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

Keri Russell in The Americans

“Salang Pass” runs high off the the sweet tonic that is suburban bliss, a banal confectioner that can make your teeth rot, but also look damn appealing at times. Beers and guy talk with your neighbor, ginger ale and gossip with your lady friend, shopping with your teenage daughter: all and more of these simple pleasures can be found in this dream of middle class normality. Philip wants to believe this can be real, that there’s a purpose to it, just as I badly want to believe that Philip wants to help Stan, or that part of Elizabeth wants Lisa to find a better life, even when that’s something as small as a bed to sleep on and a shorter commute.

But it’s still just a fantasy, a lie agreed upon, to steal a phrase from David Milch’s series about the founding of American civilization. The hollowness and the hurt are hiding underneath the stepmom’s décor, and every polite change of dinner table subject. When maintaining an illusion, the effort put into the act can sometimes be just as draining as the reality it’s meant to cover up.

“They kept telling us we had to make it real…to ourselves,” Philip tells Elizabeth, reflecting on not just his bedroom training, but on learning to take on a new identity. Despite arguing the contrary, Gabriel is right to suggest that Philip is getting confused about who he is. When Kimberly’s high school age becomes evident, is that Philip walking away to try and break off the relationship, or Jim playing hard-to-get? When there’s a gleeful food fight in a target’s kitchen, is that Jim being playful, or Philip taking pity on a young girl robbed of a relationship with her parents by death and work?

“They’re just a whole other person one-on-one,” Philip tells Stan earlier, trying to offer some honest parenting advice. What he learns later from Kimberly is that the more accurate truism is that people in general are different when you’re not around. There are sides to Paige and Henry that their parents are complete unaware of (remember their hitchhiking adventure from Season 1?), an irony not lost on two people just recently learning to understand the impact that hiding their true selves has had on their kids. “Your girl, Kimberly, she has no idea her father’s in the C.I.A., does she? Look how she wound up,” Elizabeth reasons in the latest Jennings vs. Jennings bathroom brawl. “Don’t say it’s the same, and don’t call her my girl,” Philip barely manages as a counter, that pesky, possessive determiner “my” dividing the two once more.

At best, Philip and Elizabeth only ever get a glimpse of what the other is like when they aren’t around, as when Elizabeth finds Philip glued to the news of the episode’s titular Salang Pass fire. Elizabeth’s ideology has always been the force driving her from objective to objective, though Gabriel’s not wrong to note that she takes losses in her own way. As when decoy plans killed dozens of Soviet servicemen last season, it’s Philip’s guilt that pushes him forward, with the growing burden of his conscience making every step weigh that much more. He too only gets a glimpse of Elizabeth’s own long night of inner turmoil, finding her awake and waiting as he returns from Kimberly’s house. In both scenes, a dissolve suggests each person has been seated in anguish for longer than we, or the other party sees.

“Do you have to make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks Philip, as the two lay side-by-side, eye-to-eye in a display of naked intimacy even more powerful than what we saw at the end of the premiere. “Sometimes,” he answers, letting another unspoken truth of marriage hang over them. No one on The Americans is ever fully prepared for the job, the commitment, or the relationship they signed up for, not for the long haul. To fully train yourself for life would take longer than that life itself. For many, escape becomes the only way to adjust, whether that means lying to everyone else, or just yourself. The only hope for a happy life for these characters, or at least one they can live with, is to find it in their mind somewhere.

  • Stray Thoughts

-Stan and Oleg working together to try and save Nina not only makes sense narratively, but has the added fun of being an unlikely team-up. Sure, their manner of dress sorts them into black hats and white hats, but the truth of them is that they’re much more alike than just in their shared romantic interest.

-Meanwhile, while I’m happy Stan might try getting out into the dating pool (and with Tory. She seemed nice!), I imagine/hope the show isn’t done with Sandra yet. Stan’s personal growth is just starting to break open, and Sandra’s been, and hopefully will continue to be a big part of that.

-Initially, I wasn’t too impressed with how plainly Gabriel laid out Philip’s dilemma for him, but on reflection, that’s the role he’s meant to take on as both a handler, and father-figure to the Jennings: someone who can clear through the noise of the situation, and point them in the “right” direction.

-When Elizabeth bumps up Lisa on the hiring list at Northop by bumping off the at-home mechanic, there’s a slight, but delicious Under the Skin vibe to the music, framing, and inky black bloodstain. I imagine both Jennings would appreciate the film’s use of montage, and story of an alien trying to understand a foreign world.

-To make an awkward/tasty metaphor, the difference in how Philip and Elizabeth handle their work pressure is as Rocky Road ice cream is to Jiffy Pop, respectively. One is slowly melting down, but the other will contain that pressure for as long as they can, before exploding. It’s part of why the show has, of late, focused so much on Philip. Rhys is pacing the breakdown marvellously, which can make Russell seem almost rigid by comparison. But they’re two very different performances for two very different characters, and I imagine things will swing back to focus on Elizabeth more soon enough.

-Elizabeth, what happened to the dog? What happened to the dog, Elizabeth?!?