This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 5
Hey, this is a good show.
Obviously that is a thought I’ve encountered quite a few times in the five seasons I’ve watched The Americans. But for some reason it rattled around my brain in giant, glowing neon letters throughout almost the entirety of “Lotus 1-2-3”
“Lotus 1-2-3” actually starts kind of slowly. In the first five to ten minutes or so it becomes clear why so many people have avoided the show altogether. It can be just straight up hard to follow.
We begin with Philip posing as Gus Alexander and AgriCorp exec Deirdre in Topeka. And then cycle right to Elizabeth posing as Mrs. Eckert with Pashas’ mom, Evgheniya Morozova. For those keeping count at home that represents our two main characters operating under different names and interacting with other characters with names like “Deirdre” and “Evgheniya Morozova” who just popped up this season. That’s a lot to keep track of for even the staunchest of Americans supporters.
Then Philip as Gus finally bangs Deirdre by exploiting her love for bureaucratic organization tools and the show is right back on track. HOW DARE YOU DOUBT MY BOY PHILIP’S GAME FOR EVEN A SECOND. PHILIP IS A GOD DAMN CLOSER. PHILIP GETS IT INNNNNNNNNNNNNN. EVEN IF IT MEANS LISTENING TO NONSENSE ABOUT LOTUS 1-2-3.*
*Allow me a digression on Lotus and all of its wonderful products. Lotus 1-2-3 is actually a kind of early Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program. I can’t speak to its efficacy because it’s been long discontinued but at my day job we used the email application Lotus Notes and the instant messenger app Lotus Sometime. Both were awesome but then Lotus got acquired by IBM and now we have to use dumb old Microsoft and I miss my Notes and Sametimes every day.
From that moment on, The Americans is at its best, and not just because we stand in awe of Philip’s sexual prowess. It’s because this show, this beautifully crafted show, knows how to produce an episode with virtually no filler, no extraneous parts and where all the dramatic pieces fit together.
“Lotus 1-2-3” is all about revelations – the monumentous, the subtle, the seemingly inconsequential and every other kind of revelation you can think of. It’s all about wanting to ignore reality as much as you can and reality just knocking down door after door to stop it.
Let’s start with Henry. The Americans gets wonderfully meta this week when it finally acknowledges what we’ve loved to poke fun at for years now: no one really knows what that Henry kid is up to. The Jennings’ youngest child gets very sparse screen time, mostly due to the limitations of child acting. Keidrich Sellati is fine in the role but certainly not strong enough to carry the burden that Holly Taylor does with Paige.
So The Americans turns that weakness into a strength by making the narrative reason why we don’t see Henry that much is that Philip and Elizabeth have just kind of been shitty parents. Between the numerous missions they’ve been going on and the continuing “training” of Paige, they really haven’t had much time for Henry. And in the meantime, Henry’s spent that time away from his parents’ attention by getting really, really good at math.
It’s funny to watch how shocked Philip and Elizabeth are at this news. They try to play it off with each other like “well, who knew!” but there is a deeper level of discomfort playing just below the surface. How did they miss this? How did they miss something so simple as their younger child being good at math. That’s just one sacrifice they’ve made for their country and their cause and many more realizations like this are to come.
On a much smaller level, Philip is starting to get a little more rattled by Stan’s relationship. Stan has just started working on something important at work: the recruiting of KGB agents on the street and Philip, while he doesn’t know that detail, can’t quite but become suspicious about Stan’s new paramour, Renee.
Renee is awesome and perfect for Stan. She’s like a parody of male-centric ’80s movie cool chicks. A girl who likes sports?!?!? No wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, bro! It seems too good to believe and Philip thinks exactly that so he starts to trail Renee. He thinks the Rezidentura might have been using information the Jennings collected on Stan against him.
Which begs the question: why does Philip care? Maybe it’s just because after the Henry episode, Philip has come to realize that actions have consequences. Ignore your son: become surprised when he excels in school. Spy on your neighbor: that neighbor might get in serious trouble. It’s like Philip and Elizabeth have been living in this sepia-toned American dream world where they don’t have to confront the reality that they’re apart of a war. In practice, Philip is as American as anyone, save for his charmingly terrible football throwing while running routes with Tuan.
