A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I want to grow up to be a cosmonaut…
“People don’t usually regret coming home.” –Claudia
Early in “The World Council of Churches,” Elizabeth and Philip tell Claudia exactly what Elizabeth meant with her “Let’s go home” declaration at the end of last week’s episode: they intend to follow Gabriel back to Russia, and to bring the children with them. Claudia is thrown by the news, but also recognizes an idea that’s as true in espionage as it is in the world of professional sports: Once you start thinking about retirement, you are better off just retiring, as soon as possible. For the moment, it doesn’t seem like the Centre will force them to remain in America against their will, despite their important roles in Topeka, as Stan’s neighbor, etc.
But the assignment’s not over quite yet, a point driven home even before they tell Claudia, in the brutal punchline to the episode’s pre-credits sequence. Paige has finally been relieved of the burden of having to handle Pastor Tim and be around him and Alice, and she realizes that this past year has ruined whatever peace and spirituality she found at the church, and throws her cross in the kitchen garbage to be rid of the physical reminder of this difficult period. Never mind that it is an awful thing that her parents’ work has destroyed the best thing Paige had in her life; what’s done is done, and it’s as if she’s removed a 5-ton weight from around her neck, rather than those few ounces of metal… only for her parents to fish it out of the trash and explain, sadly, that she’ll have to keep wearing it until Pastor Tim is actually out of the country. That’s just crushing.
The business with the cross is a reminder not only that Philip and Elizabeth can’t just pack up and leave tomorrow, but that any potential exit is going to be a lot more difficult than they want it to be — or, really, than they understand it will be. Elizabeth is a true believer who assumes her children will be tough enough to make the transition into life as Russians — in fact, thinks Paige will acclimate to the idea so quickly that she’ll be able to help them when Henry learns that he is being taken against his will to a country from which he won’t be able to leave — while Philip is so desperate to get out of this miserable business once and for all that he seems to have convinced himself that the kids will be okay with it.
They are both, of course, utterly delusional.
It’s not just that a lot of this season has been spent showing us, Oleg, and Martha the ugly truth of Russia in the final years of the Cold War, and that the place is far harsher and more dysfunctional than Philip and Elizabeth have convinced themselves it is after 20 years away. It’s also that we know Paige very well, and Henry pretty well, and we don’t see them with the blinders that their parents have for them and the world in general, and it’s hard not to imagine both of them loudly, bitterly, and maybe even violently objecting to this plan were it presented to them in advance — or, worse, only after they’d crossed the point of no return at the East Berlin checkpoint. Henry has a life he’s built that involves going to St. Edwards and (probably) dating Chris, then going to an elite college, having a big career in America, etc. Paige has been swayed to believe in some of her parents’ causes, but she still also has a life here, doesn’t speak Russian, and would feel even more alone and miserable in the reality of 1984 Moscow than she is at the moment in Falls Church. No more secrets, but also no more of the world she has always known. No. Not going to work.
It’s a credit to Philip and Elizabeth that they at least allow for the possibility that the kids won’t want to go, or won’t do well in Russia. On the one hand, Pastor Tim isn’t the ideal person to ask about this, given how close they are go getting rid of the guy with no consequences and how concerned he is about the impact all this spy stuff has had on Paige. On the other, there’s literally no one else to ask, given the secret identity of it all: Tim knows Paige, and he knows who her parents really are, and if anything, his qualms about their work makes him an ideal person to go to. If even Pastor Tim thinks Paige can handle Russia, then it must be a good idea, right? Instead, Tim mostly dances around the subject and points out that in a few years, the kids won’t be kids anymore and the decision won’t be their parents to make. This would seem to be the best of a lot of bad approaches — tough it out until Henry’s 18, then give him and Paige the choice on whether to follow them (even if not following means, as far as they know at this point in history, they might never see each other again) — but it’s not the one the Jenningses have opted to take so far.
But that’s a catastrophe for another day. Right now, Philip and Elizabeth have to keep being spies, keep running their various operations and assets. They’re once again reminded of how overextended they are when they put on their “Brad” and “Dee” disguises and find out that, in their absence, Tuan called an audible and convinced Pasha to slit his wrists as a way to scare his mother into taking him home. In that moment, Tuan is far more ruthless than either of his partners, who can’t help thinking like parents first and spies second, with Philip in particular being willing to risk their cover if it means saving this poor kid from himself and his “friend.”
As Philip marches across the street to check on Pasha, with a nervous Elizabeth and Tuan trailing him, it’s not hard to think about the parallels between Pasha and his own kids. Pasha is so desperate to go back to his homeland that he’s willing to risk dying. Would Henry respond any better to being dragged 5,000 miles away from the only life he’s ever known? Would Philip and Elizabeth — under whatever names they’d be using back home — have to be on constant suicide watch? And, if so, is getting out of the spy game worth that?
Some other thoughts:
* Stomach-churning as Tuan’s casual explanation of the wrist-slitting plan was, the most powerful part of the episode was over at the Burov apartment in Moscow. Oleg knows how much trouble he’s in, because the PGU suspects him of something he actually did (ratting out William for the sake of the greater good), and he knows just how badly this will hurt both his parents if a case can be made against him. His father’s speech about wanting to protect Oleg not just because he’s his son, “But because you’re good” choked me up considerably, and every glimpse of Yelena in the kitchen, trying not to hear or think about any of this, served as a reminder of how painful it must be for her son to be working for the same kinds of people who once dragged her away to a camp.
* Mischa never got to see his father, but he gets a reward — presumably arranged by Gabriel — nonetheless when Philip’s brother Pyotr tracks him down at his job. Not exactly the man he had hoped to meet, but still family.
* Things are getting hinky with Stan and Aderholt’s asset, Sofia, who brings her ex-hockey player boyfriend (now fiancé) Gennadi Bystrov to meet them, and to explain that he knows about her work for the FBI. Is this just a shakedown for more cash, or could Bystrov be trying to turn Sofia into a triple agent?
* Lots of talk of names here, with Elizabeth wondering what the kids’ last names would be in Russia, and Paige — having no idea the awful idea her parents are hatching — asking where the names Philip Jennings and Elizabeth Corman came from in the first place. They explain most of the story, but not the crucial detail that would surely make Paige uncomfortable: The real Philip and Elizabeth would have died as babies, to prevent there being a long paper trail attached to that name and Social Security number.
Back next week with a review of the finale and a Fields/Weisberg interview.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com