The Americans 3.04: “Dimebag”

Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is no stranger to a good lie.

The one essential quality for survival in The Americans is the ability to tell a convincing lie. Given the show’s subject matter, this isn’t a particularly insightful revelation; good spycraft demands effective duplicity. Without it, you put not only your life in danger, but your colleagues and fellow countrymen, as well. “Dimebag,” the fourth in a string of remarkable episodes, flips the standard script of The Americans, asking: What are the consequences when characters start telling the truth to one another in their personal lives? The answer is not that different than what it would be in their professional lives — a bloodbath. Not a literal one, with guns and bullets, but an emotional one with disappointment and heartbreak. Yep, welcome to another uplifting episode of The Americans!

“Dimebag” begins with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) running surveillance on Kimberly (Julia Garner), the teenage daughter of an important CIA operative. After listening to Kimberly make a pass at an older man last episode, Elizabeth and Philip (Matthew Rhys) realize she might be a vulnerable target. Their hunch about her reckless personality is confirmed when Elizabeth witnesses her buying drugs at the park. Philip is reluctant to engage with Kimberly, noting that they’d never used someone this young before. Elizabeth, further establishing “who wears the pants” in the family (a phrase she uses to mock Philip about his status with Martha), is having none of it, stating that the “The CIA’s a hard target.”

The parallels between the Kimberly operation and the decision Philip and Elizabeth face with Paige (Holly Taylor) regarding the second-generation illegals program are obvious. Subtle metaphors have never been The Americans style (though they get a pass for the Love’s Baby Soft commercial Philip watches in disbelief. It’s too perfectly on point not to show it. Plus, it’s proof that maybe we have evolved as society, after all). Their obviousness, though, doesn’t mean they aren’t effective or affecting. I think you can actually see Philip’s soul leave his body as he slips into Lothario-mode to approach Kimberly, as Adam Ant’s “Goody Two Shoes” blares (un-subtlety) from the club. It’s as if by agreeing to recruit Kimberly, Philip has given his assent for Elizabeth to recruit Paige, as well.

And even more distance comes between Phillip and Elizabeth.

By episode’s end, this conclusion appears even more likely. Elizabeth finally makes her intention clear to Philip, telling him that she is going to initiate Paige into the program, with or without him. As if Elizabeth wasn’t determined enough already, Paige may have hastened this process along by inviting Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife over for her birthday dinner in order to ask permission to become baptized. Not even Philip can restrain his outrage at Paige, Pastor Tim, and his two earrings for this ambush. But for Elizabeth, it’s much more than just teenage rebellion. Paige’s stated intention to “wipe her old life away” (again, note the subtlety) is exactly what Elizabeth fears is happening to her family (the death of her mother no doubt reinforcing those feelings). Elizabeth does not want their history to be washed away by religion or America. Philip pleads that if she tells Paige now, it will “blow all this up,” meaning their lives as they know them. For Elizabeth, this seems a small price to pay for Paige finally knowing “who she is.”

Stan (Noah Emmerich) finally unleashes his pent up rage.

Stan (Noah Emmerich) is another one who suffers a bout of self-destructive honesty in “Dimebag.” Throughout the episode, he remains in denial about the state of his marriage, insisting that he isn’t single, only separated, even spurning an advance from another EST attendee, Tori (Callie Thorne), much to Philip’s dismay. Instead, Stan makes another desperate late night visit to Sandra (Susan Misner), this time with the intent to come clean about his affair with Nina. He starts out great by confessing his infidelity, sincerely apologizing for it, and admitting to Sandra that he was an asshole. Sandra seems genuinely touched. Good job, Stan! Way to go.

Wait, why are you still talking, Stan? Oh no. What are you doing? Not realizing there is something as too much honesty, Stan keeps (over) sharing, explaining to Sandra that it wasn’t just an affair, but that he truly loved Nina. Not surprising (well, to anyone other than Stan), Sandra is crushed by this gratuitous bit of truth, leaving Stan alone in the front yard, as clueless as ever about relationships and women.

There’s a chance for you yet, Nina (Annet Mahendru).

Speaking of Nina (Annet Mahendru), it seems Oleg’s father has decided not to rescue her from prison, after all. Nina, however, is offered another chance at leniency if she can get her cellmate, Evi, to admit her crime. In an attempt to draw Evi out, Nina, like Stan, begins confessing her sins, including her regret at not staying married, a biographical fact I don’t recall having heard before. Whether it is true or just an attempt to garner Evi’s sympathy is unclear. What is clear is that if Evi knows what’s good for her, she needs to learn the lesson of “Dimebag” and keep her trap shut. Given Nina’s past successes at seduction, I’m not holding out much hope for poor Evi.

Maybe I won’t get the burger tonight…

My favorite exchange of the episode is one that also reinforces the episode’s focus on honesty. When Stan asks his waitress how the burgers are, she replies that they are simply fair.

“Well that’s not a ringing endorsement,” Stan says.

“You want a ringing endorsement or do you want to know how the burgers are?” the waitress fires back.

The same question could be asked of everyone in the episode deluding themselves about their reality (Philip, Stan, you listening?). Do you guys want a ringing endorsement of life, or do you want to know the truth? Scratch that, I know what you want. I guess the better question is, isn’t there something, anything, on the menu that’s better than the burger?

Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970's San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @courthaslett and at The Rogue Reader.

Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.