This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 7
“I can’t tell you Paige how much I’ve been looking forward to this day,” Gabriel says to Paige at the beginning of “The Committee on Human Rights.”
“Are you a spy?” she asks.
And then he adds: “Your parents probably drive you crazy because they’ve driven me crazy from time to time. But to us they’re heroes. They’ve saved lives. They’ve stood for something larger than themselves.”
That’s how “The Committee on Human Rights” begins. With that simple, transactional converstaion between a young girl and the grandfather-figure she’s meeting for the very first time. Their conversation is simple despite the signifiance. Paige’s question to Gabriel isn’t particularly insightful. Of course he’s a spy, he works with her spy parents. Gabriel’s joke to her about her annoying parents is painfully corny and awkward. As is his hasty assurances that what they do for a living truly matters.
And it’s perfect. It’s all perfect.
One of the mistakes people make in assessing good writing or good dialogue is assuming that flowery, verbose and profound is better. Sometimes it is. Sometimes the situation calls for it. More often than not. however, it’s the simple and awkward that becomes profound.
Paige meeting Gabriel is a big deal. Gabriel will never forget it for the rest of his life. Neither will Philip or Elizabeth. Paige’s memory of the event might be hazier. Regardless of how smart she is, she’s still young and cannot fully grasp the significance of her parents fully integrating her into their secret work family. Still, I don’t know if any of the parties involved will remember the words spoken during their meeting.
Why would they? “Are you a spy?” “Yes” “Your parents annoy me” isn’t the kind of thing one writes in their journal at the end of the day or chooses as their epitaph. The words will be lost to memory and to history. We get to experience though – the audience. And to us they sound like the most important things in the world. Because for one fleeting moment they are. The dialogue is the soundtrack to one of the biggest moments of Paige Jennings’ life and we get to see it. We also get to see how everyone reacts to the words. How Philip and Elizabeth avert each other’s gaze when Gabriel mentions the lives they’ve saved because they remember the innocent life they took just weeks earlier. And later, after the meeting, we get to see the flicker of pride and fear in Philip and Elizabeth’s eyes when Paige astutely asks like a real spy “He doesn’t live there, does he?” He didn’t have any pictures up after all.
Of course, I’m being a little pedantic now. These are small, seemingly insignificant moments in a 44-minute long episode of television. Regardless of how long-winded I want to be, I can’t break down every line of dialogue in “The Committee on Human Rights.” Though I want to. The dialogue in this show and characters’ respective reactions to it is so often where the beauty and perfection comes in this show.
If there ever were an episode of The Americans to get pedantic over the little details over, it’s “The Committee on Human Rights.” “The Committee on Human Rights” is probably the kind of Americans episode that most non-Americans converts assume every episode to be. It’s anticlimactic and a touch humorless. It seems kind of like an end to an unofficial trilogy that began two weeks ago with the “Lotus 1-2-3” reveal that the Americans weren’t destroying crops and even then there is little resolution in this arbitrary trilogy.
Stan and Aderholt make some progress with ex-KGB Sofia Kovalenko but can’t quite seal the deal on bringing her in thanks to Stan’s awful FBI bedside manner. We also still don’t know what’s up with Stan’s girlfriend Renee. Gabriel exasperatedly tells Philip that he’s being paranoid and to his knowledge she’s not a Russian agent. But we don’t know what she is. Surely, there can’t be an attractive middle-aged woman who likes sports and beer! It’s inconceivable.
Philip and Elizabeth nominally finish their mission to secure the super crop for Soviet use when they head down to S-Town, Mississippi.* Though it only leads to more questions. Why is Ben suddenly a cheating asshole and how couldn’t Elizabeth see it coming? Also why won’t she simply admit that she likes him?
*Ok the real S-Town is in Alabama but I’m just gonna ride this sweet podcast wave for a bit wherever I can.
And of course every mission’s end means the beginning of another. Elizabeth succeeds in breaking into the therapist’s office and grabbing some documents titled “The Committee on Human Rights.” Gabriel later tells Philip that they’re gathering some information on party enemies back home. Where will that go? Especially with Philip’s gradual progression towards enemy of the state.
