FX’s The Americans continues its slow burn with “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow,” which continues the discussion about what to do with the Jennings family’s insecurity (literally and metaphorically) before ending on a twist that’s guaranteed to make one’s skin crawl. Rather than deliver the punchy episode we’ve all been thinking about, the show has decided that Season 4 will be the one that makes us bite our nails every week.
Yet it will throw us a bone. Here comes the scene we’ve been waiting for: an awkward sit-down between Elizabeth, Philip and Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). This is like a parent-teacher conference of the worst kind. He thinks he knows “what spies do,” and they’re quick to tell him otherwise. They also make sure to remind him that if he talks, they’ll go to prison and their children to foster care. “Let’s all think about this for a few days and talk again,” he suggests, while Elizabeth looks like she wants to get another unscheduled dental operation.
Our heroes then report to Gabriel (Frank Langella) that not only does Tim know, but so does Tim’s wife Alice. “Can’t seem to get rid of this, can I?” Gabriel deadpans. Philip wants them to leave; he insists that the Center will give them a Plan B. Speaking of higher-ups, at the FBI Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) is telling people to pay better attention to the photocopier. This gives Stan his Contemplative Face, and the next time we see him he’s surveilling Martha.
While Elizabeth goes back to work undercover in the local Mary Kay Cosmetics group (hello the worst of 1980’s fashion), Philip has to break the news to Paige that Pastor Tim has already broken her confidence. He also tells her that they need her to maintain that friendship so that Tim doesn’t now turn against the family. Paige agrees to talk to Tim, but you know that’s not going to go well.
Speaking of not going well, Gabriel meets with Claudia (Margo Martindale), insisting that the Jenningses need to be pulled out of America thanks to the Tim situation. Claudia of course disagrees with him; she says the Center will “figure something out.” Apparently that’s just going back to the Plan A of murder, except now Gabriel wants the family to visit Florida while someone else does the deed. Philip still thinks this is stupid, and he’s still right.
“We’ve been wrong about Paige so many times, and we’re doing it again right now,” he tells Elizabeth, who retorts that their handlers have “given us a way out of this that lets us keep our lives.” While they’re disagreeing, so are Paige and Tim, who goes back to the “I’m trying to help you” spiel. But is it really just her that he’s looking out for?
Then there’s Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who just wants to go to EPCOT. And there’s your episode title reference.
Now to Russia. Nina (Annet Mahendru) has been returned to prison and is being told that her new charges from last week’s note-passing scandal may result in “exceptional punishment.” Does she have any grounds for an appeal? She’s told that both her husband and Anton (Michael Aronov) have spoken on her behalf, and when she sees the latter’s statement, something in it makes her smile. That night, stuck in her prison cell, she starts thinking about all the men in her life.
While Elizabeth’s out on another undercover gig, Sandra (Susan Misner) surprises Philip by paying an unscheduled visit to the Jennings home. This gives him the opportunity to tell her about his confrontation with Stan, which turns into an awkward sort of unsolicited advice session where he convinces Sandra that she might be too hard on her ex-husband.
Said ex-husband is trying to get his partner Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) to stop reading ridiculous office memos and help him keep an eye on Martha; Aderholt refuses to join the surveillance squad, but offers to take Martha to dinner instead.
As they prepare to leave for Florida, Philip and Elizabeth again discuss the pros and cons of leaving America and returning to Russia. She tells him that going back won’t mean that they will be accepted, to say nothing of their children, and she’s also reticent to give up on their life’s work. All fair points, but Philip can’t stop his gut instinct that’s telling him to run. “It seems Paige loses, whatever we do,” he points out.
When they go to meet again with Gabriel, though, they find him coughing up blood on the floor. He warns them to get out, and it’s then that they realize he must have been infected – and they’ve just touched everything. The two of them immediately rush to locate William (Dylan Baker) and explain to him what they just saw. William’s response is to take off running, which is not encouraging. Philip tracks him down, tackles him and then spits in his face to make them all even.
Realizing that he’s not getting away, William brings the duo back to his apartment instead. There he whips out another syringe full of a broad-spectrum antibiotic whose name you shouldn’t try to pronounce. “Will it definitely work?” Elizabeth asks, to which he noncommittally replies only that it’s “probably our best shot.” All three of them then return to Gabriel’s place, where William begins to do what needs to be done. That includes a quarantine, which Philip deadpans just derailed the family trip to EPCOT. Way to end on some dark humor, show!
First of all, raise your hand if you thought Pastor Tim would still be alive by this point in the season. We’ve had two whole episodes now just talking about what might get done to him, and he’s still perfectly coiffed and present. Not to say that he won’t end up dead later, because the guy definitely has a target on his back that you can feel in every scene, but the series is keeping him around when it would have been well within its rights to have him shot by now. So why is he still here?
In that sense, the back and forth between Elizabeth and Philip is a dialogue between the audience and the show. We’re Elizabeth, wondering why we can’t just get rid of the guy and be done with it, especially when there’s so much on the line for characters that we care about. But the show is Philip, reminding us that murder is still a Big Deal and that Paige will be smart enough to notice a connection between recent events and her pastor’s sudden demise no matter how good anyone’s plan is. If we acknowledge that Philip is right, then we must also acknowledge that the writers are right in keeping Tim around. It all makes sense, even if you don’t realize it in the moment.
That same principle applies to the plot twist in the fourth act. The image of Gabriel on the floor, cowed and coughing up blood, is a scary one for sure. But once you get past that shock, if you look at it from a writing point of view, this is where this plotline was going all along. It doesn’t make sense to frighten the audience with the threat of chemical warfare and then not show that warfare. It’s like bringing out a loaded gun and not shooting anyone.
Maybe the series could have picked another target but Gabriel is convenient because he’s important enough that the audience cares about him, but not so important that losing him does harm to the season or the show. As we’re reminded when we see Claudia again, there are other people that can act as the Jennings’ handler; we’ve already had three in three seasons. Margo Martindale does happen to be pretty available at the moment, and if you’re going to bump off Frank Langella, you’d better have another suitably impressive name ready to go.
“Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” also sets up an interesting frame for at least part of next week’s episode. We know that Elizabeth, Philip and William will need to be quarantined for several hours, so the show is going to give us a portion of the action that’s going to be these three people stuck in one room with a dead body. Some amazing drama can come out of bottle shows like that.
USA’s Colony just did one with Josh Holloway, Sarah Wayne Callies, Tory Kittles and Peter Jacobson and it was the best episode of that series’ season. Or look at TNT’s Agent X, which locked Jeff Hephner in a basement with Andrew Howard for 42 minutes and was phenomenal. So was The Americans‘ network sibling Archer, which had a wonderful installment called “Vision Quest” with the whole team stuck in an elevator. The list goes on, but imagine what great entertainment we’re going to get out of what’s essentially a small play with Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys and Dylan Baker.
And what’s going to happen when the Jennings family never gets to EPCOT? Poor Henry.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.