The second episode of The Americans, “Tchaikovsky,” continues “Dead Man’s” sense of impending demise—Ronald Reagan’s senility is mentioned (referencing the president’s onset of early Alzheimer’s) and the bedridden wife of the weapons negotiator is staking out plans with her husband on euthanasia. The episode itself seems more reliably sturdy and less vulnerable than the sixth season’s superior opener. Still, “Tchaikovsky” has its gems. In episode two indication is made that Paige, a mostly stagnant character on the show, is starting to develop outside her parents’ influence and references to composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky and other dark, disturbing works of art become avenues for Elizabeth to explore her inner demons.
The Americans, however, also remains a cogent spy show. Among its numerous subplots, FBI agent Stan Beeman meets with an undercover Soviet defector to make a risky courier run that includes a covert operation inside a bathroom stall. More intense examples of this kind of work are found in Elizabeth’s meetings with two men, the first is a CIA contact working with the state department and the other an unstable general (introduced in the first season as a colonel). Meanwhile, Philip maintains the family’s travel agency, but encounters some trouble when he discovers a long-time customer has dropped him for another agency.
Elizabeth proves to be remarkably engaging character with each season and episode, particularly in episode two’s moments of heightened suspense—the I.D. check inside the state agency cafeteria and an effectively gruesome denouement in the woods. However, the Soviet spy’s best moments are in moments of unexpected humility and repentance. In one scene, Elizabeth, working as a stay at home nurse for a terminally-ill patient—a talented artist—finds herself unable to interpret one of the bedridden woman’s sketches beyond their literal presentation. It’s more character-oriented than anything in the episode and is the best moment because of it—it’s a moment that attempts to dredge up something resembling a soul hiding beneath Elizabeth’s tough, yet antiseptic, persona.
“Tchaikovsky,” in typical TV serial fashion, still remains perfunctorily engaging. It introduces new challenges, mysteries and conflicts that one expects will be resolved in later episodes, but in the mean time it still only functions as potboiler storytelling. Mostly strange is how Philip seems to be almost entirely absent from the show’s main arterial flow (likely because Matthew Rhys is the episode’s director); this was a problem bypassed in the previous episode by positioning Philip’s place as a homemaker with a rejuvenated sense of purpose as an effective dramatic counterpoint to Elizabeth’s soul-draining, self-sacrificing espionage work.
With that said, “Tchaikovsky” does maintain The Americans’ strengths in dramatic continuity. The ending leaves the audience with less an archetypal cliffhanger, cheaply holding the audience captive, and more a genuine sense of curiosity in how the current narrative will drastically alter, what devastating choices need to be made, and how characters are going to react to them. It’s a great conclusion that highlights other moments in “Tchaikovsky” bearing similar strengths—Elizabeth slowly becoming complicit in the weapon negotiator and his wife’s intended suicide, Paige learning the important role sex plays in espionage work and Stan Beeman’s dilemma with the disgruntled wife of an invaluable Soviet defector. The episode introduces issues that demand questions but, at the same time, leaves us dreading the answers to them.