A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I’m not nice to the Mary Kay lady…
“You’ve seen too much. You’ve done too much.” –Gabriel
Before “Crossbreed” has even begun, we’re reminded in the previouslies that the only thing Mischa’s mother told him about his father is that “he’s a travel agent in America,” which is technically true but says nothing about what Philip is really doing here. Late in the episode, Philip tells Gabriel that all his own mother told him about his father was that he was a logger, which is roughly as true as Philip’s travel agent cover, because his father was actually a guard at a penal camp where the prisoners worked as loggers.
Philip and Mischa do not meet in this episode — in fact, we see early on that Gabriel was successful in convincing Mischa to go back to his old life in Russia — but the hour presents a cycle of parents and children not knowing enough about one another, and making terrible decisions as a result. And it climaxes with Philip and Elizabeth attempting to break the cycle by bringing Paige to meet Gabriel — the closest thing either of them has to a father figure — presumably so he can answer any of their questions about her parents’ pasts (with more candor and, at times, more information, than Philip or Elizabeth might be able to offer) before he follows Mischa home to Moscow to avoid having to continually lie to Philip about what he did.
If, indeed, this is why they are bringing Paige to Gabriel’s house for the first (and last) time, it’s one of the healthier decisions the Jenningses have made in a while. The discovery of the true nature of the wheat/midge situation has forced both of them into deep reflection(*), considering who and what they’ve become and what it’s doing to their daughter.
(*) It has not, on the other hand, pulled the plug on the operation itself, as I assumed it would, but simply redirected it towards an attempt to steal some of Ben’s super wheat for the sake of Soviet agriculture. This means continued trips to Topeka for both, whether they want to keep going there or not.
We know Philip’s open to introspection. He’s been going to est, forcing up these painful childhood memories, and — with the help of Elizabeth, who loves none of this but is willing to participate for his sake (she’s the one who makes the link between the kids who bullied him and the men who gave him dirty looks because of his father) — finding out more about who he really is and where he came from. It’s a mark of both how traumatic his childhood was and how emotionally scarring his adult career has been that Philip still knows and understands so little of who he is and where he’s come from. But the Paige situation, the Topeka fiasco, and Gabriel’s imminent departure has accelerated that self-discovery: it’s time for him and his daughter to truly understand who he is while there’s still time, and before they both get any more ruined by all these secrets.
But Philip has largely calmed down from his breaking point of last week, and his behavior here isn’t unusual for him here, even if it’s a bit more urgent. Instead, it’s startling to see Elizabeth being willing to look inward, even a little. When the crunchy and soulful Ben suggests she join him for tai chi to try to unblock herself, she goes along for the sake of her cover, but it’s clear within a few moments that it’s having an effect on her, and she’s looking at both herself and, possibly, Ben, in a different way. (When she thought he was trying to starve Soviet children, it was a struggle to feign interest in him; now that she knows what he’s really about, I wonder if we may be headed towards another Gregory situation, where Elizabeth develops genuine feelings for an asset.)
When she visits the psychiatrist(*), she pulls the con man trick of telling a lie loosely based on something real, inverting the mugging incident so that she was a frightened victim rather than a cold-blooded killer, and when he offers her advice on dealing with trauma, she rolls her eyes the moment she’s out in the hall. But she’s bottled up a lot of traumas of late, and recent events seem to be uncorking her, whether she wants to be or not, as evidenced by her surveillance visit to Young Hee’s house (not long after a different Mary Kay sales rep visits their home) to see how her old friend is doing — only to see that a new family lives there now, which could mean anything, but likely means that Elizabeth’s actions brought about the end of Young Hee’s marriage.
(*) The show often only half-explains, at best, the assignments for Philip and Elizabeth, preferring to focus on their emotional response to them rather than the exact purpose they serve. We may get an explanation down the road for why she needs to access his files, the way we eventually did with Stan and Aderholt’s approaches to various Soviet visitors, but for now, the more important point is that Elizabeth has to visit a psychiatrist.
