A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as my teachers are my coaches…
“I understand everything now, Gabriel. All of it.” -Martha
Midway through “IHOP,” Philip has to take a break from all of his usual spy assignments to meet with another of Gabriel’s operatives, an undercover priest currently without a handler and very much needing someone to talk to about all the things he hears and does. An impatient Philip bluntly tells the man that he has no time to meet with him on a regular basis (and for reasons the episode never explains, doesn’t try foisting him off onto Claudia until his new handler arrives), and goes back to his many other assignments.
The scene has nothing to do with everything else happening in “IHOP,” or through season five to date, but it serves as a pithy commentary on just how overextended the Jenningses are at this point. They have Paige’s ongoing recruitment, the mission with Tuan, periodic visits to Topeka, running the travel agency (it’s funny to see them checking the books; they actually have to do work there!), plus other jobs — like Philip visiting Kimmy to swap out the tapes in her father’s valise — which we are to assume continue even as we don’t see them for long stretches. (Kimmy hasn’t appeared since late last season.) It’s a narrative problem for the series at the moment — so much is going on that none of the stories have room to develop into something as interesting as they could be — but it’s also what the overall story is about: the Centre is asking much too much of Philip and Elizabeth, and things are starting to slip as a result.
This is most obvious in the parent/child relationships, even in an episode where Paige is absent. Tuan’s recent entreaties for his “parents” to spend more time at the house wind up backfiring, as Elizabeth makes a surprise visit on a night when he is absent, which leads to them discovering (with help from Norm and Marilyn) that Tuan has been hopping a bus to Harrisburg to make unmonitored phone calls to the family he lived with in Seattle, where his adopted kid brother is battling leukemia. This is Tuan going off-mission, and risking either exposure or simply punishment from his superiors back in Vietnam, but it’s also a recognizably human impulse of the kind that Philip and Elizabeth aren’t always allowed to follow, and they nearly missed altogether that this was happening because they’re almost never over there with him.
And when Henry confronts them — in a kitchen scene staged to mirror the one in “Stingers” where Paige demands her parents tell her the truth about what they really do — about his application to a New Hampshire boarding school, they realize they barely know anything about what their actual son is doing anymore. He has plotted out this whole future for himself without their involvement — and, interestingly, it isn’t anti-capitalist Elizabeth who objects most strongly to him going to such a haven for the rich, but Philip — and they’re left to figure out what to do with the boy whom they’ve managed to keep out of the family business so far, and who is, perhaps not coincidentally, thriving right now.
But in many ways, the most crucial Philip and Elizabeth scene of the episode comes earlier, when he tells her what he heard one of the tapes from Kimmy’s father: Afghan freedom fighters died gruesome deaths from what sure sounds like the virus they secured from William’s corpse and sent back home to the Centre. We’ve seen a lot of Philip staring off into the distance lately, struggling to deal with the toll of all the work they’ve done, and the mistakes they’ve made, but I’m not sure he’s ever looked paler or more shaken than in this moment when he realizes that not only can the Centre make mistakes about issues like the wheat, but their bosses can actively mislead them and use their work to do monstrous things.
Philip and Elizabeth have been in America for close to two decades at this point, and it’s clear that they have no idea how dire things have gotten back home in these final years of the Cold War. But even though we spent some time in Russia in previous seasons after Nina’s arrest, we weren’t being given the full picture, either. By having so many significant characters living over there — and having Oleg in a position of relative power, investigating one of the many ways the citizens are now suffering — the show’s storytelling has perhaps become too diffuse, but it’s also allowing us to see what our protagonists can’t, to appreciate the many ways in which they don’t understand the cause they’re fighting for and the repercussions in Mother Russia of the missions they take on blind faith.
