Let’s review assets. It’s November 10th, 1982. Dallas is still the highest rated show in primetime, and First Blood has been the number one movie at the box office for three weeks. There’s an actor in the White House, and a dead man in the Kremlin. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is approaching its third anniversary, and the CIA is paying tens of millions of dollars every year to arm and train anti-communist Mujahideen. Paige Jennings is baking brownies and watching The Jeffersons, and her younger brother spent the summer playing baseball and getting smacked with the broadside of the puberty paddle.
Their parents, meanwhile, are going to weekend self-help seminars, starting street fights, and trying to destroy Western democracy. In other words: things are pretty much business as usual on The Americans. Considering that the show hit the ground running with one of the most confident cold opens to a series ever, and began its second season with a gruesome murder mystery, “EST Men” plays more like the start of a second act than the beginning of brand new chapter.
To read just the synopses, a lot more happens in previous premieres “Pilot” and “Comrades,” but what makes “EST Men” such a fantastic start to the season is the sense that there’s never been more going on for the Jennings, or the world of The Americans as a whole. Moments of plot significance punctuate the hour: a McGuffin gets kicked into play early on, we’re introduced to a few new assets, and say goodbye to another. But in terms of where each character is as an individual, things have never been more complicated for Elizabeth, Philip, and everyone caught up in their orbit, knowingly or otherwise.
There’s, in fact, so much personal business to attend to for these characters that it’s not until the end of the hour that the biggest news of the day is revealed: Leonid Brezhnev has died. There’s a great little moment during our first scene back in the Russian embassy where Arkady tells Oleg that he’ll send his foreign policy recommendation (“what we need to do is get out of Afghanistan”) up the chain. Initially, the moment reads like Arkady admonishing the always-upstart Oleg, but in retrospect, there’s a bleak comradery to the joke, as indicated by the smirk Oleg gives in response. Despite the many successes the KGB and the Jennings had last year, their cause is almost fully on the back foot: stealth was a bust, the motherland economy is going down the tube, and Afghanistan increasingly looks like Russia’s Vietnam.
That last comparison was made by Elizabeth midway through Season 2, and in “EST Men,” it’s echoed by Philip and Elizabeth’s new handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella, slipping into this kind of fiction seamlessly). Considering how fraught their relationships with Claudia and Kate were, it’s startling to see the Jennings not just get along with this new face for the Centre, but actually become the portrait of suburban bliss they’ve always pretended to be, just with Philip and Elizabeth cast as the children. They joke around, have a family meal, and then the boys play board games while the ladies do the dishes. It’s a cartoonish portrait of the American nuclear family that belongs on the cover of a Milton Bradley box.
One of the great strengths of The Americans is in how the unknown personal history of each character always seems to reveal itself in the present moment. From just one scene, you can tell that if Gabriel had to pick a favorite Jennings, it would be Elizabeth, just as you can tell that the issue of Paige’s induction into the illegals program has been a dog Philip and Elizabeth were willing to let lie the last few months. Where the two truths meet is over ice cream, when Gabriel addresses the elephant in the room. Philip carefully positions his defense, but as the scene unfolds, the camera increasingly makes the conversation one between Elizabeth and Gabriel. Before long, Philip is practically boxed out of the discussion, and out of the scene entirely. No wonder the next scene sees Philip walking back to the car well ahead of Elizabeth, alone in a huff as though he’s just had a spat with his sister over who gets the front seat.
“You’re assessing her, you’re developing her,” Philip accuses, still holding fast to their agreement to never expose the kids to the truth about all those late nights at the travel agency. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. She’s my daughter,” Elizabeth deflects, right into Philip’s gob-smacked face. What’s shocking isn’t that Elizabeth, a trained spy, can’t sell an obvious lie, but in her use of that little determiner hanging over their relationship like the sword of Damocles. “My,” as in: “not ours, and not yours. Mine.”