This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 13
I’ve been thinking a lot about Shakespeare lately.
Party because of This American Life recently reran its excellent episode in which inmates perform the bloody final act of Hamlet and partly because I’m probably never not thinking about Shakespeare on some barely conscious level. This thought process has unlocked a memory from middle school that has ended up being far more transformative than I realized.
My 8th grade language arts teacher was an old teaching vet (and I think actual veteran). Mr. Ciborek was a paradoxically goofy yet stern guy who never seemed able to quit teaching. My mom told me that Ciborek kept retiring and the school kept begging him to come back like an aging action hero star. He looked like Santa if Santa kept his beard reasonably trimmed and hit the gym every now and then.
Anyway, Mr. Ciborek taught our class Romeo and Juliet Before we even began reading, Mr. Ciborek asked us a question.
“What’s the name of this play?”
Nice try, Dave, we know that answer. Easy points. “Romeo and Juliet” someone confidently replied.
“Wrong. Look at the front of your book.”
“Oh, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.”
“Correct. This play is called The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Not “The Romance of Romeo and Juliet,” not the “The Love of Romeo and Juliet.” It’s the Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
“What these kids do at the end of the play is STUPID,” he bellowed in his astonishingly virile and well-practiced teacher-voice.
The point that Ciborek was trying to make is that this should not be an aspirational text for us. Apparently he one day read a story about two kids who committed suicide like their heroes Romeo and Juliet and ever since then he opened the class with that discussion and disclaimer.
The point that I took away, however, was: “there’s such a genre as a tragedy?” I knew tragedy existed as a concept in real life and I knew that tragedy was often utilized as a plot point in fiction but I never considered that it could be the whole point of fiction. I knew of actions and dramas and comedies and mysteries and many other genres I saw on TV and at the movies. I only knew of “tragedy” as a facet within say a drama or a mystery – I never knew that in Shakespeare’s day oftentimes “tragedy” was the whole point of a story.
Anywho, welcome to the final review of The Americans season 5. It’s called “The Soviet Division.” It may as well be called “The Tragedy of Philip and Elizabeth.”
This is a frustrating finale, much like many of the show’s previous finales. It’s also easily the best finale the show has ever done and in my estimation one of its best ever episodes. “The Soviet Division” is a giant tease. Philip and Elizabeth talk more about leaving the U.S. for Moscow. They talk and talk and talk (not unlike a certain Dane from another Shakespeare play) and then they eventually decide to leave. They carry on through the rest of the episode as though they’re going to leave. Every interaction they have with other characters carries with it a non-spoken, implicit goodbye. Then sometime comes up…like it always does. Elizabeth says she cannot leave. She tells Philip he should still quit. Philip doesn’t respond. End of episode. End of season.
This is all very frustrating and anticlimactic. And that’s the point. In “The Soviet Division” The Americans finally reveals its true self after all this time. The inaction isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. This isn’t a drama, it’s a tragedy.
The story of The Americans is the story of two individuals and their tragic flaws. Only in this case those tragic flaws are technically their near superhuman skills. Philip and Elizabeth are so professional, so competent, so dedicated, so smart and so utterly committed to country, cause and each other that it’s going to destroy them and everything they love.
Their love of country brought them to a different country. Their love of their cause placed them directly in danger. And their love for each other is going to keep them there.
“The Soviet Division” resolves Pasha’s suicide attempt relatively quickly. Philip, Elizabeth and Tuan as the Eckerts reach the Morozov household and knock on the door. Nobody answers. Before Philip can go around back and break in Alexei and Evgenhiya arrive home and invite them inside. Tuan goes upstairs to see Pasha and immediately calls for help.
The aftermath of Pasha’s suicide attempt is the most affecting, intense part of the episode and perhaps the season. The show is smart to let it extend on just a bit longer than we expected. The camera operators and editors and writers don’t let us cut away once the ambulance has arrived to take Pasha away. No, we have to follow Philip and Alexei upstairs to Pasha’s room, where his comforter is still covered in blood, to retrieve some clothes for the hospital. There Alexei finds a letter Pasha left behind.
“He say he love us. Not want to make so bad for us. Life here. He says he’s sorry but he cannot live in America.”
Philip knows a thing or two about being unable to live in America. The only thing that’s keeping him here is his love for his wife. And it breaks his heart once he learns that Pasha has convinced his mother to let them move back to Russia but his father cannot. He’s too afraid.
“Claudia, this family could stay together,” Philip says trying to convince the Center to give Alexei more assurances that everything will be fine if he comes home. Claudia says that cannot be done.
“We almost killed their son and now we’re sending them back to be blackmailed. Do we have to destroy this family too?”
