This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 6 Episode 7
The Americans has always been the television king of anticlimax.
This is a show grounded in reality to an extreme degree, taking its lead from its by-the-book ex-CIA co-creator Joe Weisberg. Whenever there is a moment that begs for good old-fashioned overwrought TV drama, The Americans resists it.
Paige didn’t find out that her parents were Russian spies by walking in on them interrogating a bloodied source tied to a chair. She just realized that her mom and dad tend to get a lot of urgent late night phone calls and she demanded an answer. She got that answer, in a relatively random season three episode – not in a season premiere, finale, or any of these other significant final season episodes.
Last season seemed like it was building up to a grand crescendo with Philip and Elizabeth facing the choice as to whether to give up this life of espionage and move their kids to the Soviet Union. Instead one of the tapes Philip had been harvesting from Kimmy’s dad unexpecteldy hit pay dirt and Elizabeth chose to continue on.
The Americans’ aversion to climax is one of its most strangely noble qualities and has played a significant role in making it one of TV’s deepest, richest, and most satisfying dramas. It can also be a pain in the ass sometimes. “Harvest” is an interesting episode in this final season as it presents two markedly different approaches to climactic storytelling.
Bullets finally start to fly in an unexpected, exciting way in “Harvest.” Last week when Elizabeth called Philip to discuss her upcoming seemingly impossible mission, it was clear that this Chicago trip had to be different. The show established an expectation of real difficulty and real danger, and now it does beautiful job of following through.
After Philip bids goodbye to Henry and endures an aggressive line of questioning from Stan, he heads off to “Houston (Chicago)” to help Elizabeth with their rowdy client. The scenes of Philip and Elizabeth in their Chicago hotel capture the awkward and melancholy place that the Jennings marriage is in currently.
Philip has arrived to help like a romance novel hero, yet that doesn’t mean everything is suddenly hunky dory.
“You staying?” Elizabeth asks Philip as he unpacks his bags. He doesn’t answer so Elizabeth says: “Let’s get something to eat.”
So they do. The show lets us see them chomping down on pizza in a comfortable yet dingy-looking Chicago restaurant. They say nothing but they’re clearly an integral part of each other’s respective space. It’s rare that a show is able to capture the uncomfortable intimacy of a marriage between tow people going separate paths so succinctly and perfectly.
Later back in the hotel Elizabeth finally tells Philip about what happened to her in Mexico City. She tells him about the mission she received and the actual purpose of that pretty necklace she always wears now.
“Give it to me,” Philip says abut the cyanide capsule.
“What would you do with it?”
“Flush it down the toilet?”
“Then why did you tell me you had it?”
“You’re always asking me to tell you things. So I told you.”
You’re always asking me to tell you things. So I told you. I may be wrong but to my knowledge Elizabeth and Philip have not audibly said, “I love you” to each other this season. The reason this show is so good, and the reason its investment in the subtle pans out more often than not is because of moments like this.
Philip and Elizabeth aren’t yelling at each other. This isn’t dramatic. This isn’t climactic. Ultimately, this will resolve nothing. But “You’re always asking me to tell you things. So I told you” cuts deep. It’s a collection of words that somehow simultaneously communicates both nothing and also “I love you. Please don’t leave. You mean the world to me. But I also hate you and everything you represent. Now give me back my cyanide necklace.”
Then, right after The Americans proves for the umpteenth time it’s mastered the quiet, subtle moments of the human condition, it decides to get loud…real loud.
Elizabeth was right. This is a hard mission. Codename “Harvest” is driving down well-populated Chicago streets, knowingly being followed by a cadre of FBI agents. Philip and Elizabeth’s plan is simple and for a wild moment looks like it will work perfectly. Philip commandeers a small commuter bus and has a fellow agent stop traffic. Once traffic is stopped, Elizabeth jumps out and brings Harvest into their bus. A day laborer hired by Philip then hops into Harvest’s car. Traffic resumes and boom, you’ve got yourself a successful extraction mission.
But of course this was never going to be fully successful. This was an impossible mission. And while Philip and Elizabeth performed bravely and intelligently, the FBI very quickly realizes what is up. Two unnamed agents set up a roadblock on a residential street. When the bus comes across it, Elizabeth’s partner, Marilyn, hits the gas and is quickly shot in the face. In the ensuing shootout Marilyn, Harvest, and both FBI agents are killed. The only two people alive are Philip and Elizabeth.
As far as The Americans goes, this is about as action setpiece-y as it gets. Four dead individuals is an inconceivably high body count for the show so usually reserved and may even tie the record with the four nameless security guards Elizabeth killed earlier in the season. The moment doesn’t just end in gunfire either. Philip takes on the last will and testament from a dying Harvest. Fittingly we never learn his name nor do we need to. We just need to know how stupid and pointless the information he has is (information on how to access the sensor is in Paris. Cool.) and that he loves his mother but hates his father.
Then the show goes as far as to even engage in a bit of body horror as once Philip and Elizabeth make it to the safety of a parking garage, Philip must stoically chop Marilyn’s head and hands off using a conveniently placed axe.
