A particular “P” word came to mind during tonight’s The Americans, and it’s not the one that probably ran through your head when trying to figure out who Baby Soft was targeting with that messed up, all too real soap ad. No, the word that was jumping out at me was “previously.” Whether in English or Russian, “Previously on” are first two words spoken on any episode of The Americans, as is the case for most dramas. I’ve expended many words this season praising just about every other aspect of the show, so it might seem a stretch to open tonight’s review with discussion of an element most people either ignore, or won’t see on the home release. But, considering what an emphasis “Dimebag” put on revisiting old history, it’s time the all too easily ignored “Previously on” got its due. And seeing as “Dimebag” made for one of the darkest episodes The Americans has ever done, it couldn’t hurt to start things off a little light.
On a purely structural level, the opening recap is meant to bring viewers up to speed on immediate plot threads, as well as ones long dormant. The latter servicing is often more useful than the former, especially on a show that relishes playing the long game the way The Americans does. The last time we ran into Lisa from Northop was in Episode 9 of Season 2, which is a lengthy absence for an incidental character. That same episode was also the one that ended with Philip threatening, but not threatening, but totally threatening Pastor Tim, around the time Paige’s religious awakening was just starting to fully bloom.
The refresher for “Dimebag” helps to reestablish a pair of relationships we haven’t seen in a while, but also serves to setup our expectations for what will happen during the rest of the hour. Assets are usually employed for plot purposes, so it’s not terribly surprising that Elizabeth’s visit to Lisa’s home is mostly functional recon. But if your memory was jogged enough to recall the weathered stoicism of the Lisa we first met in A.A., it makes her family’s breakdown in the face of the recession (which won’t peak for another few months) that much more painful. “Are you drinking?” asks Elizabeth, probing for weakness only to be met with a resolute “No.” Lisa still has her sobriety, and based on the portrait in the living room, a personal saviour. Her repeated claim that her husband is, ultimately, “a good man” pairs with the picture to foreshadow “Dimebag”’s two very different versions of what it means to be a self-sacrificing “good man.”
More humorous is how flashing back to where Philip and Tim left things sets up a great punchline of a cold open. The Americans likes to set the episode’s table before the credits cue, but it’s not above going for a laugh, either. Remember Philip and Henry hot-dogging in front of a stunned Elizabeth at the start of “New Car?” Opening with Philip and Elizabeth getting a taste of the greater trap they’ll fall into by hour’s end, the Jennings beg Paige to invite some friends over for her birthday. “Do you know who you want?” Elizabeth asks. “Pastor Tim and his wife,” Paige answers, closing the door just as the music from her record plays off her parents, and the plastic grins they struggle to maintain. Cue laughter, applause, and credits.
But the most immediately informative chunk of tonight’s “Previously on” is the repetition of a scene from last week that some viewers (myself included) might well have needed another look at. When Stan stared at Zinaida, a broken record of anti-Soviet sentiment, up on the TV monitors in “Open House,” it was an important callback to Stan’s advice to Agent Anderholt about how to convince people you’re someone you’re not. But Stan isn’t just considering the impact Zinaida’s comforting repetition is having on viewers at home, but himself as well. A high-ranking Russian defector publicly bashing their administration is music to the ears of many in America, but like even the sweetest tune, it can be easy to miss the hidden meaning.