The job is forcing everyone to take a long, hard look at who they are and how they got here, and it’s hard to like what anyone’s seeing. Gabriel can’t lie to Philip, so he resolves to go home. Paige tries studying classic socialist rhetoric but can’t reconcile it with her own religious beliefs. Philip learns who and what his father was, and fears that he has become the same thing. And when even Elizabeth is asking questions about herself and the things she’s done, you know how precarious her world has become.
When Paige met her maternal grandmother, they could only barely communicate, given the old woman’s condition and the language barrier. I very much look forward to hearing her conversation with the closest thing she has to a grandfather.
Some other thoughts:
* Sending Mischa home so quickly is an interesting choice, because now that the show has raised the idea of father and son finally meeting, it will feel frustrating if they don’t — or, at minimum, if Philip doesn’t somehow find out that his son was in the same area code but prevented from seeing him by Gabriel and the Centre. You can’t play such a big card and have the only fallout be Gabriel’s decision to retire as a result of it.
* If Gabriel really does go home, does Claudia become the Jennings’ handler again? Now that Character Actress Margo Martindale is starring on another show produced by Graham Yost, and one with a shorter episode order than The Millers, I imagine it’s easier to arrange for her appearances here. (She’s been in half the episodes this season so far.) Or would the show try introducing a significant new character this late in the run?
* Also, if we are almost done with Gabriel, let me again commend the great work Frank Langella has done over the years. In another version of the show — one where FX locks Martindale down for a contract before she signs on to a CBS job — Gabriel doesn’t exist at all, but he’s been a fascinating presence on the show as this kindly old man who genuinely cares for his charges but is also an expert at manipulating them into doing monstrous things. The conversation about Philip’s father was another potent reminder of how good Langella is in this role whenever Gabriel gets a chance to reflect on the USSR’s bad old days.
* Just when I was worried that Oleg was going to do something dumb because he didn’t know that Stan had saved him from the CIA, he smartened up enough to realize that no one was coming to meet him, and that he was better off burning the map and the recording they had slipped him. Excellent use of Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” for that sequence — the second time this show has deployed a Gabriel song for a scene of a Russian burning evidence, plus a good choice for an episode dwelling so much on a different Gabriel.
* While the show usually uses its Brooklyn production base to stand in for Washington, D.C., they actually went to the Lincoln Memorial to film Gabriel as he contemplated leaving the place represented by Lincoln, the Washington Monument, etc., to return to Mother Russia.
* Call me crazy (because I am), but Stan and Henry talking about girls has the same kind of tension that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman talking about Jane once did: I keep waiting for the secret about Henry and the Sandra Beeman photo to come out, and at the worst possible moment.
* Where Oleg and Ruslan get nowhere with their grocer target, who chooses a jail cell rather than ratting on his powerful contacts, Stan and Aderholt finally find a Russian interested in their offer to trade intelligence for a long-term stay in America. Threatening people’s children can at times be less effective than offering their children a brighter future.
* A very heavy episode overall, but several dryly amusing moments, from Philip assuming all psychiatrists ask about dreams (Philip and Elizabeth still trying to understand American culture after all these years is a bountiful humor source) to the look on Elizabeth’s face when she realizes Paige is making the same argument Philip has about how long it’s been since they saw what the Soviet Union was like in person.
* Elizabeth’s trick with the key — heating it up in the bathroom and then inserting it into the lock while the metal was still soft from the heat so it would take on the proper new shape — is one I haven’t seen before in spy or caper stories.
* Last week, I noted that while Elizabeth was in Topeka, Philip used Marilyn, played by Amy Tribbey, to help him tail Renee. Here, he meets with both her and Norm (Russell G. Jones) to discuss plans to photograph Evgheniya and her students; neither Marilyn nor Norm got the kind of introduction that past Jennings associates like Hans or Lucia did, but it’s good to know that they have additional ground support as needed.
* Even at this late date, the show continues trotting out new disguises for our protagonists: Philip in the goatee and driving cap when he meets with Marilyn and Norm, and Elizabeth with the curly wig when she goes to visit the psychiatrist, with the bonus touch of her skin looking particularly bad in that disguise right after she ordered the Mary Kay woman out of her home.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org