This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 6
Surely, The Americans season 5 episode 6 “Crossbreed” breaks the modern TV record for most characters appearing to seriously contemplate suicide and then deciding against it.
There’s Gabriel, Philip and Elizabeth’s gentle, yet flawed protector fresh off of lying to his charges for the first time and standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial contemplating…something There’s Oleg Bourov, grabbing the incriminating tape that could end his life, walking up to the top of his building and gazing out at the icy Moscow landscape. Hell, there’s even Stan Beeman looking down at a lukewarm stuffed pepper, seemingly not comforted by Henry Jennings assertion that it’s really just a cheeseburger inside of a pepper.
All look ready to die (ok fine: probably not Stan) but instead Gabriel announces he’s retiring and moving back to the homeland, Oleg smashes and burns the tape and Stan digs in to the stuffed pepper after all.
“Crossbreed” finds so many of our beloved Americans at their lowest points. Granted, that qualifies for almost any episode of The Americans but this takes it a step further. Philip and Elizabeth are fresh off the knowledge that they killed an innocent man in an essentially pointless mission.*
*Gabriel does assert that they could still get their hands on that super crop to help the U.S.S.R.’s food problem. But then gives Elizabeth another mission of more importance anyway.
Paige can’t help but begin to poke holes in her parents’s worldview. When Elizabeth walks in to her room and discovers she’s reading Pastor Tim’s copy of Marx’s writing, Paige has some questions.
“Is everybody equal?” Paige asks about Communist Russia.
“We have our problems but everybody is in it together,” Elizabeth says.
“You haven’t been there in a long time.”
“That’s what your dad says.”
Paige’s father is at his lowest point and everyone seems to know it. When Elizabeth reports to Gabriel about the nature of their failed mission with AgriCorp., Gabriel astutely wants to know Philip’s reaction to having killed an innocent man at once. Elizabeth tries to play it off as though they’re both equally bummed but that doesn’t fool Gabriel or Claudia.
Later Philip decides that if Gabriel is really retiring and heading back to Russia it’s a prime opportunity to ask him some questions about all of the memory flashes he’s been having lately. Who was his father? Philip can’t stop remembering all the random items his father would bring home. He can’t stop remembering how other people in his community just seemed to reflexively hate him and his siblings despite having never really met them.
Philip’s mother told him his father was a logger. Was he a logger, he asks Gabriel?
“He was a guard,” Gabriel responds. “In a prison camp.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t think it was my place to tell you.”
“Did he ever kill anyone?”
Gabriel doesn’t answer the question and then offers. “He was nobody. We were all nobodies.”
So for the second time in two episodes Philip Jennings/ Mikhail/Whoever the fuck he is can only sit alone in silence and stare blankly ahead, processing just how this all could have happened. Why this all happened to him.
There is pain everywhere in “Crossbreed.” It’s in the Jennings’ garage as Philip tells Elizabeth “I didn’t know anything. My own parents. I didn’t know anything about them at all.” It’s on the playground as Stan and Aderholt approach an ex-KGB agent and offer her child the promise of a better, safer life. It’s at the front door when a Mary Kay saleswoman gives Elizabeth her card, reminding her of the devastation she brought upon Young Hee’s family. And for what? All of it. All of this. For what?
Normally, The Americans is at its best when its characters are in pain. That’s when it is its most honest and real and frightening. The moments in “Crossbreed” in which its characters suffer the burden of this difficult, confusing life are all uniformly excellent. The episode, itself, however, can never fully congeal around them.
“Crossbreed” is a series of barely connected moments of pure despondance. The acting, the writing and the direction remain as strong as ever in presenting these characters very real moral quandaries and struggles. This is all important. This is all leading to something extreme (or perhaps in true Americans fashion: satisfyingly anticlimactic). The disconnection between those moments just happen to make “Crossbreed” the weakest episode of the season yet.
That’s not a felony. One episode by default has to be the worst of the season so far and it makes sense that it would come somewhere near the middle. Certainly this is all exacerbated by the show airing one of its best ever episodes last week.*
*Honestly, the more I think about “Lotus 1-2-3” the more I think it might be the best episode the show has ever done. I can’t get that image of a disguised Philip, poking at a Big Mac, all the sins of the world nestled uncomfortably on his ribcage.
The situation actually reminds me of Mad Men a bit (something that any show should be delighted to hear). Mad Men creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner once said in an interview (with the Nerdist at about 32 minutes in) that he and the writing staff were a little taken aback that everyone considered the season four episode “The Suitcase” to be an all-time classic. He actually thought that, if anything, the episode after it “The Summerman” would be the one that audiences and critics pointed to as a season high.
I sense a similar situation with “Lotus 1-2-3” and “Crossbreed.” “Crossbreed” has a cooler name and more moments of pure misery. It seems logically like it should be the bigger step of the two in Philip and Elizabeth’s descent into agony and/or severe change.
“Lotus 1-2-3” is the clear stronger of the two, however, because it boils all the pain, confusion, hypocrisy and mistakes in the world down to one mission and one moment. The plot gets in line behind that moment and gives the episode a hierarchy and rhythm that is equal parts creatively satisfying and emotionally devastating.
Also, there’s satisfying anticlimax and there’s…whatever the ending to this episode is. No amount of sick Peter Gabriel jams can make up for what is such a strange, offbeat conclusion in which Oleg conducts his not-suicide and Paige meets Gabriel for the first time. Obviously, Paige meeting Gabriel is a huge moment but it seems out of place here.
Especially after all the pain and confusion and revelations about prison guard fathers. If anything, the moment deserves more room to breathe.
Still, this remains an excellent episode of TV and and episode show. Each passing episode of season 5 feels like it’s building to something radical and special. It’s widening gyre time and no amount of psychiatrist side quests or Mischa setbacks can distract from this moral center and it’s inability to hold.