This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 6 Episode 3
Let’s talk about death for a moment.
In his review of AMC’s excellent new horror series The Terror, A.V. Club critic Sean T. Collins writes about how becomes shorthand for depth on prestige television.
“Many, and perhaps most, prestige television shows traffic in death,” Collins writes. “Name your top five dramas right now and chances are good the majority are about people who kill other people for a living, or at the very least on a pro-am basis. Yet for all their fixation on mortality, violent or otherwise, few shows bother attempting to answer the unanswerable question of what death feels like.”
The Americans is unquestionably one of the top five dramas on televisions right now. It also unquestionably traffics in death. Philip and Elizabeth kill people. The path that The Americans has taken through five seasons is littered with bodies.
Like other “prestige” shows, The Americans sometimes uses death as a shortcut to deeper thematic meaning or provide a meaningful experience for its characters. The Americans does something else with death that few other “prestige” shows have ever done though. On this show, the dead stay dead.
That’s not to say The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or The Leftovers treated dead characters like the Marvel comic universe – where any character can be retconned back into existence at any moment. But something that most of those shows did do is bring the actors who portray characters back.
To capture the feelings of death many shows present long-departed characters in dreams, fantasy sequences of flashbacks. The Americans does not. Philip and Elizabeth have never been metaphorically haunted by the lost soul of someone they’ve murdered. When Nina was executed back in the season four episode “Chloramphenicol,” the last we ever saw of her was her body being loaded into a dingy burlap sack. No memories, dreams, or fantasies onscreen for Stan and Oleg.
It’s hard to empathize with the dead because none of us (or at least very few of us) have ever been dead. So instead death often becomes a personal experience. The Americans knows how to present that personal experience perfectly.
“Urban Transport Planning” begins in the aftershock of a death. Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige are gathered around the family room to discuss the truly upsetting and horrifying thing Paige has witnessed: her mother, covered in blood kneeling over a very dead man. Philip and Elizabeth each retreat into their own lives and experiences to try to help Paige through this.
“It’s better to feel bad and go through it than to not feel anything,” Philip tells Paige. He’s echoing the continued training and support he’s received through est, now called The Forum.
Elizabeth on the other hand chastises Paige, and yells at her for not doing the most important thing she’s supposed to do on a mission: following the plan. Paige disobeyed her orders and abandoned the plan when she heard the gunshot and to Elizabeth that’s the real crime.
Philip and Elizabeth’s response to Paige witnessing The General’s death partially shows how jaded they’ve become but more importantly reveals just how sophisticated The Americans’ knowledge of how the living behave when confronted with death is. Philip and Elizabeth are certainly empathetic to what their daughter has experienced and death is obviously a terrifying, complex concept. Still, they’re unable to break away from their own personalities or experiences to offer any meaningful support.
Philip parroting the est party line and Elizabeth responding in an outburst of anger are the kind of responses one would get if they pulled a string on either of their backs.
“She’s seen all of it now,” Philip says when Paige leaves. “Not all of it,” Elizabeth responds.
Elizabeth is not wrong. There are fates worse than death and there is real danger and sometimes even evil in this line of work. But it’s still a shockingly dismissive thing for her to believe and say with skull fragments still in her hair.
The Americans never metaphorically revives the dead because it it doesn’t have to. The characters carry the weight of everyone they’ve ever killed or seen die. Maybe we’ll see that weight on Paige next week.
We certainly see it on Stan. Stan is so close to getting out of this life altogether. There is just that one ongoing mission with Sofia and Gennadi – a mission that seems to come to an end this week.
Sofia is getting far too careless. She tells her journalist friend Bogdan all about her exciting life as a double-agent, leading Stan to make the call to extract them once and for all. It’s pretty fascinating to see how this aspect of Stan’s FBI work goes down. “I understand you want political asylum,” Stan and Dennis say as they intercept Sofia and Gennadi respectively. It’s clearly a codeword that this operation is now over.
