The Americans Season 5, Episode 4 Recap: "What's The Matter With Arkansas?"

Last August, the internet went collectively bananas over a blog post titled, “How To Talk To A Woman Who Is Wearing Headphones.” It was just as dumb and infuriating as it sounds. The blogger (a pick-up artist who claims to teach men, “how to make women feel INTENSE attraction for you”) offers a number of terrible tips on how to most effectively interrupt a woman’s day and force her into a conversation. It was one of those viral moments that uncomfortably underscores not only the casual misogyny women deal with every day, but also just how many men don’t even notice. In fact, I’d argue most women don’t notice it either — or at least don’t acknowledge it.
For one thing, when something happens every day, you treat it like...well, an everyday occurrence. You brush your teeth, buy a coffee, and turn away from the guy who briefly glances down your blouse at the milk station. If we had to feel and process and rage over each of these encounters every day, there wouldn’t be time for much else. Plus, it’s not our job to wake every un-woke dude who doesn’t get it; we have actual jobs to do. But sometimes, an idiotic blog posts comes along and we all have to point out the obvious.
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That’s what The Americans did tonight. And I had to watch it twice before I realized it.
This week, Elizabeth and Philip get a new (but quite familiar) assignment. Gabriel ships them off to Kansas, where they’ll separately seduce two people involved in the on-going wheat investigation. Sexual espionage is their bread and butter, so this should be a breeze. But for some reason, they pause, look at each other, then ask Gabriel if anyone else can handle this one. They’ve got a lot on their plate.
“Why are they being so weird about this all of a sudden?” I ask my boyfriend, beside me on the couch. He shrugged and I shrugged back. Gabriel asks Elizabeth and Philip the same thing, because, obviously, the answer is no. They can’t get out of this; it’s their job.
Normally, they’re very good at it. Thus far, there hasn’t been a single mark they couldn’t bait and hook in a matter of minutes. Forget bloggers, these two are world-class, government-trained pick-up artists, but they’re also our protagonists — our “good guys.” The show has conditioned us to be on their side, even when Philip was luring a 15-year-old (something he struggled with, but never protested). That’s why it’s so confusing, and incredibly satisfying, to watch him falter.
Off we go to Kansas, where Philip finds his assignment, Deirdre, working out at the gym. She is, of course, wearing headphones, and Philip begins this bungled seduction by touching her arm and mouthing for her to take them off. (Way to be up on your pop culture references, writers! I see you!) The conversation that follows is a textbook example of why there is no right way to talk to a woman wearing headphones. You don’t. She put them on so she could listen to music, and not to random strangers who touch her at the gym.
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“Are you a local?” Philip asks. “I’m gonna be coming back a bunch. I know nothing about Topeka. What should I do, like, when I’m not working?”
That’s the painful brilliance of the scene: It’s ridiculous, asking a stranger who’s minding her own business to drop that and take care of yours. But it’s also utterly typical. Women are fully accustomed to men confidently, carelessly approaching them out of the blue. Sometimes it’s a lewd remark on the street, and other times, it’s just a guy who has no problem barging into your time and space to claim some of it for his own. Like all women, Deirdre is used to this, and like most of us, she’s used to just going along to get along.
“I” — a pause, a deflated shrug — “spend time with my family.”
“Oh, you have kids?” Philip quickly replies before she can get her headphones back on.
And so on and so forth. Deirdre doesn’t warm up to him, but she can’t seem to be entirely impolite. The deadened familiarity of this exchange stands out all the more because it’s a first on The Americans. Deirdre is the only conquest who doesn’t instantly melt under Philip’s charm. I fucking love her for it, and I hate watching her sit there, riding it out: listening to him talk about himself, offering monosyllabic answers to his uninvited questions. I wish she would just tell him to leave her alone instead of simply not encouraging him. But then I remind myself to wish he’d have left her alone in the first place. And I remember that this is what I would do (have done, will likely do again) myself.
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At first, it seems that Philip hates exploiting this ugly reality too, and that allows us, as the viewer, to hate him less for doing it. But then, he and Elizabeth regroup.
“Is it promising?” she asks.
“Maybe. If I don’t die of boredom first.”
Nope, never mind. Philip isn’t wringing his hands over having to harass his way into this woman’s life. He doesn’t seem concerned with why he’s doing it either (reminder: Deirdre may be complicit in causing a famine). He’s just sulking over being rejected. It can’t be him, surely. It’s that he got stuck with a dud.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth nabs her guy, Ben, with ease. She pulls a damsel-in-distress move in a health food store, spilling carob balls everywhere so he can swoop in and help. And also explain what carob is. Elizabeth mentions that she plans to go hiking, and oh, and he knows all about hiking too, so he can teach her how! (This is how guys who pick up women at gyms and health food stores must think the interaction is going to go, huh?) Elizabeth responds to his interest with glee, plays dumb about carob, and laughs and laughs at his half-assed jokes.
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“How was your guy,” Philip asks her, back at home.
“I don’t know. Full of himself,” she answers, her tone unremarkable in reporting this unremarkable news. “We’re going hiking this weekend.”
It’s hard to read Philip’s stony face. Is he jealous of this man taking his wife on a hike? Is he envious, imagining this assignment being so much easier for her? It is, of course, in two important ways: A woman who wants to get hit on doesn’t have to do much but sit around and wait. (As if to underscore this point, she gives Philip a mini bottle of booze, explaining that a man on the plane bought it for her. “I made a big deal of telling him I’d give it to my husband.” Haha!) And while Philip seems more and more disillusioned with his homeland, Elizabeth has an unshakeable loyalty to the Soviet Union. The means and motivation are easier for her.
But when it comes time to seal the deal, she balks as well. And finally, we begin to understand why the Jennings’ are suddenly uncomfortable with this part of their job.
Paige goes over to Pastor Tim and Alice’s house to babysit. (There’s a great moment where the Pastor reveals his own condescending underbelly, but there’s so much gender stuff buried in this episode that I’d need 8,000 words and a PhD to cover it all properly.) After they leave, Paige begins to snoop, and it’s a touch more thorough than the routine babysitter snooping.
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This scene is intercut with shots of Elizabeth and Ben, in a post-hike, pre-coital make-out session on his couch. You know things are getting serious because he stops to sensually remove her glasses (Jesus, writers, DO YOU FEEL SEEN YET?). Just as Ben reaches to unzip her jeans, Elizabeth stops him. It doesn’t appear to be a calculated move either; the excuse she makes is thin. She gets out of there, assuring him she likes him.
“You like him,” Philip pouts, when she reports back in their bed that night. This too is strange behavior for them. His sulking, her hesitancy, everything about their professional sex lives seems to have shifted now that Paige has entered the picture. No one has said it yet, but if she is following in their footsteps — as she seemed to be tonight — then this is what she’s headed for. The more they fill her in on, the more training she receives, the closer she comes toward this inevitability. For months, Elizabeth and Philip have been struggling to find the balance between raising their child and grooming her. They’ll have to pull the trigger soon.
All of this throws a stark relief on the reality of their situation — but also on reality, period. Even if Paige does not become a spy, she will one day be a woman, out there in the world. She will be subject to eyes on her body and hands fumbling with her zipper. She will be backed into conversations with men she doesn’t want to talk to, and she will likely be polite. She will shrug off their audacity and wait until they’re finished, rather than offend. She will accept drinks from strangers who don’t ask first, and make a joke about it. She will leave the house with headphones on, the volume turned up, loud.
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