Great TV seems to have a real potty brain at the moment. When I think of memorable scenes from my favourite shows of the year so far, many seem to take place in, or around bathrooms. The horrendous, revealing hotel fight between Brett and Michelle midway through Togetherness; Jimmy McGill pumping himself up to defend a trio of necrophiliacs at the start of Better Call Saul; Raylan Givens getting shut out of his own motel latrine by his ex-wife on Justified. All it took was a few more sink-adjacent setpieces from tonight’s The Americans for me to notice the common ground –rather, linoleum being trod by a lot of TV lately.
So, why are bathrooms popping up in all these shows? Coincidence, if we’re being serious. But it’s not like each show decided to confine their cast to cramped, unpleasant quarters willy-nilly. You can call it a privy for a reason: the bathroom is a porcelain purgatory, a refuge and sanctuary the likes of which even a room of one’s own can’t measure up to. Given a mirror, a shower, and some assumed solitude, a person will reveal sides of themselves they’d have trouble sharing with their closest friends. Even the great dramas of The Godfather and Pulp Fiction recognize that the power of the toilet lies in its ability to hide our secrets, and expose our greatest vulnerabilities.
That’s a whole lot of flowery talk (an Ode de Toilette, if you will) about the staging ground for just three scenes in “Walter Taffet,” but The Americans has made the Jennings’ master bathroom the location of the season. It’s the setting for the first scene of Season 3, and it has since joined the ranks of the kitchen and laundry room as a go-to spot for The Americans to host pivotal domestic moments. And between Stan’s investigation into Zinaida in “Dimebag,” and Martha’s ladies’ room freak-out tonight, lavatories of all shapes, sizes, and cleanliness are making their presence known lately.
With the introduction of the South African apartheid plot last week, the season’s focus on separation is becoming all the more evident. The clash between Philip and Elizabeth over Paige has been the backbone for much of the at-home drama lately, but the greater world of The Americans is drawing lines across all sorts of boundaries unrelated to the broader Western Capitalism vs. Eastern Communism conflict. Differences of race, religion, class, and age are playing an increasing role in the choices of these characters, which in turn reflects back on the core parenting disagreement between Philip and Elizabeth: do the dangers that come with giving your kids choice outweigh the restricting assurances that come with giving them none?
As predicated last week, Elizabeth is choosing to gently guide Paige to her side of the iron curtain, rather than drop the whole façade of normality right away. The trip to Kenilworth has Paige sounding like a post-grad coming back from a voluntourism stint in Africa, at once horrified at conditions she had only ever heard about, but also inspired by the “amazing” impact the visit has had on her worldview. She sounds just like any other obnoxious teenager who suddenly thinks they’ve had blinders removed from their eyes, but who hasn’t been there? Even without a parent trying to recruit you to the K.G.B., teenage disillusionment is often a natural byproduct of realizing that the comforts of your childhood were, in some ways, an illusion.
Of all his disguises, the one Philip wishes was real is that of the suburban dad, the one who jokes about gross pizza toppings, and knows the perfect record to buy his daughter as a present. In his mind, adopting this persona might mean ensuring his kids are raised as safely as possible. But whether it’s in your own backyard, or on another continent, the misery of the world is what many parents try, and inevitably fail to protect their kids from. Philip has every right to be outraged at Elizabeth for beginning Paige’s recruitment, but he’s less entitled to the frustrated powerlessness that comes with his daughter growing up. He was always going to have to accept the fact that his kids would eventually see the world for more than just the white picket fences of Falls Church.