If past seasons of "The Americans" have focused to a large degree on marriage and the cost of raising a family, season 4 moves it closer to a larger look at family, at what it means to have someone to depend on and to be dependent, and at the difficulties that come with it...especially if you're a pair of Russian spies posing as an average American family. "Persona Non Grata" closed out the best season of the show so far in grand style, closing the door on one storyline while opening another and staying focused on a still-developing dilemma for the Jennings family. We've ended the show's story of bioweapons, but the story of characters torn apart by biology (fight or flight, protection of offspring, depression) and the less tangible factors that accompany the tangible ones, is only getting started.
The episode opens with one of its best set-pieces, a tense planned meeting between Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and biochemical spy William (Dylan Baker) to pass a lassa fever sample to the former and get it to the Russians. FBI Agents Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) know William is the mole, and they place a number of tails on him. Chris Long directs the episode by cross-cutting to the point of deliberate confusion, throwing in faces we know well (Hans) and faces we recognize but can't always place, putting us on edge wondering who's following who and how close William and Philip are to being caught.
At one point, the camera, taking William's point-of-view, slows with him as he recognizes something is wrong. But he can only run so far before he's trapped in the park and forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, breaking the sample in his palm (stigmata, anyone?) and giving himself the fever to avoid it being broken or passed along to anyone else. Baker's deciding moment, sinking against a concrete bridge support beam and sighing heavily, is beautifully played, with the actor immediately showing full knowledge that his long service to his country is about to end. William surrenders while warning the FBI to keep back and call biotreatment containment. The sound of shouting and a helicopter is lost in the distance, where, after waiting on their designated park bench, Philip walks away.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell), meanwhile, sees changes in Paige (Holly Taylor), once terrified of the truth about her parents, now acting more like her gung-ho mother every day, first asking (while resting on her mother's shoulder) to teach her self-defense, later carefully planning a way to check in on Pastor Tim and Alice, who gave birth. There's a flash of pride on Elizabeth's face as she answers Paige's first question with "I can teach you a few things." But her daughter has had a far more "normal" life than Elizabeth has until recently, and there's also some recognition that there won't be much to return to if they do eventually go home to Russia. "Do you ever wonder what it looks like now?" she asks Philip. "It could be totally different." He answers: "Probably not that much."
If it's difficult to know if things have changed there, it's nothing compared to knowing how things will change when something new arrives from Russia. The episode dedicates two scenes to Mikhail "Mischa" Semenov, a young man sent to a psych ward after returning from Afghanistan and speaking against Soviet involvement there, a major offense. He's let out thanks to friends in high places and returns to a broken down group home, the walls cracked and the lights by turns too dim and too bright. Mischa meets with his grandfather and gets a package of currency, which he plans to use to travel to America and meet his father, "a travel agent." It's Philip's long-forgotten son with Irina, an old flame from before his travels to America. He looks a lot like his father, and seems to have picked up at least a bit of his questioning attitude towards his country from across the sea.
Dad, in the meantime, is at an EST meeting, speaking at length about his current problems for the first time that I can recall (he previously took part in an exercise where he confessed his guilt about a childhood incident). Philip talks about being a travel agent as a way to sneak in his feelings about his real job, with the camera starting far away from him and moving closer as he tells the hard truth that he, like many, picked a job that fit his interests before he knew if he'd like it, "before you know who you are." The camera cuts further away when he talks about the people he helps that he doesn't care about, and closer when he confesses how he wakes up with a pit in his stomach. The EST group leader, smug as ever, tells him to quit, that even with his commitments to family and others, it isn't OK to let himself down in place of letting them down. "Do you think your family would no longer love you if you quit? Do you think the world would stop spinning? Because I got news for you, it ain't that important." Emotionally, he's not wrong, at least about how Paige and Henry would feel about him. But it doesn't settle with Philip, dealing more clearly with some form of depression as the season has gone on, and being told that the thing you have to do isn't important isn't much of a relief. If anything, he looks more haunted than ever (something Rhys conveys without changing his expression much, letting the words wash over him).
