This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 8
Philip is the squeaky wheel of The Americans. Therefore he gets all our critical grease.*
*Oh my God. Ew. Oh my God.
Philip is almost always abjectly miserable. And if there is anything that a human being can pick up in another human being’s face: it’s misery. Even in his quietest, most innocuous moments, Philip’s emotions pop off the screen. In the opening moments of “Immersion” we see Philip immediately following his jarring meeting with Gabriel. Maybe it’s just a trick of the shadows on his night drive but he legitimately looks 100 years old – just broken down and bruised from this life of secrets and sudden, inescapable violence. It builds, as Gabriel would say.
Philip arrives home and walks upstairs (miserably) to chat with Elizabeth. He asks how Paige is faring post breakup. Fine, Elizabeth responds. She thinks this break-up with Matthew will probably stick. How did Philip’s meeting with Gabriel go? Not fine. Philip is glad Gabriel is gone.
“I just think when it comes down to things. Us or…I don’t know,” he says. Then he tells Elizabeth that Gabriel echoes Philip’s assessment that Paige should have no part of this life.
“Wouldn’t it be a nice world if nobody had to do this?” Elizabeth says.
That’s not the response we were looking for, Liz.
Philip is the squeaky wheel of The Americans and therefore the easier of the two Jennings to examine and analyze. His motivations and feelings are clear. This, all of it, is weighing on him and we are watching him deflate under it. Elizabeth on the other hand … what do we make of her?
Philip and Elizabeth are The Americans’ crown jewels. They’re the show’s finest creative achievements in a series full of fine creative achievements. Philip, the broken; Elizabeth, the hardened. Still, regardless of their exterior they are both incredibly flawed and hurt deep down in their Soviet psyches. It’s just not always apparent where Elizabeth is hiding her pain.
“Immersion” gives us perhaps our best (yet still not perfectly clear) look into Elizabeth Jennings yet. And I want to explore that further but first we’ve got to take a little feminist detour. That’s right, Internet, put on your Bechdel reading glasses and your Jane Fonda wraparound shawl: we’re going unpacking.
The absolute worst adjective in the world for good female characters in art is “strong.” Fuck strength. Superman is strong and Superman blows. A good character needs flaws, vulnerability and contradictions, regardless of sex or gender. At first glance one could be forgiven for assuming Elizabeth is a stock “strong” female character. After all, she is strong both physically and emotionally. She tackles her violent, terrifying work with a kind of steely resolve that would make Lenin proud. It’s not until you spend more time with the series, however, that her cracks start to show. The cracks in her happy Russian spy façade pop up in the most unexpected ways. Like when a Mary Kay stops by and she is harshly reminded of how badly she destroyed her only friend’s life. Or when she is clearly visibly bothered by Ben Stobert “cheating” on her but can’t admit it. And then again when she can’t help but suppress a little smile when Philip cancels his date with Deirdre after she cancels hers with Ben.
These are just cracks though. Where is the real Elizabeth Jennings? Where is the raw collection of misery and pain that constitute most human beings?
The answer is complex as it must be. There cannot be a simple answer for richly realized, complex characters. Still, “Immersion” helps us with a few reminders.
Paige is taking her combat training more serious than ever. She seems discouraged by her progress but to the average Americans viewer she may as well be Jason Bourne. Still, Paige is frustrating with the amount of fear and discomfort that she still feels. So Elizabeth shares something important with her. She tells Paige that she was raped when she was 18 (though leaves out the fact that it was a Soviet general who assaulted her). Paige’s empathetic response reveals just how fundamentally good she is and that for all their flaws, Philip and Elizabeth somehow managed to be half-decent parents. Interestingly as well, this is the first time that Elizabeth has acknowledged her rape out loud since season 1.
While the trauma of sexual assault is a disturbingly common reality for many women, I understand the modern trend to avoid it as a plotline in TV shows and movies. Even putting the word “plotline” too close to “sexual assault” feels reductive and shitty. When introduced into a narrative incorrectly as it often is, rape and sexual assault often feels just like the missing factor in an equation to determine why a female character is damaged. 2 + x = Complex character. Insert various sexual trauma for x. Therefore I want to tread lightly in asserting that Elizabeth’s trauma is the primary reason for her steely exterior and her utter devotion to cause and country. But it clearly is a big part. And The Americans has gone about depicting it the right way. The show almost never addresses it because Elizabeth never addresses it. To anyone who has watched since moment one, we know it’s there: the pain and the fear lurking behind Elizabeth’s eyes in every scene.
