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.
The only puzzling thing to him is the phone call he gets from her, not realizing that she thinks it could be their last conversation and that she should therefore make an effort at a meaningful connection with him while she still can. She’s never shown this level of interest in him before, which is sad but also rings true, and only Philip realizes what the call really means. He had been spending the post-dinner period snooping around Elizabeth’s various spy caches and leaving a message for Oleg to decode (with the liquids in his shaving kit, no less), but as soon as Henry tells him about the phone call, Philip knows how bad things must be in the Windy City, and all of his qualms about Elizabeth’s mission and her dismissive attitude towards him melt away, replaced by concern for the woman he still loves.
This dilemma plays out at the end of an episode that’s a mix of doomsday and business as usual — a decent chunk of time is devoted to Elizabeth developing a brand-new asset, Jackson Barber, a classic film buff who interns in the office of Senator Sam Nunn — so it’s hard to say if Aderholt is right that things are about to start happening quickly.
But we don’t have much time left, and that ticking clock gets louder with each passing episode, even an emotionally potent one like this.
Some other thoughts:
* Philip has to lay off Stavos and some other longtime veterans from the travel agency, which prompted me to finally ask Fields and Weisberg to explain what, if any, financial support Philp and Elizabeth receive from the Centre for their civilian identities. This is what they told me:
We base all of this loosely on how the KGB funded their illegals, although it wasn’t always completely consistent. But in general, our understanding is that illegals got money to get their businesses off the ground, but were then expected to be self-supporting, except for their operations, which were funded by the Centre. So Philip and Elizabeth would have been expected to keep the travel agency afloat, and support themselves through it. But the KGB would have paid for anything spy-related – any operations. None of this would have changed when Philip retired.
Philip and Elizabeth were able to run their travel agency and be spies all these years. They had to do both. It wasn’t easy. They didn’t get enough sleep! Although spying probably didn’t take up as much time as it looked like on the show — we televised the parts where they were busiest. They probably spent more time at the travel agency than they did spying. (For real illegals, this was even more true – the cover work to spying ratio was much more strongly weighted towards cover work.)
We can’t say for sure what would have happened if an illegals’ business were going under. If a one time infusion of cash would have saved it, it seems likely the KGB would have done so. It also seems likely that, human nature being what it is, some officers may have hidden the truth from their bosses back home. In one historical case, an illegal made a fortune from his business, and sent all the excess money back to Moscow.
* Mail Robot sighting! The sad thing, we’re so close to the end of the series that I can’t even fully enjoy Mail Robot appearances — even for a bit of light physical comedy like Stan and Aderholt being pinned to the elevator by the late-arriving robot — because each time I can’t help, as is the case with recurring characters in the final seasons of many great shows, wondering if it will be the last time we ever see it.
* Aderholt’s instruction to have his men start looking into Russian Orthodox priests gives new meaning to Elizabeth’s scene earlier this season with Father Andrei, since he could just as easily be the means through which the FBI finds her and Philip as car ads, garage rentals, etc.
* FX has gradually let its shows use “fuck” the last few years, and The Americans saved up its F-bombs for a couple of great uses: Elizabeth accusing Philip of wanting to fuck Kimmy, and Philip bellowing out an over-the-top “FUCK!” after his slot car fall off the track one too many times.
* Party Like It’s 1987: This week’s songs included “What Is Love” by The Simplistics and “Ideas as Opiates” by Tears for Fears, while Elizabeth first bonds with Jackson at the movie theater by being dismissive of the popularity of Three Men and a Baby, the Leonard Nimoy-directed Tom Selleck/Ted Danson/Steve Guttenberg comedy (itself a remake of a French film) that was the year’s highest-grossing movie. In 1987, all of America grokked Spock’s comedy directing chops.
* Jackson and Elizabeth tell you most of what you need to know about Rififi itself, but it’s also worth noting that the Better Call Saul creative team often points to the movie as their stylistic touchstone for all the long sequences where Mike Ehrmantraut works in silence.
What did everybody else think?