Still, Philip might not have to do the job for much longer. William's capture leads to a number of changes: Arkady (Lev Gorn) takes the heat for Williams' capture and the Martha news, with Stan's new boss sanctimoniously ordering him out of the country. Oleg (Costa Ronin), the man who felt compelled to tell Stan about the biochemical espionage, tells Arkady and Tatiana (Vera Cherny) that he's returning to Russia to take care of his mother, the only person he has left. "You're a good son," he's told by both of them, but he's betrayed a father figure in the U.S. and let a woman who grew to care about him down, again. Tatiana rubs her hands together trying not to cry as she leaves Oleg behind, not long after telling him that she'll temporarily take over for Arkady. Meanwhile, Gabriel (Frank Langella), goes to Philip and Elizabeth with the news that with William captured, they might be compromised, and it might be time for them to return home. He advises them to pack their bags, but, with fatherly hands on their shoulders, leaves it up to them. Elizabeth looks shellshocked, the job she's done for nearly 20 years coming to a close and the home she lost long ago back in sight (not necessarily a comforting fact). Philip betrays little.
William, for his part, doesn't betray anyone either (transitions!), staying close to his characteristically prickly demeanor. He's dry when lightly prodded about telling Stan about the people, and he lets out a sickly, rueful laugh when Aderholt asks if he wants a Coke (I can't imagine it'll help with the hemorrhaging, but then, I'm not a doctor). "There's nothing you or anyone can do to make me comfortable," he assures Aderholt, saying with some resignation, "I'm a dead man. It's a very unusual feeling." Sweaty, pale, bug-eyed and incapable of moving, it's a lonely, pathetic death for William, and he recognizes it.
At the same time, he shows more vulnerability to Stan and Aderholt (separated by a glass barrier from his quarantined hospital bed) than he has to anyone, Philip included. Asked if he liked what he did, he admits that it was exciting, and that he liked being invisible for a time. "It made me feel special...I was the star of my very own movie." But he moves quickly to the curse of it, the loneliness, the isolation, the knowledge that all of his acquaintances were just that, not friends. "The absence of closeness makes you cry inside," William says before admitting that the job, by the end, was "the only thing I had left." By the end, when blood is pouring out of his mouth and he's making delirious, cryptic references to Elizabeth and Philip ("She's...pretty. He's lucky"), Stan and Aderholt feel some measure of sympathy but are incapable of comforting him. A shot outside of the quarantine room, with William in the distance and the agents even further away, is a sad final touch on William's story of loneliness.
But as much as William longs for a connection with someone, he can't know the drawbacks of getting close. Paige is starting to learn while experimenting, meeting with Pastor Tim and Alice for earnest congratulations while keeping tabs on them, and watching the Super Bowl with Matthew Beeman (Daniel Flaherty) both out of genuine attraction and ulterior motives. They talk about their parents, about the elder Beeman's infidelity and the odd, trusting relationship between the Jennings that Paige is only starting to understand. "They're just people...s--- happens, you know?" Stan is amused, later, to tell Philip that he walked in on the two of them fixing themselves after a fierce makeout session ("father of the bride, you're paying"), and some of it is just hormones and teen romance.
But Philip collects Paige after being told that his life might change permanently (before any tip-off about his soon-to-be-visiting son), and warns Paige to stay away. "Don't do this, Paige. You have no idea." His life and Elizabeth's has been blown up and might be in vain, and after trying hard to protect his daughter from following the same path, his worry that she's seeing someone for the wrong reasons is real. Paige probably doesn't have any idea about the full extent of why she's seeing Matthew, as opposed to anyone else, but that's part of her curse. The Jennings have each other, but it's not the normal, fully functional family that William dreams of in his dying hours. The final shot of the season sees Philip and Paige walking back to their house, framed like the home in "The Amityville Horror." It's a prison, a place full of ghosts living and dead, right next door to the people looking to put the Jennings in a more literal prison, and there's no way they can have any idea as to where to move forward from here.
-Love the use of "Who By Fire?" by Leonard Cohen in a montage that bridges Paige visiting Pastor Tim and Alice and her parents sitting alone in their car, trying to process the news that they might return home. Between the Eastern European-tinged instrumentation that sings of home and the look at Paige possibly going down the same path her parents did, it's haunting stuff.
-Elsewhere, Arkady drinks and comes to term with leaving the United States. A split-diopter shot shows him beneath a statue of Lenin, staring at the man who's no doubt been a great figure in his life but now feels like a horrible monolith.
-I can't imagine the Jennings are going home too soon, what with the possibility of Philip's son coming to town to further screw things up and the greater possibility of a "Hank Schrader meets the real Walter White" dynamic between Stan and the Jennings. But the possibility of them returning does put a greater focus on things eventually winding down as the show enters its final two seasons.
-A plea for next season: more Mail Robot.