A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I buy my car from Penny Saver…
“You can take your Forum bullshit, and you can shove it up your ass.” -Elizabeth
Early in “Rififi,” Aderholt breaks some big news to Stan: the Gennadi operation really did prove fruitful (if fatal for Gennadi and Sofia) by uncovering the identity of one of Philip and Elizabeth’s counterparts in Chicago, code-named Harvest. Excited, Aderholt explain to his former partner that they’re not just onto Harvest, but onto the method that all the illegals use to avoid detection, procure assets, etc. If they look for the same behavior in other cities, Dennis suggests, they could sniff out the whole network.
“It’s gonna happen fast,” he promises Stan.
It’s a striking comment because we’re now in the back half of this final season, and thus any reference to the pace at which the endgame might play out is notable. But it’s also striking because so much of this final season has been slow-playing that endgame.
This has been a strong season so far (last week’s episode especially), but it hasn’t been a breathless sprint to the finish in the way that, say, the final seasons of Breaking Bad or The Shield were. It has, in fact, been paced more or less like any previous season of the show, all of which had more episodes to play with, none of which had the burden of having to wrap up the entire story. And every time it seems like the plot is finally ready to move as fast as Aderholt promises Stan, we move back to the Russian literature mode: tons of dread, but only incremental plot advancement.
Of course, this has always been The Americans‘s primary mode, where those other dramas were crazier to begin with. (Breaking Bad famously started at an amble, but by its last couple of years had burst into a sprint.) So I can’t blame Fields, Weisberg, and company for sticking with what’s almost always worked for them, even in a slightly abbreviated final season. But it’s been fascinating and occasionally frustrating to watch these episodes keep tiptoeing up to some apparent point of no return, then find a way to step back and move around it for the time being.
The end of “The Great Patriotic War,” for instance, seemed to be putting Philip on the outs for good with Elizabeth and the Centre if they ever found out what he did with Kimmy. But instead of it being a secret he has to guard with his life, he up and tells Elizabeth everything in the opening scene here, and she in turn tells Claudia most of it. The Centre seems prepared to shrug this off as a longshot that didn’t work, and while Elizabeth (in a great moment for Keri Russell in an episode full of them) is far angrier — scornfully telling Philip that he was never going to go through with the plan, and only wanted to have sex with Kimmy, despite ample evidence over the years of how far he’d gone to avoid doing exactly that — she still asks Philip to join her in Chicago once she realizes how poor the odds are for the mission to extract Harvest out from under FBI surveillance. She still trusts in his skills, and still — despite all the anger bombs she hurls at him earlier in the hour — loves him.
So the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet. It could at any moment, whether it’s the Chicago mission going as disastrously as Elizabeth fears, or Stan finding the key to unlock the mystery of his best friend’s true identity somewhere in that huge stack of paperwork, but we have to keep waiting to see.
Instead, “Rififi” does that other thing that’s made The Americans so special, outside of the adrenalized churn of plot: it looks at a traditional family dilemma through the lens of the parents being sleeper agents, to find out how much worse that makes the kinds of struggles we all face in our much more mundane lives.
It’s a holiday story, and a distinctly American holiday story at that, as what could be a big turning point in the story and/or the Jennings marriage takes place while Philip and Elizabeth have to pretend to be celebrating a touchstone moment in the founding of this country they’ve spent decades working to destroy. Thanksgiving is stressful for any family, between the travel, the relatives you only see once a year, the awkward talk of current events, and more. Elizabeth is already gone for Chicago by the time politics rears its head at the dinner table this time, as Stan makes a passionate anti-communism toast — prepared and delivered with a level of bile no doubt fueled by the murders of Gennadi and Sofia, since Stan over the years has learned to take a more nuanced view of his opponents — so we don’t get to see her attempt to hide her true feelings about it (especially given that her actions are what inspired the speech, as well as Philip’s decision to sabotage the Kimmy plan), but there’s still plenty that’s fraught among all four Jenningses, particularly in how Henry is getting along with his parents on his first trip home in a while.
In part because he’s been such a minor part of the show for so long, it’s remarkable to see how mature and independent Henry’s become while we weren’t looking. He enjoys his parents’ love and support when it comes, but he doesn’t seem to crave it in the way that Paige does, perhaps because he was so often treated like he wasn’t there even before he went away to boarding school. He can offer Philip a contact with a friend’s wealthy parent who might be able to help the travel agency, but it’s clearly more out of self-interest than a concern for his dad’s business. (And Philip in turn feels defensive that his teenage son is both trying to play savior and referring to the agency as a failure.) As an outsider within his own family, Henry can also recognize just how tightly wound both his parents are — mom chain-smoking by the back door, dad throwing a tantrum at a slot car track — and though he’s obviously concerned, he’s also used to it. These are his parents, who have always been slipping in and out of the house in the middle of the night, so when Elizabeth has an out-of-town emergency come up on Thanksgiving itself, it’s old news to him.