This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 11
I always assumed the moment that would make Philip and Elizabeth question their values and lifestyle would be fairly benign.
Maybe they would tear up watching Henry graduate from an American university and realize that they can no longer maintain this life of violence and duplicity. Or maybe they would see Die Hard in 1988, realize the supremacy of American culture and hand in their two-week’s notice at the KGB the next day.
I assumed this is the way things would go because The Americans is a subtle show. Major moments occur only between characters’ ears. Elizabeth can experience something simple and transformative like a Mary Kay saleswoman knocking on her door and then never even verbalize why it meant so much to her.
“Dyatkovo” features one of those transformative moments. Hell, it might THE transformative moment. And unlike what I expected it’s neither subtle nor benign.
Henry finally meets the Mail Robot.
Oh, and Philip and Elizabeth shoot some elderly New Englander in the face.
I’ve been wrong before but I suspect the end of “Dyatkovo” represents the real beginning of the end game for The Americans. Some genies cannot be put back into bottles. The violence that Philip and Elizabeth inflict upon two mostly innocent (almost entirely innocent I would argue) people in “Dyatkovo” cannot be undone. Just as importantly (to the show, not the dead people) Elizabeth does something right after that cannot be undone and will be no doubt trigger The Americans’ end game: she uses her god damn words.
Dialogue is one of my favorite aspects of The Americans. It’s not flowery or verbose – it’s simple and real. And much like the dialogue of our real day to day lives the words themselves mean next to nothing. People think they are communicating literally with their words when in reality the words we say are often just an unarticulatedd puzzle for others to parse through and find our real desires. Elizabeth’s words a the end of “Dyatkovo” are clear, however. There’s no need to read into them any further.
“I want to get out of here,” she says. “We should just go. I mean it. Let’s go home.”
Six weeks ago in real-life time, The Americans aired what is still one of its best episodes ever. At the end of “Lotus 1-2-3” Philip is exhausted and broken, having realized he’s killed yet another innocent bystander in this long, increasingly pointless war. Elizabeth approaches him and they have the following exchange.
“Are you ok?” Elizabeth asks.
“That guy in the lab…that can’t happen ever again,” Philip responds.
“We’ll be more careful.”
“More careful? This has been hard for me. For a long time. You know that, right?”
“I do. When we know this kind of thing is coming up, maybe it can just be me?”
“No. No, Elizabeth. It’s us. It’s us.”
No. No, Elizabeth. It’s us. It’s us. That’s one of the most haunting lines ever spoken in The Americans because it communicates everything that is beautiful and terrible about love. Philip and Elizabeth are an impeccable team and impeccable partners. They love each other deeply. They’ve created a happy, shared life with each other under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. That’s beautiful and it’s terrible. It’s terrible because Philip in “Lotus 1-2-3” has reached his limit personally but he understands that Philip and Elizabeth as a team have not. This isn’t over until they’ve both reached their limit.
“It’s us” is Philip emotionally opening the negotiations for withdrawal from this extreme life choice. “I want to get out here,” is Elizabeth joining in six weeks later.
At least Elizabeth follows through on her promise to be the one to pull the trigger this time.
The entire Natalie Granholm mission seems momentous from the start. This is a revenge-killing pure and simple and the team that the KGB turns to to achieve this revenge has no personal connection to the events in question whatsoever. “Dyatkovo” would be like the infamous episode of The Sopranos, “College,” if Tony Soprano had contracted out the killing of the mole to Christopher – even messier and more joyless than revenge always is in the first place.
When Philip and Elizabeth come to Claudia to report on the Morozov mission she supplies them with yet another new one. For as stressed and compromised as Philip seems to be, the bureaucracy of the KGB seems to have little qualms about adding new, torturous tasks to their inbox. Perhaps that’s why they assign all their agents handlers – so they have a friendly, empathetic face to associate with this cold bureaucracy. Problem is that Claudia doesn’t have a friendly, empathetic bone in her body and her vision of comforting Philip involves telling him “yeah, I looked into that virus thing you heard about and it turns out we are actually using that deadly nerve agent against other human beings but it’s cool because we named it after your friend who got it for us. We good or naw?”
Still, Philip and Elizabeth are nothing if not good little soldiers and they take off for Boston to track down this woman who apparently collaborated with Nazis 40 years ago. Philip and Elizabeth promise each other that this time they’re not going to just take the word of their country as law this time. They’re going to do their own investigation to find out if the kind-faced old woman Natalie Granhome really is who the KGB says she is.
The problem as it turns out for Philip and Elizabeth is that Natalie Granhome is precisely who the KGB says she is…and yet she still does not deserve to die. Philip and Elizabeth storm into Natalie’s comfy New England home, point guns at her and demand answers. She provides them with answers once her husband John comes home so as to preserve his life.
Yes, she is who they think she is. She was 16 when the Nazis took her hometown Dyatkovo. They killed her mother and her father. They made her dig trenches to bury all of her countrymen. They made her drink until she couldn’t stand and then forced her to pull the trigger to kill dozens of her friends, family and neighbors.
“Why?” Philip asks.
“There was no reason. Nothing made any sense.”
Nothing made sense. It was war. Natalie was a victim just like almost everyone is in a war. Still, she fits the technical definition of “traitor” as interpreted by a face-less bureaucracy. Philip and Elizabeth’s plan to discover if Natalie really is who she says she is backfires. She is who she says she is. But she’s also innocent. Unfortunately the former takes precedent in the rigid world of revenge. So Elizabeth kills her. And John.
I mentioned The Sopranos earlier as an analogue for this episode but “Dyatkovo” reminds me of another HBO crime classic in The Wire. “Dyatkovo” is as much about the ineffectiveness of organizations as it is about the continual degradation of Philip and Elizabeth’s souls.
Henry’s day at the FBI is fun and we can tell that he is charmed by the experience of working with the “good guys” by his flowery school report on the subject. But as he reads it aloud to Stan, Stan does one of his patented Noah Emmerich winces as he realizes that the idealized vision of what Henry sees at the FBI is nowhere near the grim reality that Stan has lived throughout these five seasons.
Oleg and his department seem to get an easy win when they discover a secret ledger in Lydia’s office detailing all the nefarious dealings in the underground grocery trafficking industry. Still, when they confront Lydia and try to convince her to flip on even more people in the black market she seems bemused by the suggestion.
“It isn’t going to change,” she tells them.
The KGB cannot win this fight because the KGB is well-fed and the rest of the country is not. There is nothing that a bureaucracy with its rules and its logic can do to stop hungry people from getting food regardless of what it takes.
Big organizations fear change just as much as they fear the moral shades of gray that are inherent in any human interactions. Philip and Elizabeth succumb once again to their country and their job’s vision of the world when they kill two gentle, innocent people because their country says they (or one of them, rather) should be dead.
The promise of Elizabeth’s pleas at the end of “Dyatkovo” is that this very well could be the last time they ever do so.