In the eleventh episode of The Americans, Season 2, the cold open’s exposition is framed with character in an intelligent and economic way. Requisite plot for the greater story is slipped in stealthily, so to speak, and this is the same situation here as we move from the prior episode of Stand Alone Complex to “Chinks in the Armor of the Heart.” It’s a transition that indicates a greater sense of continuity going forward, possibly in anticipation of a more focused third act. For now, Batou’s mood is perfectly expressed all around him, as the Tachikomas roll off to the lab, chipper but visually tabula rasa — they absorb our sadness.
No time to mourn, but dreariness hangs over the episode, as perfectly established in the beginning. This is what television and longform storytelling can do. As part of the greater whole, this episode already has certain things set up for it. We already feel for the Tachikomas, and so we’re there with Batou. Were this an individual narrative instead, that first five minutes that sets the dreariness would have to be a lot busier: we’d have to learn to feel for the Tachikomas, and learn to be there with Batou.
The undercover assignment is low-stakes, so tension is scratched, leaving only character and drama. It’s about infiltration, learning about an individual — this narrative formula is popular for a reason. We also learn a few things about Batou, that he’s an avid boxing fan, and more than capable on his own. He adapts perfectly to this unusual assignment, being friendly, personable, and appealing to a fellow lonely soul.
The what-if question here is not science-fictionally based, but rather about the strength of one’s character: what if a good man can be bought? It’s simplistic, but therein lies its mutability in greater storytelling — it’s that template but with these characters. And although this makes the perfect episode to follow the last one, it’s not some miracle accident. A show this complex demands a mapped-out plan from the start, something undiscovered in American television. This episode asks Batou to snap back to reality, to see things as they are. Defective machines can ask about God, and a man with this sweet a wife can be a traitor.
Just as Zaitsev turns his back on his duty, proven to have stolen information from a US Naval base, Batou cannot do the same, can’t sacrifice his allegiance to Section 9 for other things. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t be easy. To maximize that conflict here, we make Batou not just a big fan of the guy, but an underdog kind of fan — Zaitsev is more notable for a big loss than anything else, the one that ruined his career.
What is fandom like for an adult and a professional like this? What is it for a member of Section 9 to meet his hero? It’s a pretty nuanced thing, and although Batou’s been known to wear his emotions, maybe to compensate for the expressionless eyes, here he has to watch himself. And yet part of it is honesty, although it’s measured honesty. That’s what makes the final moments of the episode so powerful. Finally, both characters are able to shed their guises, and the emotional climax is this fight scene, as prefaced by the episode’s singular instance of gun violence.
Batou shoots down three goons in quick succession, and it isn’t just violence for its own sake, but a crackling expression of Batou’s mental state. It’s clear that these two could’ve been friends, that even their snooping habits are the same. A waiter remarks that Zaitsev isn’t alone this time, and the boxer says he may have made a friend. Interesting that he doesn’t go out with his wife, and is rather brusque with her, but then, Batou’s no family man either. I wonder when he got the time to Photoshop that picture of the Major as his wife. And who was that kid?
It’s a show about robots and metal men, the man-machine interface. Where often that takes shape as memories and flesh, sometimes it can be about personhood and betrayal. Sometimes transformation isn’t about cyberization but greed and inhumanity. It’s a great counterbalance to the Ghost in the Shell milieu, a reminder of two things: that these people are three-dimensional, and that for the future, we can expect at least these sensitive heights.
The final image of the episode is Batou angrily hitting a punching bag, cursing aloud about Zaitsev. We fade out and hard cut to the credits, which feature the cast of Section 9 in slideshow, beginning with the Major. This was an episode without her, and this reminder that she’s the lead is important — an all-Batou story, particularly one this affecting, is always going to fortify the support that exists for the Major and for the show. This is also what television longform storytelling can do, with these pauses in the show’s rhythm for individual explorations of character. As building blocks in previous episodes cast a grey cloud over a story, so too can that story become a block, and lead us emotionally to the endgame.