All of these are things that happen in “The Committee on Human Rights.” But they’re not what matter. They matter in the grand scheme of the Cold War. They matter in that they are fresh chapters into the ongoing hell of duty that Philip and Elizabeth must contend with. What matters for the show, however, is in the quiet moments. When there’s just a handful of soft-spoken dialogue and characters’ subsequent reactions to it. The dialogue doesn’t matter because the characters mean what they say. Nobody ever has a handle on what the hell they’re saying, whether on The Americans or in life. Ultimately, that’s what makes the words important. The dialogue on this show and in this episode is poetic and profound in its continued ability to show that absolutely no one knows what they’re talking about or what their feeling other than that something is wrong and everything hurts.
“Hi dad. How was your trip? Were you working on your grain thing?” – Paige asks Philip when he returns home from being sonned by Deirdre.*
*I feel like I might be alone in this but I can’t get enough of Deirdre’s incredibly low bullshit tolerance with Philip. If the U.S. government had Deirdres installed at every level, then it would be impenetrable to attacks from sexy Russians.
Philip’s reaction communicates exactly how I feel and how I assume we all feel: it’s so jarring to hear Paige now talk about her parents’ work so openly. It’s been normalized. Which makes it devastating. The Americans can go “big” when it needs to. Gabriel telling poor Mischa on a park bench that he can’t see his father is melodramatic yet brilliantly so. Paige’s simple open acknowledgement of her parents’ mission is just as dramatic in a sense.
Later on, Philip gets his turn at innocuous yet devastating drama. Paige breaks up with Matthew, which is shockingly painful in ways I couldn’t expect. Both Paige and Matthew feel like monsters, which I suppose isn’t an uncommon thing for teenagers ravaged by puberty. But in this case, both of their parents essentially lie for a living and what that has done to their respective psyches is apparent.
“I’m not like my dad,” Matthew says. “If I did something wrong I’ll fix it.”
Then he grabs for Paige’s hand and she reflexively hits him and walks away, weeping.
When Philip gets the news about the break up, he walks into Paige’s room, sits on her bed and tells her: “I still think you’re a beautiful girl. In time…you’ll get used to these things.”
What…the hell is that, Philip? As presented on the page their stark and lonely, it’s a stupid thing to say. But in context it somehow works because Philip legitimately loves his daughter. He could have said virtually any empty, aspirational phrase and as long as he said it with love it wouldn’t have mattered. The dialogue on this show is brilliant because it doesn’t matter. Only the subtext does…which in turns imbues that seemingly meaningless dialogue with all the importance in the world.
The exception, however, is with Gabriel. Gabriel may begin the episode with empty phrases and bad jokes to Paige because he cannot find the words to communicate just how big a moment this is for him. But in his goodbyes to Elizabeth and then Philip, he’s poignant – both in subtext and text.
“Gabriel, why are you leaving?” Elizabeth bluntly asks Gabriel, rightfully assuming there’s a reason he’s not telling them. Gabriel doesn’t tell Elizabeth that he lied to her and Philip about Mischa but what he does say is true all the same.
“It adds up. Some of it’s ok. Some of it isn’t. But it adds up.”
It adds up. Man, if this show were to ever have a more appropriate tagline, I can’t think of one.
Then it Philip’s turn to say goodbye to Gabriel. With that one extreme exception aside, Gabriel is proud to have never lied to the Jennings. Anything that Philip wanted to know that he didn’t know is because he didn’t ask, not because Gabriel lied or withheld. Well, Philip is ready to ask.
“You said when you were younger you did terrible things. What things?” he asks.
“It was bad,” Gabriel says. ’It was worse than you could imagine. People were shot. Worked to death in the camps. Some were counter-revolutionaries. Some…some hadn’t done anything. They were just people.”
Gabriel says he killed people to make an example. He says that he realizes now he was just scared. They all were.
Philip doesn’t react to this information, he just takes it all in.
Then when it’s time for Gabriel to leave forever, he turns and offers Philip the most provocative line of dialogue in the entire episode.
“You were right about Paige. She should be kept out of all of this.”
How can she though? When after all she tells Pastor Tim that she finally believes in something bigger than herself. Which leads to the second most provocative line of the episode.
“Have you been praying?”