Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?’

A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I take my aspirin with beer…

“Do you think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” -Betty
“I'm sorry, but it will.” -Elizabeth
“That's what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.” -Betty

Each week this season, “The Americans” finds some wonderful, horrible new way to punch its audience in the gut and leave us asking for more. There was Annelise getting folded into the suitcase. There was Philip listening to Yaz with Kimmie, and Elizabeth telling Paige about Gregory at the same time Philip was inviting Kimmie to pray with him. And just last week, there was Reuben necklacing his Afrikaner oppressor.

This is a show that routinely presents its characters committing acts that are horrifying on physical, emotional and/or political levels, and it shows them doing it because they believe dearly in a cause, whether it's communism for Elizabeth, family for Philip, or the end of apartheid for Reuben. Weisberg, Fields and company aren't expecting us to agree with their motivations much of the time, just to understand them. The emotional weight of this battle for Paige's soul has been tilted heavily in Philip's direction because we know all the evils of the Soviet Union that Elizabeth is blind to, and we can relate to a parent's desire to protect their child from danger. But it's also reminded us often of how deeply Elizabeth believes in the cause, and how despicable she finds the American lifestyle her husband wants so badly for their kids.

And because Elizabeth spends her whole life pretending to be someone who doesn't share her own devout beliefs, it is very rare when anyone gets to confront her with the idea that she's wrong. Even Philip never really does it. He doesn't want Paige to be a spy, and he would defect in a heartbeat if Elizabeth were amenable, but he's also not opposed to the larger goals of their mission. They both believe they have to do awful things for a great and noble cause.

All of which is why Elizabeth's conversation with poor, doomed Betty hit so hard, even in the midst of a season where our protagonists have participated in so much evil.

The moment an undisguised Elizabeth ran across Betty (played by character actress Lois Smith), I knew the old woman would be just another civilian whose fate was sealed by crossing the Jennings' path at the wrong time. But the slow, intricate way their conversation played out made her end all the more agonizing – for Betty and for us.

I love how the episode, written by Joshua Brand and directed by Stephen Williams, lets the two women serve and volley – say, Betty trying to play it cool even as she is making a clear point to show Elizabeth pictures of her family in a bid for empathy – for a very long time before Elizabeth comes right out and says she has to die, and then keeps the conversation going even after that. Betty is at once a stand-in for the dying mother Elizabeth will never see again – down to having a husband who served in World War II (and got to liberate concentration camps, where Elizabeth's father was shot for desertion) – and something of a stand-in for Elizabeth herself. As she talks about her husband's atheism, their divorce, the introduction of a second wife into the story (just like Martha), and then their second marriage, you can see all sorts of recognition and confusion swirling across Elizabeth's face(*). This woman is an obstacle to her mission, and yet another representative of the decadent nation she is trying to destroy, but she has also seen things that Elizabeth has seen, and she strangely, devastatingly offers Elizabeth a surrogate mother to comfort in her last moments.

(*) If “The Americans” were a show the Emmy voters were actually aware of, this would be an easy choice for Keri Russell's submission episode.

And for that mother figure to come right out and call Elizabeth evil? Well, she's too much of a true believer to be permanently shaken by such a moment, but you can see it unnerving her in the moment. It's an incredible capper to one of the series' best sequences to date.

We're at a stage of the season where we may be on the verge of too much going on, story-wise. The Paige and Kimmy stuff has been backburnered for weeks, which made the final scene feel oddly mistimed on both the show's part and Philip's. (Though it seems a tactical mistake no matter when he does it; all this does is turn Philip into a problem the Centre will have to deal with.) Having him lay down that ultimatum at the end of an hour where he's been flirting with the babysitter, or overhearing his wife teach his daughter about the wonder of civil insurrection, would have felt more powerful. Having him do it at the end of an episode where he was largely in the background for the second half (and where his early material involved Martha), as opposed to ending the episode on Elizabeth dealing (or choosing not to deal) with her encounter with Betty, seemed an odd choice. 

Overall, though, the show is so emotionally rich that I can overlook a potential misstep or two. The Martha/Clark relationship alone is producing remarkable material week after week, here both with their oddly cordial dinner, and with Elizabeth's ongoing concern about, and jealousy of, Philip's other wife. When she tells Philip, “It's only natural that you developed feelings for Martha,” she is trying to minimize those feelings, even though the context she is describing is exactly the reason why Philip fell in love with her.

On another show, Martha pouring Philip a glass of wine at that dinner would be cause for the audience to wonder if she perhaps drugged it, and has Gaad and Aderholt waiting in the next room to to take him into custody. “The Americans” doesn't need to play those kinds of games. It knows that the simple, horrible inevitability of what its characters do is all they need to keep pulling the audience along, gasping for air.

Some other thoughts:

* The episode's title is an homage to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” the Philip K. Dick story that was adapted for the screen as “Blade Runner.” It inspired one fan to mash the two up even further with this GIF.

* Hans murdering Todd was an effectively brutal and ugly piece of stage combat. Also interesting to see Philip's asset keep her cool while Elizabeth's goes wildly off the reservation. Given how much talk there's been lately (including at the start of this episode) about whom the spies should or shouldn't be killing, I wouldn't be the least bit shocked if the Centre decides that Hans has now become so reckless that Elizabeth risks exposure if he stays alive.

* The show is now so busy, plot-wise, that there are two separate, completely unconnected plans afoot for getting Nina released from the gulag. I did enjoy the glimpse of Stan and Oleg becoming reluctant drinking buddies, but I'm not sure their plan made sense. Wouldn't it have been smarter to keep Stan and Oleg's paths from crossing somehow, and have Oleg threaten her with something only a genuine defector would tell the FBI about, just to see what she did or didn't tell Stan? Perhaps because I was assuming that's where they were heading, I didn't at all expect Oleg to still be there when Stan entered the room, and literally jumped out of my chair at the attack.

* Also, this version of the plan makes Stan and the counter-espionage unit in general look like screw-ups again at a time when they really can't afford to be, as suggested by the look Aderholt and Gaad share after Stan leaves Gaad's office.

* Speaking of which, this was a fine episode all-around for people's expressions to shift dramatically whenever another character left the room, whether Betty dropping her cool facade when Elizabeth went to get a glass of water, or Zinaida rolling her eyes once Stan was out of view.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at