This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 11
On some level, The Americans is a super hero story. What are Philip and Elizabeth if not a classic example of the “maxed out human” prototype a la Steve Rogers? They’ve received a lifetime of training in the art of being ubermensches.
The Soviet Union, not quite knowing what skills they’d need during a lifetime undercover assignment as Americans just taught them every skill in the book: stealth, seduction, championship-level boning, all forms of combat and superior grilled-cheese sandwich making.
That’s why what happens at the end of “Dinner for Seven” represents a perversion of the superhero genre as well as a very important character moment for young Paige Jennings.
Normally for us, the audience, it would be thrilling to watch Elizabeth take out some creepy goons in a darkened parking lot who threatened the life of her and Paige. But Paige isn’t an audience, Paige is a daughter. Paige doesn’t get to sit on the sidelines whooping and cheering as Elizabeth Jennings breaks one human being’s arm with ease and then plunges a knife into another’s neck. Paige actually has to go home now and live with someone who she now knows is capable of tremendous violence, regardless of how justified it is.
Allowing Paige to witness her mother’s superior ass-kicking skills is a big moment for the show. It’s potentially the biggest emotional step for Paige since she learned her parents were spies. Sure, they’ve said most of their work deals with getting people to trust them and while that’s mostly true, there is a sizable amount of work that also ends with a person on the ground coughing and gurgling on their own blood.
It’s as big a moment for the audience as well, however, for as thrilling as it can be to watch a person go full superhero on screen, watching someone as efficient with breathtaking violence in person would render us all as shocked and disturbed as Paige.
At first, it’s a little disappointing to discover that the eponymous dinner for seven in “Dinner for Seven” takes up only about five minutes of screentime in the episode. The prospect of Philip, Elizabeth, Henry, Paige, Tim, Alice and Stan at a diner table is undeniably rife with dramatic possibilities. Where the dinner ends up going reveals, however, that The Americans isn’t concerned with dramatic possibilities inasmuch as it is in telling good stories.
So while the dinner for Stan doesn’t go to the dramatic places one would expect aside from some sideways glances from Pastor Tim, it serves as a kind of crucial red herring that the entire momentum of the episode hinges around.
The dinner for seven occurs around the midpoint of the episode when tension seems to be at its highest. Pastor Tim has come over to the Jennings house to deliver an awkward apology. Elizabeth has received news from a pierogi-slinging Gabriel that the Center turned down her request not to move forward with the Don mission. Stan seems more than ever to be a man defeated. He meets with Oleg after hours and opines over all he’s lost. “Amador, “Nina, my boss (I think you guys might’ve done it), somewhere in there my wife left me,” he begins and then adds “This is the last time we’re gonna see each other. That’s what I want to say.” He’s letting the FBI’s dream of flipping Oleg go just so that he can release one good person back to the wild like a Pokemon.
That’s the circumstances our crew find themselves in before the fateful dinner. It doesn’t matter how much time “off” Philip and Elizabeth have had. There can never be an “off” moment for them in a real sense as we witness when Elizabeth has to regain her composure when telling Philip that she executed her part of the plan right before the kids come home and she has to put on a happy face again. And poor, lost Stan had just cut loose an old source and weirdly close friend before stopping by at the Jennings to give Henry a VHS and discovering a party afoot.
It seems like if there was ever a moment for it all to go to shit, this would be it. Pastor Tim and Alice are going to find out the Jennings’ next door neighbor is an FBI agent and they’re going to ruin this whole thing. Pastor Tim couldn’t even take a piss in the desert without causing a near-international crisis for Pete’s sake.
But then, aside from the obvious tension and awkwardness, the scene ends suddenly and life goes on.
Structurally, The Americans is almost always amazing but something about the placement in this dinner scene really sticks out for me. It’s like a reminder that the daily rhythm of Philip and Elizabeth’s lives look like the frantic pangs of an EKG – just unwelcome moments of excitement followed by brief relief.
And as if to hammer that point home, the scene that follows the dinner is the final reckoning for poor Don and the plan that the KGB has for him. Elizabeth does her job and tells Don she’s pregnant and that she will take care of it, and then it’s Philip, Gabriel and that character actress from The Leftovers and 30 Rock (you know the one)’s job to finish.
Philip, Gabriel and friend arrive at Don’s job saying that they need to meet with him and he’ll know who they are. They’re all posing as Patty’s family (brother, father and step-mother) and they’re here to tell Don that Patty is dead.
Philip in disguise convinces Don that he needs to pay for Patty’s funeral expenses and to transfer her body back to California. Don, of course, doesn’t have that kind of money on him and Philip must escort him to the bank while a conveniently sickly Gabriel and friend stay behind to search his office.
This mission regarding Don has been a long time coming and to see the final results manifested are heartbreaking. This all works precisely because Don is a good, honorable person. He truly believes he made a mistake and that it’s his duty to both fix it and limit the damage done to his own family. And because he is a good person, the resulting damage to his family is going to be inevitable. He will never be able to compartmentalize what he believes he’s done unlike Philip and Elizabeth have learned to do.
Though even that is now debatable as Philip and Elizabeth seem more emotionally compromised than ever before. Elizabeth calls Patty’s answering machine once more and can’t bear to hear the end of Young-Hee’s desperate message for help about how strange Don is acting.
Elizabeth even turns to Pastor Tim a few times throughout the episode. For a while it’s unclear as to whether she’s working him or just being friendly. Then it becomes undeniable that she’s genuine when she asks him.
“If you have something on your mind and you can’t stop thinking about it but you want to…” she begins.“I’d pray,” Pastor Tim says. “For guidance.”“What if you don’t believe in God, or religion or prayer?”“None of those things matter. All that matters is how we treat each other.”
That’s about as even-handed, helpful and agnostic an answer Elizabeth was ever going to get out of a Pastor and it’s also likely the last thing she needed to here. Philip and Elizabeth may seem like superheroes at time from their Soviet training but superheroes also generally tend to help people. Philip and Elizabeth haven’t felt like they’ve done that in a long time. Especially since the search of Don’s office turns up empty. Glanders and all her evil little cousins live on.