This is climax on The Americans and it’s a great look for the show. The show allows itself an action movie indulgence here and it works because A. action is fun and B. it further illustrates the hell that Philip and Elizabeth are in. When Philip takes on the burden of Harvest’s final words it’s not hard to imagine him thinking of what Paige and Henry would someday say about him.
And when Philip has to decapitate and de-hand Marilyn it’s also just a perfect moment of almost comedic absurdity. Of course this was going to end like this. Almost no mission that Philip Jennings ever embarked on ever ended without Philip being placed in a position where he had to do something monstrous, gross, terrifying or all of the above. Why would this mission be any different? He should have just been carrying around and axe the whole time because of course he was going to have to mutilate a corpse for the cause. There’s also a brilliantly surreal moment here where a woman walks to her car during the axe party, blissfully unaware of the violence happening just feet away.
The failed Harvest extraction is thrilling. It’s a welcome concession from The Americans that the body count needs to rise and the blood needs to spill with so few episodes left. In short: it’s climax. That’s why it’s also a little disappointing that the rest of “Harvest” chooses to comport itself in the same-old subdued, overly rational fashion.
It’s probably better to watch and review television shows in a bubble – to take them in on their own merits. But in the era of constant media access that’s not as realistic. You take stuff in and it informs your perception of what you’re consuming. Case in point this tweet from cultural commentator Myles McNutt.
I want to view The Americans on its own merits without any outside influence because the show has built it’s own insular, believable universe. But I can’t un-read that tweet. It does loom large. The Americans has an important relationship in its show: the one between Philip and Stan. And it just so happens to strongly resemble an important relationship in one of The Americans prestige TV forefathers: the Hank and Walter dynamic on Breaking Bad.
On Breaking Bad the show somehow found a perfectly unexpected but still satisfyingly inevitable way for Hank to discover the truth about his meth-dealing brother-in-law. In “Harvest,” The Americans begins to lay the foundation for Stan’s realization that Philip and Elizabeth may not be who they say they are and it’s not nearly as effective.
That’s not entirely fair because when most shows are placed up against Breaking Bad they will inevitably seem small and imperfect by comparison. But even divorced from Breaking Bad and on its own terms, The Americans isn’t doing itself any favors with Stan Beeman’s inevitable discovery.
Stan begins to suspect Philip and Elizabeth for the same reason Paige did: they’re just never around. Philip thinks he successfully throws Stan off the scent by telling him the travel agency business is dying but Stan just isn’t that stupid. Dying travel agency or no, no one consistently fields calls at three in the morning and leaves their kids during Thanksgiving. And Philip doesn’t know that Stan already had another clue.
As Stan breaks into the Jennings household and takes a look around, he is haunted by the words of a dying William. “Couple of kids. American dream. She’s pretty. He’s lucky.” That’s no Walt Whitman but it is telling. Stan doesn’t come to a definitive conclusion on the Jennings in “Harvest” but he’s damned close. One of the most unexpectedly thrilling moments in the episode is when Aderholt says they the two people involved in the Harvest extraction were a white guy and a white woman and Stan immediately responds “When are we getting the sketches?”
On the one hand, Stan’s sudden suspicions are keeping with The American’s M.O. This is a show that honors Occam’s Razor and Occam’s Razor dictates that the FBI agent next door might notice something is up when the Jennings don’t have any observable extended family always seem to be M.I.A. during these big illegals operations. On the other hand though: we saw Philip actually decapitate someone in this episode. This is a cerebral show operating within a visual medium. Having all the action suddenly occur between Stan’s ears is logically satisfying but not necessarily dramatically so.
I get the show’s reluctance to go all out because it operates in the small, reserved corners of human emotion so beautifully. There may not be a better supporting acting performance on television right now than Miriam Shor as Erica Haskward. In “Harvest” we see Elizabeth continuing her drawing studies on the plane home from Chicago and then when she returns to the Haskards, Erica “grades” her work.
“What is this? Why did you draw this?” “If you do it right. It’s not you seeing it. I don’t know. Something comes through. You gotta bring all of yourself to it and then that lets you get out of your own way.”
Get out of your own damn way, Elizabeth. She tries to later when she presents the realities of spying to Paige in a more brutal way than ever. But it doesn’t have any effect on Paige. Marilyn’s death is an afterthought. Paige is in this. Moments like Erica’s increasing desperation to teach a stranger something profound before she dies and Elizabeth’s desire to show her daughter the truth before it’s too late represent perfect, subtle storytelling.
The problem is that we’re running out of time for the subtle. The Americans only has three episodes left. Paige learning her parents secret worked as anticlimax because of when it happened – in season three. In season six there are few opportunities for satisfying anticlimax left, however. With three episodes left, everything needs to be fundamentally important.
The Americans may be hesitant to go appropriately “big” in this home stretch. Ironically, most of the events of “Harvest” prove that it’s absolutely capable of doing so.