At least Philip’s dismissal of Henry and Stan led to undiscovered math skills and a hot girlfriend. Philip’s relationship with Paige is fraught for another reason. While Elizabeth is getting eaten out in Topeka (more on that later, obviously), Philip and Paige are back home eating lukewarm Chinese food and Paige decides to tell her father a little more about her relationship with Matthew.
When she first met him, she had a crush on him and never dreamed he’d ever like her back. But then he did. Now, she explains ““I was kind of hoping with all the garbage in my life, he would make me feel better but it only makes me feel worse though. I don’t know if it’s because Matthew’s not right for me or…I’m already so screwed up…maybe I’m just meant to be alone.”
That’s…that’s bleak, Paige. One could argue that it’s the typical teenage girl level of bleakness but it’s also not a stretch that being told her parents are Russian spies and she can no longer date the only guy she wants to date might have something to do with it.
Philip and Elizabeth were so fucking foolish to think they could continue this job without harming their children. What are their values? What are their priorities? It’s certainly something that Philip has to ponder as he pokes at that Chinese food. Still, the nightmare of constant, life-upending revelations and realizations is not over. Let’s go back to Topeka to more.
Elizabeth’s AgriCorp boo Ben has always seemed to be nothing but a solid dude. This episode he makes a lovely Egyptian meal and regales Elizabeth with stories of his time in Egypt. He’s even annoyingly self-effacing enough to know when he’s prattling on too long. God damn it, he’s the best. Thankfully, Elizabeth has been able to keep herself from developing any affection for him by reminding herself that he’s a monster working to keep food out of Russia children’s mouths.
Yeah about that.
It turns out that the work Deirdre and Ben do at AgriCorp is really to create pest-resistant crops and be able to feed the world more cheaply and effectively. This is obviously big news to Elizabeth who must confront not only is her country’s intelligence wrong but this Ben guy really is that sexy.
Of course, things are even worse for Philip, as they usually are for fortune’s favorite fool. When Philip broke an AgriCorp scientist’s spine two weeks ago, it seemed like just another entry in the long list of government spooks Philip Jennings has been forced to kill. When Elizabeth presents Philip with her findings, he realizes that he’s killed an innocent person…yet again…yet a-fucking-gain.
Philip throws on his Eckert garb and heads over to Tuan’s with some McDonalds. Virtually every scene of this episode is on my list of favorite Americans scenes ever. They’re all so subtle and so brilliant. But the hurt that Philip radiates when looking at his Big Mac is, for whatever reason, something I’ll not soon forget. The pain and devastation is so real and here he is, looking at a piece of food that provides hundred and hundreds of nourishing calories that costs next to nothing.
This is what it’s all about. There are people fucking starving and that’s why Russia was so afraid. The Americans could end this war within seconds if they contaminated the little food the U.S.S.R. had left. But no, we’re just happy over here with our amber waves of grain and dollar menu fries and this damn Big Mac is going to make me think of that one guy I wrongfully killed forever.
“Are you ok?” Elizabeth asks when she arrives.
“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.”
It is them. They’re participating in this whole farce together. Every decision they make has the potential to get people hurt. And every decision they don’t make has the potential to do the same. Even the times, when they aren’t even aware a decision is there to be made, people are getting hurt. Like poor Mischa, when he’s told it will be impossible for him to see his father.* Philip wasn’t even aware of this but he’s complicit. Because this is his life and these are the rules of engagement he’s agreed to.
*What a phenomenal scene. I was utterly heartbroken for Mischa.
Why do we watch TV as opposed to say a movie? A big answer has to be the time investment, right? TV has more time to work with and that presents exciting new narratives possibilities and challenges. For The Americans, that time investment is never a challenge, only a boon. The time we’ve spent with Elizabeth and Philip for these five years now has presented an interesting situation.
The more that time goes on and the more the show goes one, the more the excuses Philip and Elizabeth have to continue indulging this danger lifestyle slips away. The more time we spend the more mistakes are made, the more innocent people are killed and the more it becomes unavoidable the damage Philip and Elizabeth are doing to themselves and those close to them.
That’s TV, my friends. The continual and gradual removal of excuses until we eventually discover which spare bits of humanity are left.