People are complicated and their motivations are complicated. Undoubtedly Elizabeth has many factors in her personality and upbringing that make her more dedicated and let’s say, less expressive than Philip. Still, that one moment when she was 18 must factor in in some way.
The Americans is remarkable when it comes to background detail and context. I’m not referring to things that happen in the literal background of shots but rather memories and moments that are seen or experienced once but only exists as ghosts in the viewers’ minds in later episodes. Elizabeth’s trauma is just one example. Another comes to light after the Jennings meet their new post-Gabriel handler.
Surprise! It’s their old handler. Philip and Elizabeth have a chilly first meeting with Claudia. Philip tries to draw a line in the sand based on their less than ideal previous experiences.
“Let’s do this a little differently from now on,” he says.
“How would you like to do it?”
“You tell us what to do and we’ll do it.”
“You don’t want anybody inside your heads. Fair enough. Not my strong suit anyway.”
When Elizabeth meets with Claudia alone she’s a little more forthcoming. Elizabeth is there to tell Claudia that in spying on Evgheniya Morozov and her supposed immersion Russian class for CIA agents they discovered that Evgheniya is just having a garden variety affair. This is good news to Claudia as now the center can get Evgheniya and this CIA agent Bruce back to Moscow for closer surveillance. Then the topic turns to the normal catch up now that the aloof Philip isn’t present. How is Paige, Claudia asks Elizabeth and assures her it’s out of mere curiosity.
“I want her to believe in something,” Elizabeth says.
“Is that what Philip wants too?” Claudia asks.
“We don’t talk about it that much?”
Holy shit, that’s right. And like a lightning bolt in episode 8 of season 5 it hits me that Philip and Elizabeth have never truly resolved this what to do with Paige thing. They broach the topic. They say their piece here and there. But Elizabeth continues to train Paige in combat, inching her closer to a life of espionage and violence and Philip just kind of gently tries to nudge her back.
Thing is though that the Jennings marriage has never been stronger. They’re a team. Nothing will separate them at this point. They just happen to fundamentally disagree on the single most important issue in the world to them.
That’s not bad writing or inconsistency. That’s just pure, uncut humanity. Contradiction. Everything can be bright, cheery and perfect and completely broken to the core all at once. The best part is that the show has had the restraint all along to let this simmer in the background just like the Jennings are.
“Immersion” is a remarkably context-dependent episode of television. I suppose that makes sense for a show eight episodes in to its penultimate season. It’s just interesting to think about and to watch scenes that appear to go nowhere but in reality are remarkable in the context of the rest of the show.
When Oleg’s apartment is searched by Directorate K we have the added context of knowing that he has disposed of the incriminating tape the CIA had on him. What is this then? No one seems to know. Not his father or his boss. Though it appears to have something to do with his mother and his researching her time at the camps. Just like how Gabriel and Philip’s father worked at the aforementioned camps.
Then there is the most seemingly discursive plot of all: Stan and Aderholt’s continued wooing of KGB worker Ms. Kovalenko. Kovalenko’s meeting with Stan and Aderholt at a museum is damn near inscrutable plot-wise. It’s almost like the Mike Yanagita scene in Fargo (the movie). Why is this here? What is this trying to communicate? Thankfully, due to the magic of being a pervert I have a theory of my own. As I watch this soft-spoken Russian woman inquire about maybe getting some new dental work in return for her spying I can’t help but think “wow, this is an adorable woman.” Then I realize that if that thought has crossed my mind it’s undoubtedly crossed world-class perv Stan Beeman’s mind. Kovalenko is not unlike another pretty Russian informant Stan once held sway over. This could be another opportunity for Agent Beeman to save Nina Krilova’s life.
Context matters. It matters to Deirdre. As it turns out her plea to Philip to be more assertive really means “admit to me that I’m the other woman in an affair so I can feel excited again.” It matters to Elizabeth when she agrees with Tuan that the key to getting Evgheniya back to Moscow is the brutal bullying of her son Pasha (“Wouldn’t it be a nice world if nobody had to do this?”). It even matters to Henry’s weird friends when one accidentally says “shit” in front of the adults. Whoops, can’t do that here. Wrong context.
“Immersion” is another excellent episode of The Americans (most are) because it gives us the tiniest peak at all the various burdens and unspoken transformative experiences these characters carry around. Elizabeth’s burden might just be the largest … and that’s why she appears the strongest.