TV Time: The Americans 3.03

Title: Open House

Episode M.V.P: Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys
It’s impossible for me to separate Russell and Rhys’s performances in “Open House.” This was an episode that reminded us what a great partnership Philip and Elizabeth have, so it only makes sense that it was also an episode that allowed the acting partnership between Russell and Rhys to shine. Just as Philip and Elizabeth came to see in this episode just how much they need each other, the episode itself needed both Russell and Rhys to be at the top of their games in different ways for it to work as well as it did.

Both of their performances played off one another and complimented what the other was doing perfectly. For example, the scene between them in their bedroom wouldn’t have resonated so strongly if one of them was bringing less to it than the other. Russell’s openness had to be met step-for-step by Rhys’s petulance. And both shaded those initial impressions with the right amount of depth. Underneath Elizabeth’s playful teasing, we saw the somewhat sad attempt to use her sexuality to fix things with her husband because she doesn’t know what else to do to make things better between them. And underneath Philip’s cold response to her flirting, we saw his deep sense of hurt that she would talk to Gabriel about Paige without him. That scene felt so much deeper than simply a husband shutting down his wife’s sexual advances because he’s mad. That’s the stuff of lesser shows. On The Americans, in the hands of those two actors, it became a layered portrait of two people who use their bodies to manipulate other people but have reached a place of honesty with one another where that won’t work between them. This scene brilliantly conveyed the idea that, when you’re really honest with someone, sometimes you can’t pretend that you can just kiss and make up, especially when you’re two people who frequently use sex to cover up the truth about themselves.

The way these two actors handled the buildup and release of tension between them throughout this challenging episode was stunning. It was their ability to communicate so much with just their expressions that made “Open House” something special and created a moment the likes of which I’ve never seen on television before and am not sure I’ll ever see again. It was their talent and their director’s trust in that talent which made a scene that—for all intents and purposes—should have been horrifying to watch instead feel like something beautiful and moving.

Favorite Scene: Philip pulling out Elizabeth’s tooth
The Americans is deeply interested in the idea of intimacy—what it means, how we show it, and who we share it with. Sex is not always an act of intimacy; sometimes the most intimate moments two people can share are the simplest: holding hands in the car after a bad day, talking about the icicles they saw when they were young, helping someone take off a boot or a jacket. And sometimes intimacy can be found in places no one would expect—like a tooth extraction.

Philip pulling out the tooth that’s been bothering Elizabeth since her fight in the season premiere could have been too disgusting to watch, and I’m sure for some it was. (I definitely found myself cringing at the sounds more than anything else, much like I did with the suitcase stuff in last week’s episode.) It could have been about pain, but instead it was about trust. It was the single most intimate moment I’ve ever seen two TV characters share, and it was one of the best scenes I’ve ever watched on any show—not just this one. This scene was The Americans  in microcosm: On the surface, it was a scene showing the brutal realities of life as a KGB spy, but it was really an examination of a marriage. On other shows (Alias comes to mind), this would have been a torture scene, but on The Americans, it was a love scene.

The scene didn’t start with the tooth extraction, it started with Elizabeth coming home after her close call with the CIA and FBI. I loved the way the camera panned to Philip holding the phone cord as if that would bring Elizabeth closer to him or bring him closer to her. And once Elizabeth walked in the door, I was struck by the brilliant choice to play a scratchy, warped version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the background, as the TV behind Philip showed the Washington Monument and American flag. It was such a striking reminder that these two people are living in a country that isn’t home, surrounded by danger constantly. But in the middle of all those symbols of America, they come together; the one place they can call home and the one place they can feel safe is with each other, even after being so divided over Paige’s future.

I’m always left speechless at the power Russell and Rhys can give to the moments where their characters embrace, and this moment was no exception. I loved the exhausted look on Russell’s face and the pained expression on Rhys’s. This was Elizabeth and Philip at their most honest. He’s the only one she can show how afraid she was to die, and she’s the only one he can show how afraid he was to lose her. There was a beat where they pulled away before they kissed, and the soft look on her face contrasted so perfectly with the intensity of the emotions on his face that it made me tear up a little bit.