Yes. Yes, you do. Because this is a tragedy and tragedies have sick senses of humor. The destruction that Philip leaves in his path has to be in the very form of the thing he supposedly cherishes the most: family.
Family is important and love is important. But in a tragedy they’re both used like weapons against the innocent. After the Pasha ordeal, Tuan gives his overly honest assessment to the Jennings. He says his report will make clear that they jeopardized this operation with their “petty bourgeoisie concerns.” Elizabeth tells Philip to leave the room so she can talk to Tuan.
“Since we’re being honest here there’s something you should know,” Elizabeth tells him. “You’re not going to make it. It’s too hard – the work we do – to do it alone. One day it will all come crashing down.”
Tuan says he’s happy working alone but Elizabeth is adamant: call the center and get them to send you someone…anyone.
We all want someone. The Soviet Union understands this than better than any other entity. It’s the fundamental bedrock that makes their spy program in the U.S. work. Philip and Elizabeth build relationships and exploit them. It’s cynical but it’s the truth. It’s why the Russians take Martha to a little park in Moscow and introduce her to the little girl who will soon become her daughter, Olya. Straight up giving Martha an orphan child is manipulative to the point that it’s borderline cruel. It’s also perfect. It’s everything that Martha needs in the universe: someone else.
The Soviet Union appears to be doing the same with Stan. “The Soviet Division” doesn’t outright reveal that Renee is a Soviet plant to manipulate Stan but it does offer up some more intriguing evidence.
Stan tells Renee he’s thinking of leaving the FBI – or at least his division of the FBI. He doesn’t like the work he’s doing with Sofia. He doesn’t trust it. Even though Sofia’s new fiance passed his polygraph with flying colors the whole thing still feels manipulative and dangerous to Stan. “It just feels shitty and I’m tired of feeling shitty,” Stan says, ever the mirror image of his best friend, Philip Jennings.
Renee smiles and says that Stan is a good person. Then she adds.
“Not many people care like you do,” I can’t help but think your department needs someone like you who will stand up and push back when something’s wrong. And if you don’t do it, who will?”
If you don’t, who will? Love is the death of duty, a famous Maester at the Wall once said and it’s a lesson the Soviets have taken to heart. First, give them someone…anyone. And if love doesn’t work, fail back to duty. Philip and Elizabeth aren’t the only players in this tragedy, Stan Beeman is just as bound to damnation by his own competence, his own passion, his own ability to give a damn as the Jennings are.
So much of “The Soviet Division” feels like a series finale before the final, brutally benign twist of fate. As Stan leaves the racquetball court and looks back at Stan and Renee it really does feel like it’s the last time he’s ever going to see his American friend. Later on, Kimmy cries when she finds out her cool, age-inappropriate friend Jim might be moving to Japan. “It’s a never-ending saga,” Pastor Tim says about his many goodbyes to his parishioners. To which Paige responds “except there’s an end.”
But there really isn’t an end, Paige. Not in this purgatorial cosmic straight jacket of obligation and devotion that Philip and Elizabeth wear. After Kimmy’s party, Philip listens to the 20 hours of tape he took from her father’s suitcase. As Philip is brushing his teeth, listening to the recording he gets a bit of news that will no doubt change his life forever. Kimmy’s dad is moving on up: the the Soviet Division.
Philip drives out to the Potomac with the tape and considers throwing it out into oblivion but he cannot. He’s too competent, too dedicated, too good.
Like any good Boy Scout he returns to Elizabeth and tells her the news.
“It’s not just me having a hard time,” he tells her. “It’s you too. We’re allowed to have a life.” Maybe they can find someone else to work the Kimmy angle so that the Jennings can finally go home.
Elizabeth waits a moment and then says the most devastating thing uttered on The Americans up to this point.
“I can’t. I just can’t.”
The head of the Soviet Division is just too big. It’s what Philip and Elizabeth came here for in the first place. It’s their white whale. It’s the kind of access to intelligence that could forever change the Cold War.
Elizabeth then offers Philip concessions. Maybe he can stop. Maybe the only job he has to do is to collect the tapes from Kimmy.
“You need me, Elizabeth.”
There’s the tragedy. It’s like Elizabeth told Tuan: nobody can do this alone. Elizabeth can’t do this alone and Philip loves her too much not to let her do this alone. It’s an unsolvable problem created by Philip and Elizabeth’s superior espionage skills and exacerbated by the love and empathy they’re capable of.
The Americans’ series finale is coming soon. Season six will be the final season and episode 10 will be the final episode. Maybe the “real” finale will be wildly momentous and conclusive. Still, I can easily imagine a world in which many years from now my lasting memory of the entire series is the oppressive tragicness of “The Soviet Division.”