"The Americans" (FX)

Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as a pair of Russian spies undercover in Washington, D.C. in "The Americans," now in its fourth season.

Courtesy image

Two quotes echoed in my head throughout last night's episode of "The Americans." The first, from Martha (Alison Wright) to Philip (Matthew Rhys, who directed this episode), was "Don't be alone," a wish for the man she loves to find someone to hold onto, a wish he returns to a rueful laugh and sad acknowledgement. Much of the struggle of "The Americans" is for people in marriage, in family, in espionage to find someone they can fully trust and finding themselves lost because of it. The second, "You love the prison you've made for yourself," is a smug self-help line from the EST meeting leader to the crowd, including Elizabeth (Keri Russell), who sees the value of the meetings but also sees through their calculated nature. There's a comfort in not being alone, but that, in and of itself, can be a prison, and a lonely one at that. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (and nearly everyone on the show) are in a prison of some sort, and no plane to Cuba or Prague is going to solve it.

Still, that plane is waiting, and Martha has to board it. The mostly wordless sequence that opens "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears" is one of the show's best openings — precise, economical and emotional at once. Rhys as a director focuses on the tiniest details that might stick out on a last morning before a major change: a watch ticking as two people in bed can't sleep, silent breakfast and a knife spreading butter on toast, Martha taking a second to stare at a jar of peanut-butter...she has no idea what she will and won't see in Russia. Rhys, Wright and Frank Langella (as handler Gabriel) perform with tiny gestures, Langella motioning towards a car to invite Martha as warmly as he can, Wright staring out the car door as it's opened for her departure, Rhys going through motions as Langella tries to support them. There's a sweet kiss before they part, Martha uses the name "Clark" (it's the only name she's known him by, even if she knows it's false now), and she tearfully bids him farewell with "Don't be alone, Clark. Alright?" She stops herself from sarcastic self-pity when he says the same for her, but she knows her life, one way or another, is over. She's left one prison and entered another.

Her departure is a success, something celebrated by Oleg (Costa Ronin) and Tatiana (Vera Cherny) and lamented by Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Gaad (Richard Thomas). Oleg commends Tatiana for her work, leaning back in his chair with his usual youthful brashness as her movements are rigid, a bit too focused. Her brother has been called up to Afghanistan, and as someone who lost his own brother earlier this season, he sympathizes, taking her hand. Nina is now a specter, likely to return to Oleg in some form but absent in his life, and he's found someone else who might experience loss. "Don't be alone." 

Stan and Gaad, meanwhile, have lost no lives but are currently dealing with the greatest disasters of Gaad's career. Stan goes to Philip for a beer, looking like hell with his tie undone and his face haggard, talking both of his divorce that'll go through soon and a work catastrophe that "If it turns out how it looks like it's turning out, won't be enough beer in the world." Philip might be the enemy agent who caused it, but he still cares about people and tells Stan he'll get through whatever it is. Stan tries to be the same light for Gaad, going to him after he's called up to see the FBI Director with an anecdote about a friend who thought he was about to be fired, only to learn he was brought it to talk about his stamp collection with a foreign dignitary/fellow aficionado. Gaad exits with one of his great funny/sad lines: "Well, I don't collect stamps." 

If Philip still cares about the people around him and wants to do whatever he can to help them, Elizabeth is far more focused on the mission, seeing them as a means to an end. That's not to dismiss her ability for kindness, but she's always been far more gung-ho and far less relenting than Philip, and this episode shows it. She notices Philip's worry over Martha and heads out to make a connection with Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), going to the movies to see "Tender Mercies" and, later, sneak into "The Outsiders." Elizabeth plays "Patti" as reluctant, forcing Young Hee to force her to loosen up and feel like she's the one doing the work; they talk about not mixing business and friendship, but that things are going well so far for them. So far. But Elizabeth is dangerous to Young Hee and won't hesitate to take her out if she has to, as a later scene with Lisa (Karen Pittman), another contact, shows. Lisa's back on the bottle again and guilty over taking money, and she's going to go to the cops. Elizabeth, to her credit, does try, several times, to convince her otherwise and to sober up, but Lisa is adamant, and Elizabeth isn't going to push any more than she has to. She hits her in the back of the head with a bottle, and as the camera focuses on the shard in her hand and cuts outside to the window, she bends down and out of sight, over Lisa. We can picture the rest.

