This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 9
As much as I’d like to pretend I watch every show I review in a vacuum, completely shut off from the rest of the world, that’s obviously not the case. We’re all vulnerable to outside opinions and events. Every viewing experience comes along with context.
My context is often other people’s opinions. Other people’s opinions are like assholes: everybody has one and I want to see all of them.*
*I know you came down to this footnote expecting an apology or explanation but I think the joke stands on its own.
That’s why TV critic ubermensch Alan Sepinwall’s review of last week’s The Americans episode “Immersion” changed my perspective. Sepinwall, in a completely reasonable and non-hot take-y review asserted that season 5 of The Americans is “stuck in a rut.”
“(W)hat seems to be happening is that the show’s being plotted out with both of those years in mind, and there’s been a slackening of tension in this particular season as a result,” Sepinwall writes. “There’s still the tremendous sense of dread, there are still the superb performances from the cast, and there are still individual episodes like “Lotus 1-2-3,” but the narrative has felt stuck in the mud for much of this season, as if everyone is marking time for whatever grand and terrible plans the show has for them for next year.”
That’s an entirely reasonable take on what has admittedly been a rather slow season of television that I happen to disagree with it. I’ve found that the pace and relative inaction of season 5 has not been much different from any other season of the show. In fact, inaction is an integral theme. The Americans is Hamlet-esque in its characters’ penchant for doing absolutely nothing to extract themselves from an untenable situation. We’re used to shows about characters making bad or otherwise self-destructive decisions. The difference in The Americans is that our two protagonists made that poor decision many, many years ago and we get to watch them attempt to placidly live out a normal American life in-between sudden bouts of violence and terror.
Though I may have disagreed with Sepinwall’s assessment of “Immersion” I can’t change the fact that I read and processed somebody else’s disparate, yet well-reasoned opinion. And that means my context for watching the show fundamentally changed. It’s inescapable. “Good critic finds good TV show momentarily tedious” is an incredibly benign statement and reality. But it’s a statement and reality that was suddenly part of my TV-watching experience whether I liked it or not.
All of this is to say: I do not particularly care for “IHOP.”
Whether that’s because “IHOP” is a below-average episode of The Americans or because I’m an impressionable pack animal that wants to fall in line behind another, better critic’s narrative is up to you. I’m inclined to think it’s the former. Morpheus Sepinwall just opened the door, I had to walk through it.
The issue with “IHOP” isn’t necessarily that it’s stuck in a Sepinwall-ian rut, it’s more that it covers too many moments and feelings we’ve covered already.*
*Ok, maybe that’s the definition of a rut.
“IHOP” is filled with scenes whose emotional and narrative beats we’ve seen before from The Americans, sometimes even within this season. The main throughline of “what’s going on with Tuan?” is certainly something we’ve seen before. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have no shortage of children and children-adjacent figures in their life to worry about so the sudden inclusion of Tuan’s potential misbehavior doesn’t work as well as the show probably intended. Not only that but the final reveal, that Tuan is sneaking out of state to call his one-time step brother who now has leukemia, is maybe one anticlimax too many.
The reveal of Tuan’s softer side also undercuts one of my favorite, subtle moments of this season in general – the scene in which Tuan nonchalantly tells Philip that his previous family were good people even while Philip and Tuan are in the middle of conspiring against the very country they live in. That scene was strong enough to stand on its own. The audience would have been better served imagining whether Tuan is the kind of kid who would be sensitive enough to reach back out to that family or not. This is one of those cases of breadcrumbs not needing to lead to an eventual payoff of a feast. The breadcrumbs were fine as is.
Similarly, “IHOP” sets up semi-conflicts with two other children in the Jennings’ life that we’ve either seen before or aren’t quite important enough to accompany Tuan’s crisis of faith.
I’m always excited to see the return of Kimmy. Her youth and earnestness makes Philip’s twisting and exploitation of her feelings incredibly poignant and tragic. This time around, however, she simply serves as a narrative pawn to get Philip some vital information from the listening device he planted in her father’s suitcase. In fact, Philip’s limited interaction with Kimmy covers remarkably similar territory to their previous rendezvous.
“You miss your son, don’t you,” Kimmy says. Fake Philip acknowledges that this is the case and that he can’t wait for a chance to start over completely and get it right this time.
“I don’t think anybody does it right,” Kimmy says.
