A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I do a lot of food combining…
“Even now, I see you and I wonder, ‘What’s going on with him?'” -Stan
He doesn’t know for sure, and has no evidence yet, but he knows.
Guys! Stan. Knows.
Of all the commonalities between The Americans and Breaking Bad, by far the most overt is that both feature protagonists keeping their true work a secret from a loved one in a field of law-enforcement tasked with stopping that work. For most of Breaking Bad‘s run, the questions of when Hank would find out Walt was Heisenberg, how, and what would happen next, were among the show’s biggest sources of tension and intrigue. Philip’s friendship with Stan isn’t identical — for one, Hank and Walt knew each other for years before Walt became Heisenberg; for another, Stan was actually suspicious of Philip and Elizabeth back in the pilot episode, and Philip would have killed him had Stan found something in the garage when he broke in to look around — but that same kind of tension has existed. It possibly felt even more acute and painful here because Walt and Hank were never very close, where there have been stretches of this series where Stan and Philip’s friendship — which has long been real on some level — was the only good thing one or both of them had in their lives.
The Americans could never top Hank’s moment of discovery for both surprise and vulgar poetry, so “Harvest” takes a different but equally gobsmacking approach: Stan just figures it out, because he’s a trained investigator and Philip and Elizabeth’s abrupt travel agency emergency on a Thanksgiving weekend when Russian spies kill two FBI agents who were monitoring Harvest becomes one clue too many for him to ignore, no matter how much he cares about Philip and the rest of the family.
Noah Emmerich has long had a less glamorous job than his Emmy-nominated co-stars. No wigs, no mustaches, no fake accents, or other methods of disguise, and for the most part, he keeps his emotions buttoned down pretty tight. (He couldn’t seem calmer, for instance, when he murders Vlad.) But it’s a hugely important one to the series, not only to provide the Jenningses with a compelling opposite number, but as another object lesson in the toll this work takes on families, lives, and souls. Stan has done a lot, and been through a lot, and Emmerich has played all of it in a beautiful, understated way. While Stan isn’t an actor of a sort like his best buddy, listening is a hugely important part of both acting and police work. Time and again, Emmerich has shown what a good listener Stan Beeman is, which pays off amazingly in the opening sequence of “Harvest,” as Stan finally starts to hear what Philip has been unwittingly telling him since the day he moved in across the street.
That conversation, the one he has in the car with Henry, and the news from Chicago are enough to put Stan back on the Jennings’ scent — and breaking into their home — for the first time since 1981. He doesn’t find anything — not knowing the combination of switches he has to flip to open the compartment behind the fuse box, nor that there’s another cache behind the laundry machines — but he does flash on William’s description of his contacts (“She’s… pretty.”) while looking at a Jennings family photo, and he clearly sees a pattern in the things that Philip and especially Henry tell him, like discovering that Henry has never met the “aunt” with whom Elizabeth stayed right after Stan shot the female illegal in the season one finale.
Even if he doesn’t know, he knows.
The whole segment of the episode leading up to Philip and Elizabeth’s return from Chicago is as riveting a stretch as the show has maybe ever done, between Stan getting excruciatingly close to the full truth and the utter fiasco that the Harvest extraction turns out to be. If there’s a flaw in the hour, it’s that everything that happens once the spies are back in Falls Church feels anti-climactic compared to what came earlier, as if the creative team is catching its breath before moving on to the next stage of this endgame. But it’s worth discussing exactly why Stan doesn’t go straight to Aderholt to tell him his suspicions, and whether this is smart or dumb thinking on both his part and on the show’s.
My fear is that Stan is keeping it to himself solely as a cheap plot device, perhaps with him blabbing to Renee, who then murderously outs herself as another sleeper agent. Stan doesn’t need to catch Philip and/or Elizabeth for the conclusion of the story to feel satisfying, but he needs to get some kind of moment with one (preferably Philip) or both where the cards are on the table. If he confronts Philip directly and gets killed for it, it will still be frustrating, but more for Stan being blinded by his emotions in a believable way that he has in the past, and we’ll still get some level of emotional closure. And there are reasonable excuses for him to keep it a secret just for a moment, particularly since he doesn’t have a shred of evidence to back up the theory. Whenever he walks into a superior’s office and announces that his best friend is a KGB agent will be a very tough day for Stan Beeman, but it’ll be even tougher if it’s just speculation, albeit speculation with a troubling circumstantial pattern behind it. He needs something more concrete first, which is why when he returns to work after the break-in, he goes back to the beginning and reopens the case file of Joyce, the widow of a fellow illegal whom Claudia’s people murdered (while delivering her baby to the father’s parents in Russia) in the series’ third episode ever.
But after this episode and that illegal search of the house, we’re past the point of no return with Stan and his neighbors, and he has to tell somebody what he believes, ASAP.
The op that rekindles Stan’s suspicions was itself presented last week as a point of no return: a mission so dangerous, with such long odds, it compelled Philip to come out of retirement to help safeguard it and his wife. It plays out almost as badly as feared, as the Jenningses escape, but two FBI agents get killed along with both Harvest and Marilyn, who suffers the show’s most gruesome post-mortem fate since Annelise and the suitcase, getting her head and hands chopped off with an ax by Philip to prevent law enforcement from properly identifying her body. For the most part, the episode doesn’t do a great job of selling Philip’s importance to the operation beyond some additional manpower (Norm could just as easily have recruited the day laborers on his own), but there’s a weary commitment to the way Philip keeps swinging that fire ax, as well as a look of relief on Elizabeth’s face, suggesting both spouses are glad he came, even though it all went pear-shaped on them.
But Philip’s back in it now, and the description by one of the day laborers of the people on the stolen shuttle van is what inspires Stan to slip across the street that night to look for evidence to confirm his troubling new theory. He doesn’t find it, and the scenes that follow are much slacker as a result, but the secrets all have to start coming out now, no matter how many more people get hurt as a result.
Some other thoughts:
* Structurally, I understand why the last two scenes with, respectively, Elizabeth and Paige and then Philip alone have to come at the end of the episode: the mission has to have been a disaster for Elizabeth to feel compelled to offer Paige an out from the spy game (even if Paige is now too brainwashed to take it), and the imminent threat of the mission has to be over for Philip to be free to think back to the night that Father Andrei married him and Elizabeth, and in turn acknowledge how much more distant they feel from each other now versus them. But both feel very anti-climactic after what comes before; even a 5-second closing shot of Stan poring over the old case files would have felt like a stronger summation of what we’d just watched, especially since his end of things is far more momentous for the series as a whole than what happened in Chicago.
* Songs this week included “Feel It In My Bones” by Freewheel and (over the montage of Marilyn being chopped up and tossed in the water) “Broken Flag” by Patti Smith.
* Did the day laborers at least get paid upfront? Stiffing them wouldn’t be the worst thing that Team Centre did in Chicago that day (again, four people died, and one of them got her head cut off after the fact), but it’s still not cool. Related: with Marilyn dead, who is caring for Erica when Elizabeth’s not around? And who watched her when both “nurses” were in Chicago?
* Harvest ingests his own cyanide capsule after realizing his gunshot wound will make escape impossible. This doesn’t so much resolve the Chekhov’s Gun tension of Elizabeth’s pill as it tips us off to what it will look like when she or someone else inevitably has to swallow it.
What did everybody else think?