On any other show, those looks and the kiss that followed them would have led to a sex scene, but not on The Americans. Instead, it led to the most loving home dental procedure ever performed onscreen. On this show—like in real marriages and real life in general—there are things more intimate than sex. And letting someone yank out your tooth with a pair of pliers in one of them.

There were so many small beats in that scene that created such a stunning sense of emotional power and real love. I was immediately aware of the gentleness with which Rhys put the towels down for her to rest her head on. It was a small gesture, but it said so much about Philip’s desire to comfort Elizabeth through the pain. In order for this scene to really resonate, Rhys had to be a rock for Russell. And he delivered. From the way he smoothed back her hair to the determination in his eyes, he made you feel the depth with which Philip loves his wife. Every time the camera cut to his face, you could feel him reminding her that she can trust him, that he won’t hurt her more than this has to hurt her, that he has faith in her ability to fight through the pain. Rhys’s ability to communicate all of that with absolutely no dialogue is one of the chief reasons why I will be absolutely gutted if he’s not nominated for major awards this coming year.

And then there was Russell in this scene. This is literally as vulnerable as it gets—mouth open, teary-eyed, letting someone have the power to completely destroy you with pain. And I loved that Russell was allowed to show that Elizabeth was afraid and in pain throughout this scene—from the way she stopped him before he first went into her mouth to the weary look before he had to go back in. It made Elizabeth’s ability to push through the pain all the more powerful.

But the real beauty of Russell’s work in this scene was her eye contact with Rhys and the depth she was able to convey through it. The trust in her eyes was so profoundly moving because it was mixed with natural fear, too. It spoke to what I believe is the bravest kind of love there is—love given with the knowledge that this person can break you but also given with the trust that they won’t. That trust is what made her reach out to hold onto him before he went back in. The simple gesture of her hands grasping his shirt was given such emotional weight; it spoke so clearly to the idea that she needs the stability he’s given her in moments when their spy life makes things like this tooth extraction necessary. He’s become the person she can reach for when things get to be too tough to take on her own.

The final beats of that scene, as the camera closed in more and more tightly on their eyes, were gorgeously choreographed by director Thomas Schlamme. It brought us directly into the intimacy of the moment through the intensity of their eye contact. And when the camera held its focus on the tears in Russell’s eyes, it made me feel her pain in a way I wouldn’t have if it would have been shot from a traditional distance. By focusing on their eyes, the tone of the scene—even in its most brutal moments—remained intimate and moving instead of gruesome. It shocked me, but not in the way I was expecting. I thought it was going to make me cringe, when it actually made me cry.

Extra Thoughts:
• Paige telling her father she wished he and Elizabeth didn’t worry about her so much was straight out of Irony 101, and I loved it.
• Despite the tense nature of the episode, the use of “All Out of Love” still made me smile.
• I thought it was the perfect poetic touch to have the whiskey used in the tooth extraction be a gift from Stan.
• Speaking of Stan, “People love hearing how right they are,” is a great line, and it made me super suspicious of the new defector.
• Where did Henry get that photo of Sandra? And is just me, or did he grow six inches in a couple of weeks?
• My love for Martha has me hoping this episode’s interaction with Agent Aderholt won’t be the last. She deserves some real love.
• I enjoyed the dichotomy between Philip and Martha’s argument over children and what’s going on with Philip and Elizabeth concerning Paige. “Clark’s” quick little kisses to avoid dealing with the subject were the perfect way to show that perceived physical intimacy can be dishonest while the intimacy Philip and Elizabeth have developed means they can’t be anything but honest with each other because there’s too much trust between them to lie.
• I’m hopeful that Philip asking Elizabeth “What are we going to do about Paige?” means the two of them are going to be more of a united front again or at least at a less hostile impasse.
• Who else ended this episode loving Arkady more than ever?

6 thoughts on “TV Time: The Americans 3.03

  1. This review is phenomenal Katie. I am kind of intimidated and not sure how to even add anything of importance! I will just throw out some random thoughts.

