The Jennings are being pulled in so many directions right now. In the opening scene of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, they sit with Gabriel and run down the list of operations they are currently balancing. At the forefront are the Morozovs, Stan, Pastor Tim, and Paige. In addition to all of this, they must fly out to Topeka and work new sources for the grain operation.
Stopping an attack on Russia’s food supply is a critical mission, but it’s all becoming too much for the the Jennings to handle. Even Elizabeth, who has been the agent most devoted to the cause, wants to find someone else for the job. As she and Phillip mention to Gabriel, Paige requires more of their time. It’s no coincidence that much of this episode centers around their household, following both Paige and Henry. Despite the growing stakes surrounding the cold war, the Jennings are motivated by family above all else.
Paige’s slow introduction into her parents’ line of work has been brilliant. It continues this week, when she snoops around Pastor Tim’s house while babysitting. A familiar score picks up in the background — one usually reserved for espionage sequences — as Paige slowly walks through the house, opening drawers and folders.
This leads to the episode’s best scene. Elizabeth and Paige are in the kitchen, talking candidly next to a running faucet. Paige reveals to her mother that she looked through Pastor Tim’s notes. Elizabeth emphasizes the dangers involved in her work, and pleads for Paige to stop. It’s reminiscent of one of last season’s most memorable scenes, in which Elizabeth scolds and lectures her daughter about the importance of maintaining a close relationship with Pastor Tim. This week, Elizabeth’s concern for Paige’s safety remains at the forefront of her mind, despite the fact that she can’t help asking whether there is any useful information in the journal.
Henry receives attention this week in the form of a phone call from his math teacher. This is the kind of subplot that grounds the series, reminding us of how relatable Phillip and Elizabeth’s family life can be when you strip away all of the espionage drama. More importantly, it shows us what they have to lose.
Then we have Stan, who has already lost too much. His frustration with the FBI reaches a boiling point, and results in him threatening his boss and putting his own livelihood at risk. Last season, he shared with Oleg how much his job has cost him over the years. His wife left him, Nina and his former partner were killed, and he himself murdered a defenseless man. Given all of this, Stan couldn’t bear responsibility for Oleg’s downfall. Now we see him fight on behalf of Oleg against the very institution that has worn him down for so long. Stan’s motivations are more personal and, as a result, more dangerous than ever.
Meanwhile, Oleg shares his predicament with his mother. It’s a burden he cannot face on his own, and keeping with this episode’s theme, he turns to family. Oleg’s mother tells him a surprising story. She was held prisoner in Russia for five years before Oleg was born. She did what was necessary to survive, and now passes this sentiment on to her son.
In Topeka, the Jennings begrudgingly begin their respective missions. Phillip’s new target is a bore, and he gets the sense that Elizabeth is enjoying spending time with hers. He addresses this concern later on, which results in the episode’s chilling final line of dialogue. Elizabeth responds with, “I have to sit there with him while he makes his jokes. The guy’s laughing while he tries to starve an entire country.” Unlike Phillip, we witness firsthand the distance in Elizabeth’s expressions and body language when she is with her target. She plays her charade as always, but in the back of her mind there is nothing but disdain.
The bond Phillip and Elizabeth share has continued to grow stronger as the weight of their work and complications at home intensify. They anchor each other. They both know what the other has been through, and they share a heavy burden together. The Americans spends many quiet moments with its two leads in a room together, contemplating their actions and the consequences of those actions. So when Phillip sits in bed and questions his wife’s loyalty to him, it’s troubling, to say the least.