Early in last night’s episode of The Americans, “Salang Pass,” Philip (Matthew Rhys) listens to a BBC radio report of a deadly incident in Afghanistan’s Salang Tunnel. The initial estimate of fatalities released by the Soviet government was under 200, but it is now believed that the real number was closer to 2,000. The cause of the fire is also in dispute. The Soviets maintain it was a traffic incident, while the Afghani’s claim it as a successful military operation.
Neither the source of the Salang Tunnel Fire nor the number of casualties, however, is relevant to the rest of the episode. In fact, other than the radio broadcast, it is never mentioned again by anyone. Why, then, title the episode after it? The answer lies in the central conflict of Season 3, whether or not Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) should tell Paige (Holly Taylor) the truth about their family in order to indoctrinate her into the second-generation illegals program. For Elizabeth, telling Paige is the normal progression. Why shouldn’t Paige know who she really is? As Elizabeth points out, Kimberly (Julia Garner), the troubled teen of a CIA officer, doesn’t know the truth about her parents, and look at how she’s turned out, a complete mess.
But for Philip, the decision to tell Paige has taken on greater significance than whether or not Paige can handle the truth. So far, his argument against it has centered on the idea that since it will put Paige in danger, it’s Paige who should make the decision, but only when she’s an adult. Though he has been steadfast in making his case, Philip has never really articulated why delaying the conversation is so important.
After “Salang Pass,” we no longer have to wonder about Philip’s reasons. As much as he fears for Paige’s future, last night’s episode reveals that equally troubling to Philip is what Paige, and he, will lose by telling her the truth: her childhood. Philip knows that being honest with Paige will definitively mark the end of her innocence, and this is something he is not prepared to let go of yet. Philip cannot bear for Paige to enter adolescence, the Salang Pass that will take her from childhood to adulthood.
This elegiac feeling follows Philip around throughout the episode, as he finds himself either surrounded by children or talking nostalgically about them with other adults. The opening scene of Clark and Martha (Alison Wright) at a foster care center eyeing potential kids sets the tone. Though Clark can’t allow a foster kid in the house, it’s clear that Philip wouldn’t mind it. Seeing the small children causes him to reflect with Elizabeth about when their own kids were “so little,” misremembering Paige as graceful, when in fact she was a klutz. “Oh yeah, the summer of skinned knees,” Philip says ruefully. Elizabeth, sensing Philip’s state of mind, is justifiably concerned about him.
Philip gets no relief from his sentimental melancholy (nor does he seem to want any) after volunteering to take Paige shopping for a baptismal dress. He selects an expensive, white dress for Paige, symbolizing the innocence she will soon be losing. Not long after, he has a heart to heart with Stan (Noah Emmerich), who only confirms Philip’s worst fears, telling Philip that he no longer understands his adolescent son anymore, and that he longs for the simple days of watching baseball games and television with him.
As if those encounters weren’t difficult enough, Philip must endure an evening alone with Kimberly, where every conversation reminds Philip of how young she is, as well as what the Center is asking him to take from her. Philip finds other parallels to Paige when Kimberly tells him about her absentee father (which also helps explains her attraction to older men). She shares a heartbreaking memory about raking the garden with her dad that almost breaks Philip. The two go on to have a playful night with one another—having a popcorn fight, watching television—that each would prefer to be having with their own father and daughter (well, with the exception of the marijuana and kissing, I suppose).
After almost being caught by her parents, Philip arrives home to find Elizabeth waiting up for him. Perhaps prompted by the strong Afghani weed, he shares with Elizabeth the trauma he experienced from the KGB’s harrowing sexual training. It’s a fitting end to an episode spent mourning the passing of childhood. Given Philip’s abrupt introduction to adulthood, it is no wonder he wants Paige to stay young as long as she can. He knows that the Salang Tunnel is a treacherous place for everyone, and that once you enter, there’s no going back.
Other notable developments from “Salang Pass” include:
Philip has gotten the bulk of the juicy emotional scenes this season, so it was nice to see Elizabeth’s vulnerable side at the end of the episode, worrying about Philip when he’s late, jealous of his relationships with other women, anxious that he is faking it with her.
Ah, the bathtub makes reappearance. Season 3 kicked off with Elizabeth soaking in it, and she returns to it here, furiously scrubbing it after killing the Northrup employee.
Lots of excitement about the detente between Stan and Oleg (Costa Ronin). Every scene between the two of them is a keeper (though judging from Oleg’s running form, I’m putting the number of miles he actually ran at under one).
There’s not much levity in The Americans anymore, so any appearance of Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is welcome. With his doubly inappropriate question about Mrs. Beeman (Susan Misner), he doesn’t disappoint.
The Boland Amendment mentioned by Gabriel (Frank Langella) restricted U.S. support to the Contras and became a central issue in the Iran-Contra scandal a few years later.
Last week, Yaz. This week, A Flock of Seagulls. Keep those ‘80’s hits coming!
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.