Elizabeth does go to EST after seeing Philip reading a book about it and worrying about his admission that "It's helping me realize some things." She returns, but she can't seem to say the right thing to Philip. She's already flubbed a compliment to Martha by calling her "a simple woman," to Philip's clear irritation ("She was actually very complicated. People underestimated her" — you got it, dude). She doesn't handle this any better, saying aloud that she sees the good it does but that it manipulates people for their wallet, jabbing with "I think it's very American" (an insult to her, less so to Philip). The two have built each other up over the last five episodes, supporting each other through sickness and the Martha situation, but there are still fissures in their marriage lingering since Elizabeth and Gregory (and Philip and Irina) in season 1. What starts as her concern that he's getting bilked and losing sleep for it (i.e., it's not actually helping you) turns bitter, him making fists at his side and lashing out with "I'm sorry the man you loved died and now you're stuck with me."

Elizabeth has kept things relatively cool this season, but she's frighteningly nasty when she wants to be, and Russell practically unhinges her jaw with a retort: "I'm stuck with you because I took you back after you slept with the woman you loved and lied to my face about it." They're not alone after losing past lovers, but they're definitely in a prison, unable to escape, and unsure of how exactly they'd continue without it. They are, indeed, stuck. It's only the second-most painful scene between family members: Paige (Holly Taylor) returns home early, having skipped Bible-study because she didn't feel up to it. Again, Russell's jaw sticks out, and a vein seems to stick out in her eyelid as she mixes True Believer and Furious Mother on her poor, unhappy daughter, blaming her for the life-or-death situation she's put the family in. She's not wrong, exactly, but it's no less painful because of it.

Gabriel, for his part, is deeply annoyed with both of his agents — Philip for going to EST ("...EST?" Philip answers. "I know what it is. The question is, why?"), Elizabeth for sniping at him. He later compares them to children to Claudia (Margo Martindale), bringing up a story of how their lives are vacations compared to his time in Russia, when he had to drag a friend who betrayed the country out of his home in front of his family. But Claudia dismisses his problems, and when Elizabeth and Philip turn up at the safehouse again, Elizabeth bleeding from a sliver of glass after killing Lisa, he recognizes that the two are beaten down and tells them to take whatever time they need. They go home, plan a trip to Epcot, and watch David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear live on television with Paige and Henry. There's no irony lost on them on Copperfield's speech about how freedom is taken for granted, contrasting with their marriage and their ideological opposition. But for now, they're able to relax.

But not for long. The episode ends on a montage that sees Gaad settling into retirement and Stan showing up for a beer, Paige playing mini-golf with Pastor Tim and Alice while Philip and Elizabeth play hockey with Henry. Things are good, by all appearances, but anyone looking closer might see the sad look in Paige's eyes, Philip and Elizabeth immediately abandoning the game when Paige gets home, Henry noticing something is off but not being able to place it. Paige has experienced as much pain as any teenager on television, but few things have been as heartbreaking as her simply, robotically relaying information about Pastor Tim and the pregnant Alice ("I said I can't wait to babysit") before sadly ascending the stairs. Gaad gives parting advice to Stan about trying to turn Oleg, about his lingering guilt about Nina, and about letting his conscience get in the way: "You can't lose sight of who these people are." None of them are the same, of course: they're women unwittingly tricked into betraying their country (Martha), cocky kids turned cynics (Oleg), daughters in impossible situations (Paige), weary patriots (Gabriel), fathers and husbands who still care about those sent into harm's way (Philip) and mothers and wives focused on the mission (Elizabeth). They're all fit into their roles and unlikely to break out of it. And no matter how they try, they're all alone.

Stray thoughts:

Get breaking news sent instantly to your inbox

-This is Rhys' first episode as a director, and I'm eager to see more. Like a lot of "The Americans" directors, he has a sense of how to block a shot to show one character's reactions without allowing another character to see it (Elizabeth and Young Hee in a neon-lit mirror is a knockout). But my favorite moment is one of stillness, in which Paige marches out of the kitchen, Elizabeth calls her back in, and, after a beat, she returns, all in a static shot that lets us feel the eternity of that small moment.

-Stan tells Gaad about the new boss, who demands everyone's uniform be exact and no one have a personal clock or radio, lest it be bugged. "Pens?" "You'd think so."

-Russell's the MVP of the episode for me, but Langella's close for his turn from furious superior to concerned, fatherly figure in his last scene in the episode, without doing much more than letting time elapse and watching his wounded agents.

-This feels like a season finale, but we've still got five episodes to go. It's one of the best episodes of the series, and I'm champing at the bit to see where they go after this.

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.