This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 6 Episode 6
This show doesn’t even need the spies.
It doesn’t need the Cold War, or the espionage, or the smoldering sexual tension between Mail Robot and anybody he (it’s a he) shares an elevator with.
What “Rififi” reveals definitively is that all The Americans needs is Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.
“Rififi” gets right into the meat of Philip and Elizabeth’s marital conflict. There is no small time jump after Philip tips off Kimmy and sabotages Elizabeth’s mission. Elizabeth enters the kitchen and asks Philip if he’s OK – because true to form he looks like the most miserable man in the universe. What follows is the argument that finally drives husband and wife to separate bedrooms.
“Stan came by,” Philip says. “He was very upset about a couple who was murdered in front of their 7-year-old kid.”
“I didn’t do it in front of her kid,” Elizabeth immediately responds.
“I’m not doing the thing with Kimmy.”
“Of course you aren’t. You were never going to do it. You just wanted to fuck her. You weren’t getting any action here.”
“I warned her not to go to any communist countries. You’re never going to see here again. It’s over. That’s over.”
That’s over indeed. The beauty of this show is that Elizabeth and Philip are discussing something fundamentally horrific. Philip had to seduce and sleep with a teenager for the “good” of his country (what country is that even again?). But the argument could have been about anything and played out exactly the same.
Marriage isn’t just hard – it should be fundamentally impossible. People change as they grow older. They adopt different values. That’s what’s happening to Philip and Elizabeth and the rest of the episode not only makes that crystal clear but also explores the subtlyy devastating effects of it.
Henry Jennings returns home – a stranger in a strange land. The Americans has sometimes struggled to find a purpose for Henry, probably because the character has been so young for so long. Philip and Elizabeth didn’t tell Paige about what they do for a living until season three and even then the process of turning her into spy kid has taken almost a full three seasons. Henry by necessity has largely existed in the background, going so far as to eat most of his meals at the Beeman household and serve as a sounding board to Stan.
Now, however, his status as an outsider works in the show’s favor as he highlights just how much things have changed. Elizabeth and Philip can barely stand to be in the same room together. Elizabeth is smoking more than ever, not even caring if Henry sees her doing it and not realizing he’s kidding when he asks to bum a cigarette. Philip grows so frustrated at the electric race track* that he screams “Fuck!” when his car falls off for the umpteenth time.
*Hi. Millennial checking in here. Did people actually leave the house to recreationally race electric cars in the ‘80s?
“I love your mother. Sometimes…everything’s fine,” Philip says.
Perhaps Philip’s acting skills have gotten rusty now that he’s been out of the spy game for too long. Elizabeth’s are still solid, thankfully. Her newest mark is Jackson Barber – a sweet, young intern for a Senator who just wants to watch his classic movies in peace. He’s so enthralled with Rififi, in fact that he refuses to acknowledge Elizabeth’s clear (fake) interest in him.
Just like Philip and Elizabeth are changing within their marriage – so too is the world around them. Philip just flat out unironically listens to country now. Travel agencies aren’t as lucrative anymore and Gustavos, Lacey, and Steve have to be let go. Most notably though, the honeypot isn’t as sweet as it used to be. Sometimes a kid just wants to watch his movie. So Elizabeth changes her tactics. She offers him a job. Whether Jackson calls her back remains to be seen.
Philip and Elizabeth have undergone many missions throughout their time on The Americans. And on an episode-by-episode basis sometimes it’s hard to tell what these missions are trying to thematically communicate. Just now, six seasons in, I think I’ve finally realized that many of them are not trying to communicate anything other than that spying is hard. You try an approach you think will work and inevitably it doesn’t. Because people are inconsistent and strange. So you try another. And another. Spying is a long, hard, slog. It’s living dozens of lives simultaneously until one of them clicks and you get a fragment of information that you need.
So no, The Americans doesn’t need any of its high-minded Cold War premise to resonate. But it helps. What is espionage if not a marriage to ones craft? People are just as inconsistent and strange and you still have to live dozens of lives, adopting new experience and new value with your partner until one day those paths diverge.
