KGB operatives Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings can repeat the mantra “Its not personal; it’s business” to themselves as many times as they want. But as long as they maintain even a sliver of their humanity, they’ll struggle with the balance between their mission and their conscience. It’s not always the lies that wear them down; it’s the constant reminder that the people they are using and sometimes abusing for information aren’t so different from the two of them.
“New Car,” the eighth episode of The Americans Season Two, sees Elizabeth reverting to her default state of attempting to shut down emotionally, focusing on her life in terms of it being a job and just a job. Her life with Phillip, Paige and Henry, their job, the house, the clothes — it’s all just part of the cover. The mission comes first, and predictably, Elizabeth finds herself at odds with Lucia and her ill-advised attempt and taking out Larrick on her own. Elizabeth negotiates with Larrick, who wants to exchange his freedom of the KGB for Lucia’s life and promises to deliver the necessary passwords and signals to get them into the U.S. military camp where the Contra commanders will soon meet. Lucia’s need for revenge for her family and countrymen outweighs her passion for the cause, however, and Elizabeth lets Larrick choke Lucia to death rather than compromise the mission. She’s not happy about it — she sheds tears over it later as she relays the news to Phillip — and more importantly, she’s upset and confused over why Lucia, to her, didn’t seem to understand the point of it all. “She didn’t understand what it is that we do,” she tells Phillip. “If she didn’t understand what comes first, then she didn’t understand anything. It was for her goddamn country!” She had worked everything out with Larrick — things didn’t have to end this way.
Elizabeth expressed similar frustration with Phillip earlier on after he returned home with a new Chevy Camaro. He’s returning to behavior we saw in Season One, enjoying his American life so much it is hard for him to consider ever leaving it behind. The pleasure is apparent as he and Henry return home from the car dealership, stepping out of the Camaro in the driveway and playing air guitar to the music on the radio. Why not have a little fun while they’re at it? “Don’t you enjoy any of this sometimes?,” he asks Elizabeth later when she doesn’t seem thrilled at the new car. “… It doesn’t make you bad at what you do. It just makes you a human being. Don’t you ever like it?” “That’s not why I’m here,” she says. “… We have to live this way, for our job, for our cover. You know how I grew up. It’s nicer here, yes. It’s easier. It’s not better.”
Phillip’s conflicting feelings about America and its opportunities is perfectly captured with his feelings about his new ride. As he leaves the Camaro parked on a side street to head to a meet-up with Kate, he pauses to examine and admire his treasure. But after he speaks with Kate and learns that the submarine propeller designs he and Elizabeth stole were fakes, one of hundreds of fake plans planted by Americans across the country in hopes they’d be picked up by the KGB, the charms of his comfortable life feel like more of a betrayal than a perk. The Soviets used the propeller design on one of their subs, it malfunctioned, and 160 men were killed. The Centre is still pinning its hopes on what will be uncovered at the military camp, and now the Arpanet and Stealth technology information Phillip stole has made its way back to the motherland and the kidnapped physicist Anton Baklanov (a development Stan can’t get near do thanks to Department of Defense red tape), but the blow is still huge. After receiving this news and heading back to the Camaro, the examination Phillip gives to the car is filled with doubt and sadness. Elizabeth is watching TV when he tells her, President Ronald Reagan boasting in the background about his ever-present desire to beef up America’s defenses and do whatever is necessary to defeat the Soviet Union. “Look at him,” she says. “He’ll do anything; he doesn’t care. Kids, nuns, journalists. He doesn’t care.” Yet that is the kind of generalization that keeps wars like this one from ending.
Henry drives that point home, albeit in a little too ham-fisted of fashion, when he apologizes for being caught camping out at the out-of-town neighbors’ house. He’s not a criminal, he cries — he didn’t steal anything. He knows the difference between right and wrong. “I’m a good person, I swear!” It is Martha’s goodness that stops Phillip from intentionally hurting her by playing for her a tape of her colleagues edited to make an already snarky conversation about her even worse. He needs her feeding them information, but in a moment of tenderness between the two of them, he can’t play her the tape. Nina is harder to figure out. She’s still playing Stan, but as he tells her he gave Oleg the FBI surveillance records he wants, a part of her seems genuinely moved that Stan would go to such lengths for her. (Although she probably wouldn’t be thrilled if she knew Stan is considering killing Oleg, thinking it will solve her dilemma.) Perhaps she is just that good of an actor, but given what viewers have seen of her these past two seasons, surely she isn’t immune to his love for her and what it has spurred him to do. He’s done terrible things — everyone in this drama has — but does that doesn’t make them terrible people. It just makes them human.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.