This should be a relief for Stan. The one thing tying him to this world of violence is now over. But still it might have costed Gennadi the opportunity to ever see his daughter again as he and Sofia will be placed into separate witness protection programs. Not only that but he can’t even get a full respite from this life at home where Renee suddenly decides that she wants to work together at the FBI like Philip and Elizabeth do at the travel agency. At worst Renee is a spy trying to subvert American Democracy; at best she’ has a fundamental misunderstanding of the work that cost Stan a partner, a wife, a lover, and his soul.
Stan can leave the counter-intelligence division at the FBI but he can never leave behind all those bodies – Amadour, the dead General they just found in the park from a “suicide”….Nina.
“Do you ever think about her all? Or is that all in the past for you?” Oleg asks Stan when Stan finally pays him a visit at the Potomac hotel.
“I think about her,” Stan says.
“I used to think I saw her. In the streets, on subway, in the park. It was like a shock.”
Oleg and Stan don’t even need to have this conversation. They both know the other thinks about Nina. The experience of losing her is what brought them together into this weird partnership/co-dependency. As an audience we never get to see Oleg or Stan “seeing” her on the subway and we didn’t need to. Her death is written all over both of them and has informed everything they’ve done since.
Oleg and Stan’s encounter ins a small hotel room is a quietly wonderful scene. Many shows or movies would turn the reintroduction of two major foils into their own version of Pacino and De Niro in the diner in Heat. Instead, The Americans lets it be what it needs to be – an unfortunate, painful chore that Stan doesn’t want to endure.
But even within that, there are important subtleties. When Stan asks Oleg what he’s doing here and why he didn’t come until after his Urban Transport Planning class at George Mason was two weeks in, Oleg responds “I needed some time away from my wife. You can understand that.”
That’s Oleg’s implicit admission to Stan that he’s not here for those classes.
“Urban Transport Planning” is actually a pretty charming, and frequently subtly brilliant episode of television in addition to its deathly themes.
Philip experiencing the stress of running a small business doesn’t cover much new ground than it did last week but it does provide a showcase for some more fascinating work from Matthew Rhys.
Philip is experiencing something that many actual Americans do time and time again: a stubborn refusal to accept that the American dream might be bullshit. Philip and Elizabeth have very different views on the United States and neither of them are completely right.
“I hate it, Philip,” Elizabeth says after bringing him some fresh-made zharkoye.
“Honestly, the way things are going. In a couple of years. We’ll have Stan over for zharkoye. They’re talking about opening up a Pizza Hut in Moscow,” he says.
“They want us to be just like them. I don’t want to be just like them. And neither do the people at home.”
“You haven’t talked to anyone at home in 20 years.”
“Neither have you.”
The U.S. isn’t the immoral hellhole that Elizabeth thinks it in but it’s also not the charmed land of bootstrap pulling Philip has come to silently appreciate. Philip still lives in a world where lack of sufficient funds to pay for your child’s tuition can be solved with a friendly phone call and flagging sales at work can be fixed with a self-help book and rally-the-troops workplace speech. How long that can last remains to be seen.
And of course the grand irony is that Philip and Elizabeth are neither Americans nor Russians. They’re something else entirely – something in-between. They may just be murderers.
Or maybe they’re just unlucky as Elizabeth finds out at the end of “Urban Transport Planning.” Through five seasons death always seemed to seek out Philip as if it knew he was the more sensitive to it of the Jennings clan. Now with Philip out of the game, all the burden of death falls to Elizabeth.
After being forced to kill the General last week in search of this mythical sensor the U.S.S.R. needs, Elizabeth once again kills a man in pursuit of the same sensor. With the General, Elizabeth admits to Philip that she felt pressed for time and went too fast. She put him in a position where violence was the only answer. With mild-mannered security guard Evan, however, there’s nothing she can do.
Elizabeth poses as an auditor named Tracey Hoffs who is reviewing the security procedures at Evan’s facility. Evan does a great job providing her with information but then lets slip an unfortunate bit of information. His girlfriend Theresa Vazquez works at the facility and now presumably knows about Tracey Hoffs. Tracey/Elizabeth strangles the man to death.
Evan becomes another anonymous body on The Americans. We’ll never see him again except for on Elizabeth’s sagging shoulders.