, of Philip and Elizabeth manipulating Abassin Zadran, presents a similar Hobson’s choice. Using false information, they trick Zadran into believing his fellow visiting leaders from the Mujahideen will sabotage a deal to acquire anti-aircraft weaponry. “There is a way for tomorrow to work out…if you were to go to the meeting alone,” Philip tells him, having led Zadran down a path of reasoning that removes any doubt over what he must do next. Sure enough, once he returns to the hotel, Zadran kills the other leaders, which alone might be enough to blow the deal entirely.
“All we want is to live on the lands of our fathers in peace,” Zadran tells Philip and Elizabeth, before recounting his terrible deeds in defense of his homeland. We’ve never heard what the Jennings think of the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan, probably because having an opinion on their country’s politics isn’t a luxury they can afford. Staring into the face of Zadran (“the one who cuts the throats of communists,” as he puts it), Philip and Elizabeth are looking at not just a man committed to killing their people, but the face of a zealot sworn to destroy an enemy by any means necessary. They have met the enemy, and he looks at lot like them.
There was a time when the Jennings were as assured in their convictions as Zadran. Even if you asked Philip, he’d probably tell you things were a lot simpler back before he thought defecting, or refusing orders was an option. Things were also a lot easier back when they knew their kids wouldn’t be brought into the Illegals program. Choosing if and when to tell Paige the truth has caused incredible friction between Philip and Elizabeth all season, and yet neither got their way ultimately. And sure enough, now that Paige does know she’s been lied to all these years, the decision to either stay in the dark or see just how deep this rabbit hole goes is far more taxing than her unconfirmed suspicions were.