Counter-Intelligence operates under a similar principle. Aderholt and Stan make their biggest break in the illegals case yet this episode and Aderholt makes very, very clear (almost as though he knows there are only four episodes left) that they’re close to finishing this thing off and tracking down the remaining illegals. The way Stan and Dennis make this discovery is a bit anticlimactic.
As best as can be worked out: before Gennadi Bystrov was killed by Elizabeth last week, he received a diplomatic pouch that contained a sensor from Altheon – the same sensor that Elizabeth was trying to secure. Remembering that an Altheon warehouse was just raided and guards killed, the FBI decided to track that sensor back to its source. This took Aderholt to Chicago where he discovered an illegal Russian agent they’ve code-named “Harvest.” The information gleaned from observing and investigating this illegal will eventually lead them to the rest.
As far as big plot breakthroughs go, that is certainly less dramatically satisfying than Walter White’s Leaves of Grass. And it’s clearly dictated by the show’s timeline more than anything special about Gennadi and Sofia as opposed to the dozens of other leads the FBI has pursued. But again: the history of both marriage and espionage is that you try and try and try and try until something miraculously works
It’s also nice to see some perfectly competent, good old-fashioned detective work from Stan and the FBI. The exhaustive, jigsaw nature of it all is hammered home when Dennis presents Stan with a giant pile of paperwork so he can cross-reference recent cash-only car purchases in the D.C. area with other information they have on the illegals. This feels like Americans co-creator and former CIA agent Joe Weisberg having some fun in depicting the dreadfully boring reality of counter-intelligence. I’ll let the guy have it. He’s worked hard.
More importantly than how Aderholt uncovered “Harvest” is what it means for Philip, Elizabeth, and their marriage. “Harvest” works out that he’s under surveillance and he notifies the Center. Claudia informs Elizabeth that she needs to go to Chicago to extract him. He’s a part of the same beyond top secret “Mexico” program that Elizabeth is working. You know, the mission that’s the reason why Elizabeth has worn a necklace containing a cyanide capsule all season.
Elizabeth has to leave on Thanksgiving. Once again her values have won out over her family. Why on Earth would the Soviets have even started this family program? Seeing the fruits of it years later, it seems unbearably cruel.
Seeing a veryAmericans Thanksgiving, however? That’s sublime. The gathering at the Beemans for turkey and stuffing reveals just how small this cast is. Elizabeth is gone and Philip is forced to make an elaborate excuse for her. That leaves Philip, Paige, Henry, Stan, Renee, and Mr. and Mrs. Aderholt to take in Stan’s strangely jingoistic pre-meal toast.
Even as this war seems to be winding down, our characters are only becoming more extreme. Elizabeth is never going to leave this world behind. She’s in Chicago, facing almost certain death. Stan was just gobbled back up by the C.I. department at the FBI and is immediately more passionate about his work than ever. Paige is becoming the perfect little monster Elizabeth always envisioned. In “Rififi,” the more the world changes, the more our characters stay the same.
By episode’s end though we realize that just might be the only thing keeping the Jennings alive. After Elizabeth calls Henry from a payphone with a call that sounds ominously like a goodbye, Philip gives her a callback.
“Just calling to see if everything’s alright.” Philip says.
“Not really,” Elizabeth responds. “It’s just a hard one.”
“You might lose the client?”
“I’m not sure I can accomplish what I came here for without…it’s just going to be tough.”
“Are you asking me to come?”
“I’ll handle it. This is my side of the business.”
“I don’t think this has been working the last few months and he’s not the only client in the world.”
“What’s happened to you?”
“Nothing. Still the same asshole as always.”
“I’m not coming home.”
“Ok. I’ll come.”
“No one is asking you to come.”
“I know. Just sit tight. I’m on my way.”
Philip may think he’s a free man. He’s kicked himself loose from a life that seemed impossible to break loose from. He listens to country. He plays with toy cars. He’s a person. But at the end of the day he’s always been destined to believe in something bigger than himself: love