The majority of the drama on The Americans doesn’t require explicit statement. It’s a show where names, dates, ideologies, and politics can be rattled off at a blistering clip, and just keeping on top of all that business requires much of your attention. But the period and plot details are usually in service of the character drama that the show, and viewers are more invested in. Any synopsis of The Americans will tell you the facts of a given episode, but it’s the performances, direction, and other formal elements unrelated to plot that give the story its emotional and dramatic heft.
“One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov” is a low-key episode of The Americans, (especially compared to last week’s parade of closet skeletons), and it’s one where most of the action is happening between the lines. With just two episodes remaining in the season, a reprieve feels warranted. “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov” is a quiet episode, but finds riveting tension in the silence. It’s appropriate that the best moments are often the pregnant pauses between words, even more so when considering the coital association one can make of such a phrase.
The figurative (and, as it turns out, literal) climax of the hour is a sex scene between Philip and Elizabeth where no words are exchanged, the whole purpose of the scene left open for the audience to infer. For as much as The Americans requires your upfront attention, it’s almost more demanding when it comes to your memory. On the surface, Philip’s worry that Elizabeth won’t be able to handle seducing hotel manager Neal seems a little unwarranted. It’s not like she’s never done this sort of thing before, and if anyone can make security concerns the last thing on a guy’s mind, it’s Elizabeth.
But if memory (and some cursory Wiki-ing) serves, Elizabeth hasn’t had to have sex to complete a mission since the start of Season 2. In that time, Elizabeth and Philip’s sex lives have become much more complicated, both as partners making a go of it as spouses, and as individuals. “Behind the Red Door” featured a gut-wrenching scene in which Elizabeth’s night with “Clarke” dredged up terrible memories of her sexual assault as a trainee. Since that night, Philip has been doing what he can to keep Elizabeth out of other people’s beds, which meant having Annelise sleep with Yousaf. (Elizabeth herself used the assault as part of a cover identity in Season 2, though a handjob ended up getting the results that a sympathetic backstory couldn’t).
Though he is trying to protect her, Philip’s reasoning is also partly self-interested. The temptation to leave the spy game has as much to do with Philip wanting to unburden himself as it does getting the chance at a real family and marriage with Elizabeth. He isn’t thrilled at the prospect of his wife sleeping with other people, and doesn’t take much pleasure in the sex he himself has with others. “I had an agent I slept with for three years, and then I got her killed,” he tells Gabriel, frontloading the emotional toll that being with some else had on him, even before Annelise’s sad demise. But that wasn’t the whole story. The day before Annelise died, she gave Philip a blowjob that he neither asked for nor denied, the latter perhaps partly motivated by how fraught things were with Elizabeth at the time.
That casual hook-up ended as many do: with guilt and shame washing away the momentary thrill felt by both parties. “Waking up next to strangers that they chose for me…” Anton tells Nina tonight, the dead air meant to convey to her how sex as an “inducement” to keep working was an act of submission to his captors. What makes many on The Americans good at their work is being able to exploit the weaknesses of others, but it’s often in service of a greater cause or organization that is in turn exploiting their desires. Nina and Anton connect so quickly because they both know what it means to have their independence used against them by their former homeland, and how the only real choice they have is to accept the rewards that come with doing what’s expected of them, or take the punishment that comes with doing otherwise.
Elizabeth pulls off the hotel con perfectly, easily acquiring the information and access needed for when the Mujahideen leaders come to town (looking to discuss the anti-aircraft weaponry foreshadowed in “Stingers”). What complicates the mission, though, isn’t her willingness to sleep with Neal, but the aftermath of having enjoyed the job as much as she did. The gender politics of The Americans are among its most fascinating and original additions to the espionage genre. It’s a show that figures women into the proceedings far more often and more realistically than most spy fiction. It began with the accepted premise that sexual compromise would be a bigger requirement of women than men in this field of work, but one of Season 3’s biggest threads has been exploring the demand Philip’s sex life has had on him. The show acknowledging that, yes, Elizabeth might end up taking pleasure in some of her extramarital affairs makes the reversal of gender expectations that much more evident.