The Americans Review: “Salang Tunnel” (Season 3, Episode 5)


Matthew Rhys in the Americans

“It’s hard to get used to life here if you weren’t well trained,” supposes Oleg on the subject of adapting to Western living, a topic on the mind of many during tonight’s The Americans. He’s speaking to Tatiana, a recent transplant to the rezidentura, while also referring to Zinaida, the Soviet defector who might be the key to Nina’s safety. Over black label, Oleg celebrates with a “cheers,” while Tatiana gives a more practical salute to their health. As far as differences go, the choice of word to toast by isn’t worth getting bent out of shape over.

It’s when enough of those differences in words, or numbers start to stockpile that conflict brews, and “us” starts to separate from “them.” “We had our assessments. The Colonel added a new question: how religious are you, scale of one to ten,” the frightened Yousaf tells Philip of a radicalizing political atmosphere in Pakistan. Even with a ten-point scale and other questions to consider, Yousaf’s identity, and safety are at risk of falling into a binary state. “Next time, say 10,” Philip advises the moderate Yousaf; after all, it’s just a number.

But so is “15,” the number that represents the age of Philip’s daughter, or the caliber of bullet he must feel boring through his conscience as his country asks him to “run” a girl of the same age. I was wrong in assuming that “Jim” and Kimberly slept together at the end of last week’s The Americans, mercifully so. The revelation of her real age in “Salang Pass” is itself a continuation of the harsh lesson from “Dimebag,” where exposed lies also expose a more terrible reality they were meant to hide.

“Salang Pass” is a more muted and introspective hour of The Americans than we’ve seen so far this season, doubling as another incredible showcase for Matthew Rhys, as Philip faces yet another dark night of the soul. It’s in the buildup that we see the cracks forming in Philip’s home life: the exhaustion in his eyes and words when he and Elizabeth share memories of the kids learning to walk, or the curt anger that peaks for in his voice briefly when Stan expects him to understand what it meant to have been an all-American teenage boy. Compared to his anxious state from anticipating the task ahead, Philip’s night at Kimberly’s sees him lighter (and higher) than air.

The mistake in Oleg’s earlier statement is that it’s true regardless of whether he’s talking about a defector like Zinaida, illegals like Philip and Elizabeth, or any actual American citizen. Adolescence is a training program leading to adulthood, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have two wise, loving parents to guide you along the way. If you’re unlucky – be it by death, divorce, abuse or abandonment, it falls to other adults to be your instructor. For foster child Alicia, that person might be Martha, who can’t give a little girl the love of her birth mother, but can provide another kind of love that might be enough.

We know next to nothing of what family Philip had, if any, but we know he became a ward of the state early in life, joining the illegals program at an age not much older than Paige. As such, it’s easier to see how he might be having honest, vicarious fun through Jim. He has a chance to live out those missed years of fake I.D.s, drugs, and scrambling out of the girlfriend’s place before her old man gets home, the kind of teenage fantasy of American life that Philip has learned to appreciate the adult form of in his adopted country.

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