A review of tonight’s The Americans just as soon as I run away to Fiji and become a coconut farmer…
“It’s like that. A lot.” -Elizabeth
It can be a funny thing, watching The Americans. Not only is it a show where we’re conditioned to root against the main characters on a fundamental level, but one where we already know that they’re going to lose. Obviously, the specific endings for Philip and Elizabeth have yet to be revealed, but their overall mission will be an utter failure(*), and we know it. Many dramas — particularly in the post-Sopranos age of TV — have dark conclusions for their protagonists, and maybe even foreshadow them along the way, but this is a rare one where you knew the broadest outline of what would happen before you saw a single episode.
(*) Before you make your jokes about the 2016 election being a stealth Americans sequel, think about how much Elizabeth would despise a man like Vladimir Putin, even if they shared a common enemy.
For the most part, Weisberg and Fields have deftly worked around this issue by giving Philip and Elizabeth smaller goals to achieve within episodes or seasons, and also by making sure that the Jennings marriage itself was always the most important part of the story. Not only is the state of that relationship more emotionally resonant than the philosophical differences between communists and capitalists, but there’s simply more room to maneuver within this small and wholly fictional construct than there is with the cause the two of them have both tried to serve.
Every now and then, though, we get an episode predominantly about failure, and there’s plenty for both our spouses to reckon with throughout “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup.” There remains deep, perhaps irreparable tension within the marriage — with Philip poking the (Soviet) bear like never before when he challenges Elizabeth in front of Paige about the death of Rennhull — but both of them are doing plenty lousy on their own, too.
As the more active spy, Elizabeth takes the bigger brunt of things throughout the hour, unable to achieve the goals of mission after mission, even as she wracks up collateral damage. The quest for the lithium-based radiation sensor — which Elizabeth still doesn’t understand any more than we do — hits another dead end when the warehouse raid results in a whopping three dead security guards, and still no sensor(*). And later, she drags poor Erica Haskard out of her sick bed to attend a World Series viewing party and winds up with zero useful intel and one very sick and mortified woman.
(*) Full disclosure: the screener was so dark for this sequence that, even as I fiddled with my brightness and contrast settings, I may as well have watched it with my eyes closed. So I had to check with FX about the exact body count, to confirm that she was telling Paige the truth about not getting the sensor, etc. I’m recording the air version, curious to see how much easier it is to make things out. UPDATE: The air version was slightly better, but not enough to justify the show spending that long a sequence in what was basically pitch blackness. If the idea is that we don’t know what happened, then show the whole heist from the POV of Paige waiting nervously in the car, you know? Or just cut from Elizabeth going in to her coming out, bloody and frustrated that she didn’t get the MacGuffin.
Philip, meanwhile, only has one ongoing responsibility for the Centre, but even that’s not going well. Kimmy has, like Paige, grown up and spread her wings, going to school in Michigan and only returning home for the holidays, which gives him few opportunities to swap out the tapes in the recorder hidden in her father’s briefcase. Julia Garner’s always been older than Kimmy, but the gap is narrowed a lot thanks to the time jump, and she ably plays this new version who keeps hanging around with “Jim” not because she’s desperate for a father figure, but because he’s an old friend (emphasis on “old”) on whom she’s taken pity as she’s come to recognize how much lonelier he is than her. The problem is that Kimmy is so mature now, she can do things like jet off to Greece for Thanksgiving instead of visiting dear old dad, which only makes Elizabeth’s mission even harder.
Even on the non-spy front, Philip’s work is a mess, as he comes to accept that the travel agency just isn’t salvageable, no matter how many motivational speeches he gives, and that he won’t be able to pay Henry’s expensive private school tuition any more. He takes Stavos and the rest of the gang out line-dancing again (this time to Eddie Rabbitt’s early ’80s hit “Drivin’ My Life Away”), but it’s not quite as joyful as the similar sequence from the premiere, because Philip knows that his dreams of upper middle-class respectability are slipping from his grasp; he’s a better spy than he is a businessman.
Elizabeth tries to shrug off the warehouse mess to Paige by admitting that failure is baked into the work they do, and sometimes a mission will require a lot of effort with no payoff. But it’s striking to note how much of the realities of the job she’s still trying to hide from her daughter. We already saw her lie about honeypots, and about the specifics of Rennhull’s death, and here she both covers up the murder of the security guards and makes sure that Paige (known as “Julie” to the other members of the support team) will not be involved in the plan to tail Stan as part of a plot to assassinate Gennadi. You can file some of this under Elizabeth worrying about Paige’s youth and inexperience, which seem to be the driving factor in trying to talk her daughter out of sleeping with a Congressional intern to make him an asset.
But when you step back and consider how much of the job Elizabeth has hidden from Paige, and for how long (it’s been four and a half years in show time since the events of “Stingers”), you realize that on some level, Elizabeth understands that many of her own actions would utterly horrify and repel her own daughter — a daughter whom Elizabeth adores and respects, and in whom she has worked very hard to instill a profound moral code — so the only choice is to keep lying to her for as long as humanly possible. Elizabeth is a true believer who accepts the ugliness of the job she does — her general lack of remorse for killing civilians is both the reason she’s still a full-time spy and her husband isn’t, and the reason many Americans fans sympathize far more with Philip than her — and thus could never overtly accept that her actions are frequently as evil as Ronald Reagan once described her homeland. But deep down in her subconscious, she knows how wrong so much of this is, and maybe she even knows, as we do, that she’s fighting a battle that can’t be won.
Some other thoughts:
* I sure hope this isn’t the last time we see Oleg and Philip together, even though Oleg has very good reason to avoid direct contact now that the FBI is watching him. Not only do the two seem like kindred spirits in their mixed feelings about America, but I very much want to see Stan walk in on the two of them with a look somewhere between horror at realizing who and what his best friend really is, and jealousy at seeing Oleg and Philip hanging out without him.
* For that matter, it was nice to see Arkady and Mr. Burov meet, but also sad to realize just how badly Oleg’s family is coping with his absence. I have a very bad feeling about the odds of Oleg making it back to Moscow, which will be another thing for which his father can blame himself.
* It feels non-coincidental that this episode features our first mention in a while of Matthew Beeman, who comes up while Philip and Stan are out drinking together. Paige’s relationship with Matthew imploded in large part because she was trying to treat him simultaneously as her boyfriend and an intelligence source. Also, not only does Paige ignore her mother’s advice and sleep with the intern, but we see her wearing her most elaborate disguise yet, including gigantic ’80s eyeglasses, when she goes to take a photo of the Russian summit member meeting Americans at the hotel. She’s growing up before our eyes, whether we want her to or not.
* Re: Philip’s finances, interesting question raised by my wife: are there any circumstances where the Centre would agree to foot that private school bill? Getting Henry out of the house so Elizabeth and Paige can openly communicate doesn’t seem like quite enough, since they were finding ways around that even before Henry moved away. I imagine the only way they’d do it would be if Henry were also recruited to work for them, taking advantage of the connections he’s making at an elite prep school, and that’s much too high a price for Philip to pay.
What did everybody else think?