“Ok, I won’t screw it up completely.”
“That’s a better ambition.”
This interaction is sweet and poignant because Kimmy is sweet and poignant but it also almost word for word covers interactions the two have had previously. And it’s short-lived. Thankfully, while the means aren’t that worthwhile, the end is pretty great.
I love how The Americans continues to handle Philip’s slow “waking up” process. For in the briefcase recording he discovers that maybe stealing a highly-weaponized virus from a country his country is at war with wasn’t just about developing an antidote after all.
On the audio, Philip hears Mr. Kimmy (I’m sure Kimmy’s dad has a name but we’ll go with Mr. Kimmy for our purposes) remarking about the terrifyingly bloody demises of several Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
“Maybe it wasn’t us,” Elizabeth offers.
“It’s a hell of a coincidence if it isn’t,” Philip says.
This is the kind of “rut” or “wheel-spinning” storyline that The Americans excels that. Logically one would expect a character on shaky patriotic ground to view this information as the final straw. But human beings are not logical. There is enough murkiness to the information that Philip can remain plausibly cognitively dissonant. And life has a hell of a lot more cognitive dissonance than emotional clarity. Philip and Elizabeth’s day of reckoning is coming…or it isn’t! Either way, I trust the show to make that day feel both authentic and non-obvious.
“IHOP” undoubtedly wants us to draw some connections among all the children in the Jennings’ life from Tuan to Kimmy all the way down to boring ol’ Henry. It’s just not clear what kind of connection or statement that it’s trying to make. Henry’s situation has no discernable similarities with Tuan’s. Henry just wants to take a turn for the Harry Potter and spend the rest of his high school days at a boarding school in New Hampshire – to which Elizabeth and Philip react in horror.
Perhaps, they are reacting to the reality that they’re lives in becoming more and more entrenched in Americana. It’s hard enough to raise their children within the family business when both are under the same roof. But Paige will be heading to college soon and Henry seems intent on fleeing the coop even before then. There must be real feelings of discomfort there but the show asks us to dig a little too deep to find them, making the Henry appearance and Tuan comparison rather inert.
Equally as inert is the time that “IHOP” spends in Russia. The more we get to experience Oleg the more I like Oleg but dread the dreary Soviet environment and storylines he inhabits. This week, Directorate K wants to know more about his time in America but again it’s not clear what they’re driving at so the whole think just fizzles out. Thankfully, we do know that tragedy and discomfort loom thanks to Stan’s ultimatum back in the U.S.
Also in Moscow is still our beloved Martha. Martha’s brief cameo early in the season was one of the more delightful Easter Eggs of the TV season. This time around is also nice but not substantial enough to justify its own inclusion. Just like how Tuan’s IHOP adventure undercuts an awesome scene from earlier in the season, so does Martha’s conversation with Gabriel.
It’s all a little too neat and coherent and writerly. I suppose it’s nice to witness Martha’s grand awakening. She’s aware she’s a pawn, she’s aware she’s been wronged and she’s aware there’s nothing she can do about it. And no, she would not like to share her potato snack Gabriel thank you very much. It’s hard to shake the feeling, however, that we could have inferred all of that from her original appearance.
Not everything goes awry for “IHOP,” however, and just by its merits as being an episode of The Americans, it’s quite good. Stan’s dilemma, in particular, is fascinating. He is presented with the knowledge that the FBI may know who killed Agent Gaad. Still, they must confirm it and the only realistic way of doing so is to bring Oleg back into the fold via blackmail. Stan is not a fan of this plan and visits the Widow Gaad for confirmation that he can drop this whole Oleg thing once and for all.
He explains the situation as best he can to Linh Gaad and then sort of asks for her permission to abandon this revenge plot.
“Revenge isn’t that important and I don’t think it would be to Frank,” he tells her.
“Revenge would be important to him,” she replies, matter of factly.
Would revenge really be important to Agent Gaad or is it just something that Linh needs for closure? The truth is that it doesn’t really matter. The only person who can make that decision is dead and it’s the living who get to decide. Maybe being dead makes you wiser and more immured to the violent, needless machinations of mankind. But it also makes you a hell of a lot less communicative.
It’s a shame that Philip and Elizabeth don’t know the story of Frank Gaad as there is plenty they could take away from it. It would certainly put the decision of whether Henry can go to boarding school in perspective.