Claudia's plot on The Americans: A theory
Claudia is back. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
It's no secret that The Americans' Philip and Elizabeth are in a fragile place. (The camera has made that clear all season.) And at the intersection of all their conflicts — between Philip and Elizabeth, and their respective relationships to Russia — is Claudia.
That Margo Martindale is back — given the rough history the Jenningses have with her character — makes the Centre's configuration seem more opaque (and Elizabeth and Philip's relationship to it more brittle) than ever before. This is true for viewers too: Now that Arkady and Oleg are gone, we're basically blind to the Rezidentura's thinking. The one thing we do know is that Tatiana Ruslanova — not known to be either cautious or moral, given her participation in the dangerous and controversial Department 12 — is in charge. We also know that Claudia trusts the Jenningses less than Gabriel, their departed handler, did, and that the feeling is mutual.
I am worried. The wheat mission is starting to seem like a (cough cough) red herring, one intended to keep the spies busy. As our president might say, something is going on.
This season has dealt extensively with Philip and Elizabeth's respective capacities for denial when it comes to what the Centre — and the government they serve — really does. For the remaining true believers, the line is that the KGB's unsavory activities are in the past: As Oleg's room is torn up and searched, he reassures his mother (who was locked up for five years in a camp and tearfully tells him that "they find things even when there's nothing") that "it's not like that anymore." But isn't it? Oleg's boss laughs that his mother's charge — sabotage — was common. "Sabotage was different then. You could be accused of sabotage if you took a pencil from your office," he says. "She was pardoned," Oleg remarks. "Your father," his boss says knowingly. "You're lucky."
"Lucky" is serving only five years in a prison camp for doing nothing.
This season has demonstrated the extent to which Gabriel offered a kind of Chinese wall for the Jenningses; he offered moral shelter for the things they had to do. To Elizabeth, he's a "good man." To Philip, who has pressed him on his past, he isn't. It's significant, then, that Gabriel appears to have engineered a rift between Philip and Elizabeth before he left. He gave each of them his assessment of the Paige mission in ways that perfectly contradict each other. His parting gift was a set of instructions that conflict: He told Elizabeth she was doing the right thing by pulling Paige in. He told Philip he was right to want to pull her out.
Now Claudia — the queen of conjuring conflicts between Philip and Elizabeth — is back, and we're left to wonder whether Gabriel's final move originated with her. While Gabriel may have had some compunction about lying to his agents, Claudia has none. That's made clear right away: We've seen Claudia conferring with Gabriel on a fairly regular basis on American soil, but she tells Elizabeth she's been in the U.S.S.R.
This is a long-running, complicated show with an enormous cast of characters, so a brief refresher on Claudia might be in order. You might recall that Claudia — in an early demonstration of the Centre's ruthlessness — had Philip and Elizabeth kidnapped in Season 1 to see if either was a mole. That resulted in Philip realizing — because he was waterboarded and questioned and Elizabeth wasn't — that Elizabeth informed on him. "I told them that you liked it here too much," Elizabeth finally admits, near tears.
Their relationship fractures. Philip, hurt and cold, asks Elizabeth if she has any jewelry he can give Martha to pacify her for his nonappearance. Elizabeth, stunned, hands over a small box. "You weren't the only one who got hurt today, okay?" Elizabeth says. "I was ripped from my house, I was attacked by the people I believed in, the people I trusted most my whole life." "Yeah, I think that says it all," says Philip.
You might also recall that the kidnapping culminated in an enraged Elizabeth waterboarding Claudia and beating her up once the truth was revealed. Their follow-up chat was not warm.
"I'm sorry I didn't kill you. That's my apology," Elizabeth says. "Better luck next time," Claudia replies. "I'd hate to see you throw yourself in front of a train, Nadhezda. Bad things happen, not only in literature." One of Elizabeth's several rejoinders: "I like to keep my wits when I'm handling snakes."
So, yeah, Claudia's return is not good news.
Elizabeth and Philip are now on the cusp of another dispute over Paige — one originated by Claudia and reignited by Gabriel. Back in Season 1, Elizabeth accused Claudia of engineering the rift between herself and Philip (the kidnapping, she suspects, was a pretext to achieve exactly this). She also accuses Claudia of trying to get her to disobey orders: "I think you wanted me to go against KGB orders and kill Patterson so you could what? Ship me off to Moscow? Bring me to heel like your dog on some short leash?" Elizabeth says.
"Believing in people isn't easy for you, is it Elizabeth?" says Claudia.
"You really believe all that, don't you? You've only ever wanted to hurt us. And maybe in your mind you think it's better for the Centre if we don't really get along? But you hate us. I don't understand why. Because we're better at this than you ever were? Because I beat your face in?"
You wouldn't call that a warm relationship, and it doesn't improve much when Claudia finally reveals to the Jenningses that their fellow spy-family was murdered by their son Jared, whom the Centre was recruiting to develop operatives with clean American backgrounds. This, then, is the origin of Paige's recruitment. Claudia tells Elizabeth and Philip that it was wrong to recruit Jared without their parents' knowledge, and announces, in a great show of forthrightness, that the Centre would like to work on Paige with her parents' full cooperation.
This is where I start worrying about Henry. Jared always felt like a warning, and Henry was Jared's obvious analogue. I've written a great deal about how The Americans is failing its sons. It has been heavily foreshadowed that something is going on with Henry, and that the Jenningses' total inattention will cost them. Tuan drives that home this episode, warning them that they really need to be around more — for their fictional as well as their actual sons.
I would not put it past Claudia, or the Centre, to have secretly decided to recruit both children: Paige with her parents' help, and Henry without, following the Jared model. As we think about Henry's sudden mathematical ability, how much time he's spending elsewhere, and the fact that he has a crush on "Chris" — at the very moment his parents are using Tuan to exploit a teenage boy's vulnerabilities — it's worth remembering that the episode in which Elizabeth and Philip are kidnapped is also the one in which Henry brains the guy who kidnaps him and Paige with a bottle (after they tried to hitchhike home). Henry saves them. He shows an ability to react quickly and well under pressure. And Henry is the one who lies easily to his parents about their adventures getting home from the mall: "Sherry's mom drove us home," he says, sparing them the story of their kidnapping. Fans noted back then that of the two children, Henry showed more promise as a spy.
Remember, the Jenningses are isolated. They're disconnected from the Rezidentura, they're disconnected from their handler, and Claudia's reappearance picks at their oldest scabs. She's distracting them with missions that don't seem particularly critical, but which require them to be away from home, emotionally distant from each other, and even less attentive to Henry than usual.
Remember Claudia's own philosophy of how a "handler" should behave. Back in Season 1, when Elizabeth suggested to Claudia that she check in with an agent since his handler wasn't available, Claudia observed that the CIA did it that way: "An agent can be run by different case workers and their agents are never loyal to them. There's no real bond," she says.
If that is indeed Claudia's philosophy, it worries me that, knowing the importance of that bond between agent and handler, she has a) accepted Gabriel's resignation and b) agreed to run two agents with whom she has an extremely vexed relationship, from whom she knows she can expect no loyalty. It suggests that the Jenningses' might have outlived their usefulness, and that the Centre might be preparing to leave them behind.