This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 6 Episode 9
With only two episodes left to go, The Americans has started to flex.
Something that this show does as good or better than any other than recent memory is taking the mundane and turning it into something unexpectedly exhilarating. Just as last week’s episode was bookended by conversations between Philip and Elizabeth, this week’s is book-ended by Philip and Elizabeth out in the field, walking through normal missions until suddenly those missions aren’t so normal anymore.
Elizabeth’s stalking of Nesterenko and his crew gets a primary spot in the pre-credits portions of the show alongside Philip leaving a message for Oleg (that will eventually be his undoing) and Stan having some fun typing “Jennings, Elizabeth” and “Jennings, Philip” into the FBI’s Automated Case Support Database.
Elizabeth even gets the “spot of honor” in the pre-credits sequence as her low-speed pursuit of Nesterenko eventually leads into the musical swell accompanying the main credits sequence. It’s almost like a subtle troll job for a show that has consistently refused to be “conventionally” exciting. Welcome to the second-to-last episode of The Americans! You want blood and guts, you TV-watching pigs? Well here’s super spy Elizabeth Jennings in the cold open….walking.
It’s telling that The Americans has gone with the title “Jennings, Elizabeth” for its penultimate hour. The phrase is borrowed from Stan’s Google history (presumably also on that search history: “how to make girlfriend not want to work with me”) but the episode could have just have easily been titled “Jennings, Philip” or even “DuPont Circle Travel.”
Instead the show makes the right choice of focusing on its most inscrutable character. The Americans works because its lead characters works. Both Philip and Elizabeth are charming, believable, and competent – the trifecta for anything you could want from a fictional character. Still, Elizabeth has never made perfect sense and in that way she’s been the more intriguing of the two. We can understand what makes Philip tick as it’s written all over that devastated mug of his. Later when Philip meets with Father Andre he tells him “I don’t miss (the work). It wasn’t good for me.” That much has always been clear.
Elizabeth’s motivations are murkier. “Jennings, Elizabeth’’ tries to solve that problem by putting us directly inside her head. Flashbacks to early childhood memories this late in the game would be a pretty lazy move for most shows. As it stands, it’s not the greatest move for The Americans either. We should know enough about the Nadezhda at this point to draw our own conclusions. Still, it’s hard to argue that the flashbacks to Elizabeth’s adolescence this time around don’t provide real insight and humanity.
Elizabeth’s issues are simple and fundamental. She is what happens when you ask a human being to do inhuman things. In her flashbacks to her early training, Elizabeth (portrayed by a creepily CGI’d Keri Russel) is practicing how to pick up dropped information when she comes across the scene of an accident. A motorcycle and collided with a horse. Blood and metal is strewn about the Spartan Moscow streets and one of the dying men reaches out to Elizabeth and gasps “help me.”
Elizabeth then simply walks away from the scene of the crash and returns to her handler to ask her what she should have done. Yes, the man was dying but she was under strict orders to behave as though she were already in the U.S. and could not be seen under any circumstances. Her handler tells her she made the wrong decision.
“You don’t leave a comrade on the street to die in Moscow.”
Elizabeth and Philip’s training contained impossible contradictions. Do everything we tell you and trust that it’s always the right thing to do even though you’ll never get to return to Moscow to see the fruits of your labor as you’re working.
It seems likely that Elizabeth saw this important job elevating her to the role of superhero. That’s how Paige has seen it after all, fighting with any drunk jagoff who crosses her path at a bar. Like her daughter Elizabeth has felt victimized and craved a way to reclaim some power to make the world a better place.
“I wasn’t brought up like you were,” Elizabeth tells Paige later. “People died all around me. We were proudto do whatever we could.”
Elizabeth’s home country needed a superhero and she was born strong enough to endure becoming one. The irony, of course, is that since the day she became one she hasn’t done one heroic thing. Philip and Elizabeth have been leaving comrades to die on the street in Moscow this whole time. How long have they been working for a KGB that is actively trying to undermine the country’s last, best hope for peace?
So Elizabeth, back in the present finally does one heroic thing. All her waiting pays off, and she assassinates Nesterenko’s assassin just in time. She saves the world…by leaving a comrade on the street to die. And then, good soldier that she is, she goes to tattle on herself to Claudia.
Elizabeth has saved Nesterenko’s life and she’s passed information on the KGB’s treachery onto Oleg (kind of). It’s over. Claudia’s bullshit is over and Elizabeth tells her as much.
“I had so much faith in you,” Claudia responds. “Even when things were bad between us I never lost faith in you. You reminded me of the girls I knew in war who put country over self. But now I see you never understood what you were fighting for.”
“I’m still fighting for those things,” Elizabeth says. “You lied to me. If you knew me, you’d know never to lie to me.”
If there is one thing that we can take away from six seasons of The Americans it’s that you should never, ever. ever, ever lie to Elizabeth Jennings.
Elizabeth has finally done something that could potentially change her country for the better, under her own autonomy. Unfortunately for her, it could all have been for naught.
Philip gets his message off to Oleg, using the drop-off point but it’s too late. After years and years of investigations, the FBI has finally gotten somewhere substantial.
Perhaps it’s too pat and neat that the FBI would suddenly become so competent in these last few episodes, but the way The Americans presents it feels perfectly rational and believable. The FBI finally got it’s hands on an important threat, “Harvest,” and just as Aderholt predicted once they started to pull everything came together very quickly. Harvest led them to the Russian Orthodox priest route, which in turn leads to Father Andre. And the constant surveillance of Oleg suddenly pays massive, believable dividends.