Oleg is obviously our most significant set of eyes and ears over there — and he has, somewhat improbably, given that he was introduced as a slick guy who only seemed destined to cause trouble for Nina and/or Stan, become one of the show’s most complex and sympathetic figures — but “IHOP” shows us another character who has spent time in both Washington and Moscow, and who for the first time in her life can fully see the picture of where she was, where she is, and where she’s unfortunately going:
When Oleg walked past Martha in the grocery store earlier this season, it wasn’t clear if this was signaling her return to the narrative, or just a sad little cameo to close out her story. After tonight’s scene with Gabriel, it’s still not clear if we’ll ever see her again. But this is a very different Martha from the one we knew in America. She’s not scared anymore, because there’s nothing more to be scared of. The worst has already happened: she is utterly alone, in a cold and starving country where she doesn’t speak the language and has no regular interactions with anyone save her Russian tutor. As someone fluent in English, who lived in America for years, and who knew “Clark” well, Gabriel could in theory be a friend to her, but his very presence understandably makes her furious. He is the face of all she’s lost, and all that she’ll continue to endure because she got played like a fiddle by a foreign spy. And even if what Gabriel says to her about Clark caring for her was true — which it is, albeit maybe not as much as Martha would want — it wouldn’t matter, because he’s thousands of miles away from her, living another life. She has given up everything for the sake of a cause that Philip and Elizabeth don’t even fully understand anymore, because they’re so far removed from Soviet life today that they couldn’t fathom how small and empty Martha’s life is, nor the level of paranoia that Oleg, his mother, and everyone else deals with every day, and the pain Oleg’s father endures because of how much Yelena changed during her years in the camps.
That conversation with Minister Burov hits hard not only because of the obvious anguish in his voice, but because Oleg’s desire to know the truth that his father has tried to protect him from speaks very much to the decisions Philip and Elizabeth have constantly made about Henry and Paige. They have one child who has been let in on almost everything they do, and it’s destroying her. And they have another child who’s oblivious to it all, and is thriving despite his parents’ neglect, but who will surely be furious one day when he finds out what’s been going on, and that his parents and sister kept him out of it.
And when Philip considers the desires of surrogate son Tuan, he perhaps sees a kindred spirit, suggesting that all Tuan really wants is “to be pulled out of this shit, start over.” It couldn’t be more clear that this is what Philip wants, but he’s been maddeningly passive about that: sitting alone in the car and staring, but not actually taking action, because he feels as trapped as poor Martha, even though there are many more moves he can make.
And hopefully, he’ll start trying them soon. When he talks with Kimmy about his desire — as “James” — to have a family and do it right this time, it’s with the barely-concealed pain of a man who knows how wrongly he’s doing everything at the moment.
Some other thoughts:
* I spoke with Alison Wright about her return to the series this season. Her guest credit was again saved for the end of the episode to make Martha’s return a complete surprise, but Frank Langella’s name popped up at the start with everyone else, tipping us off that we would get to see Gabriel in Russia at some point.
* Interesting to see Agent Wolfe, who agreed with Stan about not punishing Oleg for doing the right thing, is now prodding him to change his mind as part of an attempt to punish Frank Gaad’s killers. Looks like Oleg is in trouble from the CIA again, especially after Mrs. Gaad very bluntly tells Stan that Frank would want revenge for what happened to him.
* So far, it seems we have four possibilities about why Directorate K is looking into Oleg: 1) They know that the CIA has approached him, and they want to know why; 2) His visit to the archives to read his mother’s file was so far out of protocol, it set off alarm bells; 3) Dmitri is right about the power of the food smugglers, and they are using Directorate K to quash the investigation; or 4) This is just general late-era KGB paranoia, and Oleg has the bad luck to be caught in the middle of it.
* We’re still relatively early in 1984, and Alphaville’s “Forever Young” wouldn’t hit the radio til the fall. When Philip brings Kimmy her birthday cake, he’s singing the Bob Dylan song of the same name (recently used as the Parenthood theme) with a country affectation.
* The parallel editing between Elizabeth searching Tuan’s house and Philip listening to the tapes was something of an unusual approach for this show, and suggested they might both find something terrible at the same time. Instead, he hears the news about the virus, but she finds zilch in her search for clues about Tuan’s whereabouts.
* Nice art direction for the scene in Dmitri’s cell, where the only item of color is the apple Oleg brings him. Everything else is in shades of white and brown. Not at all a happy place to be stuck indefinitely.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com