The Americans Review: “Baggage” (Season 3, Episode 2)

Keri Russell in The Americans

Though the word of the hour makes itself known through some…creative applications, “Baggage” is an episode about the barriers isolating everyone on The Americans, and the secrets responsible for putting up those walls in the first place. The opening frame is a prison gate, after all, with Nina’s new accommodations in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison making her the most geographically estranged character of the night. Both physically and emotionally, “Baggage” employs dialogue, staging, direction and costuming to separate characters, while also finding creative ways to show how some of them are trying to break through to the other side.

Take the shot following Nina’s reintroduction, which on paper is little more than a late night chat between Elizabeth and Paige. It reverses the pan right used moments ago to convey the claustrophobia of Nina’s situation, instead following Elizabeth left, from the front door to the dining room, in such a way that a suburban D.C. home now looks downright palatial compared to Lefortovo. Talking over algebra and church flyers, the renewed intimacy between the mother and daughter is evidenced by how the shot’s focus is passed between Paige and Elizabeth, changing hands a total of five times before Elizabeth uses her turn to share the dinner table, and same plane of focus, with Paige.

A harsh cut then takes the camera to the other end of the room, thanks to a phone call from Philip that breaks the peace of the moment, along with the established axis of action. The editing reacts accordingly, cutting rapidly to bring Philip’s problems into the scene. The harmony between Elizabeth and Paige begins to break down, one party becoming a blurry mess whenever the other is in focus. Soon the two are occupying different spaces entirely, as Paige’s concern that her father might be having an affair maroons each character in their own shot. Elizabeth, who knows Philip isn’t sleeping with someone else (well, not for recreation anyway), calmly moves back to the table, simultaneously providing her daughter some motherly reassurance while also reconnecting the two within the series of shots that follow.

When Elizabeth gets up to leave, a comment by Paige that initially reads as a complaint severs the connection once more. “You guys look out for each other: you and dad. More than us.” It’s Elizabeth’s internal psychology that’s ultimately driving the scene, so the camera cuts in to isolate Elizabeth once more as she’s put on the defensive. With Proto-Martha Stewart positivity, Paige elaborates by saying this is a good thing, but Elizabeth’s conflicted reaction is evidenced in how she’s now alone by scene’s end, forced to walk back out the way she came in. Elizabeth may be proud of her daughter’s blossoming maturity (she’s even reading the newspaper!), but shepherding Paige toward The Cause is making Elizabeth reconcile with not just the normal life she’ll rob her daughter of, but of the one she never had herself.

“Baggage” echoes and counters this scene with its last shot, which itself is a warped take on a shot from last week. Phillip and Elizabeth are once more alone in the office, and Elizabeth once more tries to reach out to Philip by revealing something about her relationship with her mother. But it doesn’t work this time, and despite sharing the shot and focus, “Baggage” ends with Elizabeth and Philip divided by all that’s transpired in the hour. Just as two people can share the same house, job, or family and still be strangers, focus and framing alone can’t salve all wounds.