Since the discovery of Harvest, Stan also started to look at his next-door neighbors with renewed suspicions and unbeknownst to him has come away with the exact correct conclusion. “Jennings, Elizabeth” finally finds Stan verbalizing his suspicions to Aderholt and it’s a testament to how well the show has kept Philip and Elizabeth’s alibis intact that Stan sounds so, so insane.
“You went over to their house?” Dennis asks incredulously?
“Yeah. I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I thought ‘what if…’” Stan says.
The Americans biggest creative risk was placing its central couple next door to an FBI agent. Would that logical implausibility have made Stan come across like a bumbling Magoo? In reality, Philip and Elizabeth’s cover has been so strong that it’s impressive Stan can sniff the truth even now.
All of those disparate threads – Harvest, the priests, Oleg, the Jennings, etc. finally get the FBI hot on Philip’s trail and it culminates in the second tense walking segment of the episode.
Philip meets with Father Andre to “atone for his sins” as Elizabeth has suggested he do and also to receive important information that the priest wanted to pass along to Elizabeth. Philip and Andre have a nice, civilized chat as they walk through the part and then, almost as an afterthought Philip asks Andre what he wanted to tell Elizabeth.
The magic act that The Americans pulls off next is remarkable. It turns an otherwise normal American park into a house of horrors. We’ve always taking for granted just how safe and ingratiated with American society Philip and Elizabeth are. They are the quintessential American family. They go to the movies, they go to work, they bowl. They occupy the same spaces we do with little to no difficulty or stress. And then, with one sentence from Father Andre, Philip is suddenly, irretrievably behind enemy lines. This is no longer a park. It’s no longer home. It’s a war zone where every combatant is looking for him and only him.
Philip’s brisk walk away from Andre is unbearably tense and then culminates into real horror. Everyone is an enemy and nowhere is safe. Philip is able to narrowly escape and get into a cab with a new disguise but it’s only a brief respite for the horror to come.
“I was hoping to make it home for dinner but things are topsy-turvy at the office,” Philip tells Elizabeth from a payphone.
Elizabeth, latching onto the coded message launches into action and prepares a go-bag with passports, license plates, cash, and more.
As a penultimate episode, “Jennings, Elizabeth” has one job: to make things fall apart just in time for the finale. It does that job capably but in true Americans fashion where the episode really excels is on the edges.
The story of Elizabeth Jennings blossoming heroism and independence is an important one. As is the FBI’s impending capture of the Jennings. There is real truth and sometimes beauty to be found in-between the “big” stories though.
Poor Oleg. Poor, poor Oleg. Costa Ronin and Noah Emmerich have developed real chemistry over the years and it all pays off perfectly in “Jennings, Elizabeth.” After Oleg is captured, Stan meets with him for one of weird, stressful bonding sessions. Stan is truly devastated that Oleg got himself captured. It’s not bullshit when Stan tells Oleg to help them track down the illegals so he can see his wife and children again.
Oleg, of course, cannot do that and even shakes his head when Stan shows him a picture of Philip and Elizabeth. The irony here is that Oleg just wants peace as does Stan. And Oleg has the secret talisman to maintain peace in his pocket: Elizabeth’s message to the Gorbachev administration.
“I can spend the rest of my life here,” Oleg tells Stan. “I don’t know. But think about it. I have friends, family, my father, my mother, my brother who died in the war. All of us want a better future. Just like you. Peace. Food to eat. All of the same things. You think it doesn’t matter who our leader is? This is why I’m here. This is why I risked all of that. Can you get that into your thick head.”
Oleg and Stan sincerely care for each other and they sincerely want the same things. But the battle lines have been drawn and there is no-undrawing them.
Then there’s Paige. Paige hears through the grapevine at school a story about a disturbed young intern who has been drinking too much. This individual is telling some crazy stories about falling in love and then being betrayed by an older woman.
Paige confronts her mother with the story and says “If you lie to me now I’ll never forgive you.”
Elizabeth promptly lies to her.
“Looking back, I’ve always known, mom,” Paige says. “And I know now. No wonder dad can’t bear to be in the same room as you. You’re a whore.”
Speaking of parent, children interactions, I was texting with my own mother earlier this week and she asked what shows I was reviewing. I mentioned The Americans and she responded with:
“The Americans disturbs me. The only episodes I watched were of a married spy couple having sex with other people, including her being whipped by a creepy guy and her husband knowing about it. Too much.”
Too much, indeed. Sometimes it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the reality of this show and the unique nature of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ marriage and forget how unusual this all is. Most people would have a hard time wrapping their heads around the sexual nature of Elizabeth and Philip’s job. It’s not that surprising then that this…thisis the aspect that Paige would be hung up on.
Paige never lived in Soviet Russia. She never knew what it was like to have almost-sex with some bumbling boy in a crowded apartment because there was no other option for privacy. Paige knows what her parents do for a living. She knows it’s illegal, and dangerous, and could one day kill them both. She’s still been all-in up until now. Because her mother can betray her adopted homeland but she cannot be a whore, god damn it.
That’s the level of “things fall apartedness” this penultimate episode brings to the table. This is a tragic episode on a tragic show. What makes all these compounding tragedies so much more real and so much more poignant is that they are all human-led and initiated.
The Americansi sn’t just tragedy for tragedy’s sake. It’s tragedy because all our stupid, intractable human selves are capable of is tragedy. The good news for Philip and Elizabeth is that, whether they know it or not, there is only one week of tragedies left.