A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I make a s’more inside…
“This has been hard for me, for a long time. You know that, right?” –Philip
Midway through “Lotus 1-2-3-,” Claudia and Gabriel have one of their periodic meetings to discuss all things Jennings. Things are rarely going well for Philip and Elizabeth, but they tend to be particularly dire whenever the two handlers meet, like when Gabriel consulted with Claudia last season before giving his shell-shocked charges seven months’ paid vacation. Still, things seem particularly fragile now, to the point where Claudia would give voice to something the audience has long since understood about Philip, but that even his closest KGB allies have been reluctant to say aloud: “But he’s shaky.”
Philip has been shaky from the start of the series, and he’s had particularly shaky periods since then, like his implosion in “Martial Eagle” after killing one innocent witness too many. But even if he would defect in a heartbeat were Elizabeth to agree, he still on some level believes in the cause, and can eventually lie to himself that certain actions were necessary for the defense of Mother Russia.
Things feel different now, and not just because we’re getting closer and closer to the end of the series. The Paige situation is a never-ending nightmare for Philip, here materializing into its worst form yet when she tells her father that being involved in her parents’ spy work has her thinking, “Maybe I’m meant to be alone.” But, then, Philip’s relationships with all his children (including his fake son) are at a low point. He and Elizabeth are stunned to learn that Henry is a math prodigy, and as a result realize how little attention they’ve paid to him these last few years(*). Tuan is mostly self-sufficient, but keeps asking Philip for time he feels he cannot spare from the seven dozen other demands on his life from the Centre and/or his family. And, though he knows nothing of it, Mischa is nearby, unable to find him and being warned off by Gabriel.
(*) And with this one subplot, the show has cleverly turned its own marginalization of Henry into a feature, not a bug.
And as painful as all those things are to watch — though he’s a grown man and a combat veteran, Mischa in this environment doesn’t seem too far removed from the young version of Philip we glimpse as recent traumas, plus est seminars, unearth difficult childhood memories — they’re not a patch on the freight train that hits both Philip and Elizabeth late in “Lotus 1-2-3” after they realize that the Centre had things entirely backwards about the Agricorp situation: the project Alexei is consulting on with the government isn’t about destroying anyone else’s food supply, but trying to protect everyone’s.
We’ve seen the Centre make mistakes before with Philip and Elizabeth, but they’ve tended to be small and/or abstract, or else have been mistakes in ways the couple would never know or understand. (They spent most of season one, for instance, chasing down information about SDI, not really knowing what we do today about the technology being useless.) But here they’ve put in all this time, been apart from their kids and from each other, had sex with people they barely knew (and, in Philip’s case, with someone he can barely tolerate being around), and killed yet another man who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, all out of a belief that these things were necessary, because the evil and decadent Americans posed such a grave threat to the Soviet food supply. They believed this because the Centre told them so, and because they have spent their entire lives believing the worst about this country where they’ve lived for so long, and in one stunning conversation beside Ben’s fireplace, those beliefs take a major hit, even for hardcore Soviet defender Elizabeth. (Just watch how the shape of Keri Russell’s face seems to change as Elizabeth comes to understand what Ben is telling her, and what it means about this entire mission.)
She’s ultimately able to move past it, because she’s too committed to the cause for any one bad mission or false piece of intelligence to sway her for long, and even offers to handle all of the more delicate missions going forward. But for Philip — who has, as Claudia acknowledges, always been shaky, who hates himself for what he’s done to Paige and Martha, who is starting to worry about what the Centre’s plans might be for Stan (who’s become a truer friend to Philip than Philip ever could have expected), who is feeling like a failure as a husband, a father, and a friend all at once, and who has a justifiable streak of self-loathing about all the people he’s killed who weren’t actively working against his country — it’s just too much. He can barely process what Elizabeth is telling him at first, and his mind seems to do him a favor and puts him on auto-pilot to go to Tuan’s house just so he can stop having this conversation. She wigs up and follows him there, knowing how bad this has gotten, but her offer to assume all wetwork responsibilities is meaningless. Every aspect of their lives is wrapped up in the mission, so it can never be just her: “It’s us, Elizabeth. It’s us.” And us are imploding.
What an extraordinary episode, and particularly in those closing minutes. The Americans tends to be at its best when Philip’s emotional state is at its worst, and boy howdy is he not in a good place right now.
Some other thoughts:
* Philip wondering if Renee might be working for the Centre is another smart narrative move, because the audience is going to wonder about that, anyway, especially with as recognizable an actress as Laurie Holden in the part. Better to put that idea out there early, rather than treat her true identity — assuming she has one, and this isn’t just misdirection — as a “surprise” that the viewers will have figured out long before the show admits it.
* At first, I assumed Elizabeth was helping Philip tail Renee, but she’s in Kansas at that point of the episode. I’m told it’s Marilyn, a minor character played by Amy Tribbey who’s popped up in a few previous episodes. Given the wigs, it’s confusing. And speaking of which…
* Philip’s old man beard disguise while trailing Renee is a new one, which led me to ask FX if it, like so many of the other disguises, has a specific name. Turns out the hair and makeup people haven’t given it a name, but when Matthew Rhys was asked, he said, “Sigmund Freud.” So now you know perhaps the most important piece of information about this episode.
* Poor, poor Mischa. Alone in a country where he barely speaks the language and has no way to get to his father. It seems a pretty lousy plan on his mother’s part to only give him the number of the local KGB switchboard operator, given the odds that someone like Gabriel (or worse) would intercept him before he got to Philip, but I don’t believe Irina knew much more about Philip’s cover identity, so here we are. Alex Ozerov has been a terrific addition to the larger ensemble.
* Totally ’80s: “Slave,” from The Rolling Stones’ 1981 album “Tattoo You,” plays as Philip and Tuan play football while Elizabeth and Ben have sex; Renee takes Stan and Matthew to see Romancing the Stone, the first of three memorable ’80s comedies starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner; the episode’s title comes from the computer spreadsheet program that was just taking off in 1984; and Elizabeth’s patterned stockings in the scene where Ben cooks for her are among the most ’80s fashion items she’s ever worn.
* Though the wheat investigation turns out to be a horrible dead end, the overall operation with Tuan may be bearing fruit when Alexei’s wife Evgheniya tells Elizabeth that she’s been hired to tutor Americans — almost certainly CIA agents — in the Russian language.
* I’m torn between relief that no one from the CIA showed up for the meet with Oleg — thus suggesting Stan’s stunt last week with the Deputy AG worked — and fear that Oleg will now do something stupid, like reach out to the CIA on his own, because he doesn’t know that Stan has protected him. (Though maybe he’ll be too distracted by his father’s matchmaking attempts?) Also interesting to see, yet again, the parallels between Oleg and Stan’s work these days, with both men stuck on assignments (and/or tactics) they know are misguided, but that their bosses insist on continuing.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org