The Americans: Munchkins Review
Pastor Tim and Agent Gad have bad times abroad while Elizabeth nears her breaking point
This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 10
There’s one thing I’ve kept to myself as I’ve watched what is rightfully being regarded as The Americans’ best season: I’ve privately worried that Philip is becoming a stronger character than Elizabeth.
It feels blasphemous to admit and I’ve tried to stuff it as far down within myself as humanly possible so as to not ruin what is undoubtedly one of the best dramas of the 2010’s best seasons.
It’s not that I disliked Elizabeth as a character or Keri Russell’s performance, it’s just that I “understood” Philip as a character a lot more. This is the season that The Americans finally pushed Philip and Elizabeth so far beyond the brink that the Soviet Union was like “Jeez, guys. Take a few months off.” Philip’s near-constant blank, haunted expression, disheveled hair and just general air of a man shuffling on to the electric chair communicated the Jennings’ emotional state better than almost any acting or characterization I’ve ever seen.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, has kept her shit together. It’s easy to get an audience to empathize with a character when they’re vulnerable like Philip. It’s harder when they’re strong. I didn’t understand Elizabeth’s steely resolve. I admired her for it; but I still didn’t get it.
After “Munchkins,” I get it.
“Munchkins” is yet another phenomenal episode in a phenomenal season. Just as important as that, however, is that it’s the episode where I’ve finally come to understand and appreciate Elizabeth Jennings.
One of Elizabeth’s finest hours as a character comes at the end of “Muchkins.” Elizabeth is playing Scrabble with Gabriel after a very momentous, Pastor Tim-losing week and Gabriel asks her for a time frame on when she can get the codes to Level 4 from Don to William. When she hesitates, he asks her what the problem is.
“Nothing. There’s no problem.” But Gabriel pushes on. He knows that Elizabeth loves Young Hee and loves her family, that she’s sick over what she has to do to destroy it. Gabriel offers her a lifeline, just like Philip tried to do and says they can ask the Center if there’s another way to get to Don’s codes. Elizabeth says it’s impossible just like she said to Philip. Still, Gabriel pushes again. He says Elizabeth’s feelings matter, regardless of how many times she tries to insist otherwise.
He asks again. And Elizabeth waits, considers … considers hard before finally whispering “yes.”
It’s perhaps the biggest moment of the entire series for Elizabeth Jennings because it’s the first time she’s admitted that yes, her feelings do matter. She’s been a superlative spy/soldier/mother/wife/Scrabble player but she’s also a person and deserves a god damn break.
In that same moment, I personally came to realize exactly why she held out for so long. Season four of The Americans opened with a look into Philip’s childhood in which he violently murdered two bullies who were tormenting him. Our first look into Elizabeth’s past back in season one revealed that she was raped by a commander within her spy program who she trusted.
Of course Philip is the first of the Jennings to express vulnerability and exhaustion. Attending EST meetings, showing the weight of the world on his face – all good ways to keep the monster inside him at bay. Elizabeth has had to stay strong for years because it wasn’t the monsters within she was concerned about but rather the monsters everywhere else.
At ease, comrade. Take a break.
As if a revelatory, Elizabeth moment weren’t enough, the rest of “Munchkins” is pretty freaking fantastic too. The main plot here is of course Pastor Tim disappearing on his trip to Ethiopia, which somehow seems strangely predictable in hindsight but I never saw coming when his trip was mentioned in “The Day After.”
Tim’s disappearance naturally causes people to freak out and react in interesting ways, starting with his very pregnant wife Alice. Alice comes to the Jennings household to let them know Tim has gone missing and then she offers up a not-so-veiled threat.
“If you have anything to do with this…I know what you do and I know you have people all over the world,” she stammers. She finds out that Ethiopia is a client state of the U.S.S.R. through the people at the embassy (maybe if they had Google, they would have known that ahead of time) and if Pastor Tim turns up dead or if anything happens to Alice, her lawyer will turn over a tape of her revealing the Jennings’ secrets to the Justice Department.
It’s interesting to watch Alice come to these terrifying realizations about what the Jennings could be capable of. Knowing the truth about undercover Russian spies must have felt pretty cool at first. “Oh look at this terrifyingly wicked, yet undeniably interesting souls to save!” But now the danger is real for poor Alice.
And the danger becomes real for Paige too. “This is pretty good for you,” she says at the Jennings’ dinner table, potentially coming to a realization about what her parents are capable of.
Pastor Tim’s momentary disappearance is great for many reasons, chief among them it’s funny to imagine him just running out of gas in the middle of Ethiopia like a total dipshit. It also, however, might be the beginning of Paige Jennings: super spy.
Shortly after Paige comes to the realization that her parents could be responsible for the death and/or disappearance of an innocent man, she moves on to begin to accept a life of spying whether she’s aware of it or not. First, she meets with Matt Beeman at the Beeman residence and Matt can’t help but begin to spill his dad’s FBI secrets. Without even meaning to, she finds out about Stan meeting with Martha’s dad and opens up an avenue to secure a wealth of more inside FBI knowledge. The moment must be like casually hitting a three pointer the first time you pick up a basketball and thinking “Hmmm, I’m naturally good at this. I should look into cultivating this thing.”
Paige begins the process of cultivating that skill after it’s revealed that Tim is safe. She returns to her parents to apologize, and then adds “I don’t think we should ask Alice for the tape right now.” Paige has been learning this whole time and is finally starting to realize that she has been. Now she trusts her parents enough to begin sharing her input. Philip and Elizabeth know that there is no tape from listening to the wire from Alice’s room but they have to be thrilled that Paige is beginning to trust them.
Speaking of children trusting parents: Kimmy’s back! Kimmy was one of the best aspects of season three and perhaps the strongest example of the hell that these undercover agents have to go through just to maintain a simple wire. Philip as James has managed to stay in Kimmy’s life by having the best weed around so he can continue to switch out the tapes in her dad’s study. Kimmy is only about a year or so older since when they met but she seems centuries older – another consequence of all this espionage.
Her new boyfriend is 17 (her age) but still too “young” she says as she eyes Philip with the most explosive thirst ever filmed. She then shares a “secret” with James. Her dad is in the CIA. She’s happy because it explains her weird upbrining and all the business trips.
“I don’t think you should have told me,” Philip says. “That secret could bring her and her dad closer together but only if you keep it.”
To Philip the most intimate relationships are built through keeping other people’s secrets.
The only aspect of “Munchkins” that falls short is the “Munchkins” aspect itself – that is the ongoings at the FBI. We get our first look at Stan’s new boss, indeed a munckin, himself (played by Peter Jacobson of House). But the real Earth-shattering moment for the FBI happens thousands of miles away in Thailand.
Things seem to be going pretty well for a retired Agent Gad. Until some Russian thugs enter his hotel room. Supposedly they just want to talk but Gad freaks out and runs through a glass door where a broken shard of glass punctures his side and he bleeds out. The sad look on the goons face as he says “I’m sorry” reveals that the boys really did just want to talk. As does Arkady’s devastated reaction when he receives the news.
Still, I’m not sure what that was all about and it’s a jarring dangling plot thread in an otherwise airtight, fascinating episode.
For now, however, we’re left with Stan’s devastated reaction to the news. Gad went way beyond being a mentor figure to Stan. Gad, in his retirement, was a symbol to Stan that there could be a life to all of this nonsense: a new Sandra, a happy son, a happy home. Now that symbol is dead in a Thai hotel room.
Stan is approaching a place where his job will be all he has left … just as there’s a third Jennings spy on the rise that could make that job even more of a living hell.