    I mentioned last week that the episode felt like I watched 3 in 1, so I am glad that this episode slowed down a bit and allowed the main focus to be back on Phillip and Elizabeth and their relationship.

    I was totally shocked by how much older Henry seemed in this episode, hes kinda been absent lately, so his appearance came as a bit of a shock.

    I am having a hard time getting into this defector storyline. I hope its a slow build to a huge payoff, but right now the other storylines are so strong I kind keep forgetting the defector exists. Stan mentioned her and I forgot who he was talking about until I saw her.

    Yes to martha finding a new man. She needs something real.

    I am so glad you brought up the whiskey, because I had completely forgotten Stan gave it to them. I kept thinking that whiskey would be the last thing that Phillip and Elizabeth would go out and buy to have in their house. But the fact that it was the gift from Stan makes perfect sense, and is super clever, like most things on this show are.

    I love how suspenseful the car scene was at the opening of this episode. This wasnt your typical car chase with high speeds and quick turns and crashes. It was slow and methodical and intelligent, and I think that its a perfect representation of all the things I love about this show.

    One of the things I find so fascinating about Elizabeth as a character is how insecure she is at times when it comes to her sexual relationship with Phillip (and vice versa). There is no denying that there are insane amounts of trust and intimacy between the two of them, but when it comes to sex they just dont know where they stand. We saw it last season (or was it S1?) when Elizabeth was posing as Clark’s sister and had to hear about Phillip’s skills in bed from a drunk Martha. And as you perfectly mentioned, sex is not the most intimate thing these two share, because they do use it as a tool to manipulate others. I also think its one of the few things that they have trouble detaching themselves from now that things are “real” between them. You see Phillip trying to keep Elizabeth out of situations where she would have to sleep with others, and you see Elizabeth insecure in her sexual relationship with Phillip compared to other women. I think until these two are able to figure out their sexual boundaries and their own unique intimacy in the bedroom this is always going to be an area of weakness in their relationship, and I hope its something we can see develop in the show. And now I feel like a slight creeper saying I want to watch other’s sexual relationship develop, but I guess all media is a type of voyeurism in a way.

    P.S. I did hear back from Sierra Nevada, and in true 80s craft beer culture fashion, they dont have records from back then, or the memories, to say for sure if their beer would be available on the East Coast in 1982. So the verdict remains at “not impossible, but highly unlikely”.

    • First of all, I love that Sierra Nevada got back to you! The editor in me appreciates your dedication to beer-related period accuracy more than I can say. 😉

      Thanks for the kind words about this post, Shauna. For some crazy reason that I should probably consult a therapist about, that tooth-pulling scene really resonated with me, and I enjoyed writing about it more than I’ve enjoyed writing about one single moment in a long time.

      I have a feeling this defector story is going to pay off somewhere down the line (I’m guessing she’s still loyal to Mother Russia and is playing the FBI somehow—or she’s going to become the key piece in bargaining for Nina’s freedom.), but I do agree that it’s in the background a little too much to carry weight right now.

      Your paragraph about Philip and Elizabeth’s handling of sex within and outside of their marriage was some excellent analysis, by the way. I don’t know what it says about me, either, but I’m fascinated by the way these two characters are trying to figure out their sex lives now that they know they love each other. That episode with Elizabeth wanting to try things with “Clark” was one of my favorites in the series because it was so complex. I agree that it brings out an insecurity in Elizabeth that we don’t see in any other situation she’s ever in, and I think there are so many factors that come into play there—especially the fact that this show introduced her to us in the pilot as a rape victim, and it’s one of the few shows I’ve watched that’s tackled that subject matter and allowed it to inform the character’s development throughout the show. I’ve heard rumblings of a scene in the near future where they talk about sex and work, and Keri Russell called it one of her favorite scenes she’s done so far this season because it was so vulnerable and uncomfortable for Elizabeth. So I think you touched on an important nerve for this character and this show as a whole which is apparently going to be directly addressed soon.

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