A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I say unkind things about Mail Robot…
“I want to get out of here. We should just go. I mean it. Let’s go home.” –Elizabeth
Those four sentences could be the most consequential uttered in the history of this series. Or they could amount to almost nothing. It depends on both what Elizabeth actually means, and what she can actually do about it.
It’s been clear for a long time — arguably from the very first episode of season one — that Philip hates this job and would defect in a heartbeat if Elizabeth were willing to come with him and the kids. But Elizabeth was a true believer in the cause, and has continued to be. For that reason, all of the many periods when Philip has been close to burn-out have been almost irrelevant to the dramatic arc of the series as a whole — stunningly acted and amazing to watch, but irrelevant overall, since he had already had enough of this s–t from the moment we met him. For anything major to change, Elizabeth has to be the one to change. That was true over the course of the first two seasons, as she gradually embraced the idea of treating their fake marriage as something emotionally real, and it’s true now, when she is the one pushing harder for Paige to become a spy, and when she is the one who has the ability to say whether they stay or go in this job.
So what exactly is she saying to Philip in the wake of a depressing evening in Boston, where she executes two elderly people who pose no threat whatsoever to the current Soviet state, all because 40 years ago, one of them was placed in an impossible situation by the Nazis and chose not to die alongside all her friends and family? Is she saying she wants to belatedly take Gabriel up on his suggestion that they go back to Russia? If so, would they drag the kids there against their wills? Is she saying she wants to get out of the spy business altogether, but stay in America by going fugitive, or — Lenin forbid — defecting? Or is she just saying that she wants to go home to Falls Church, to see the kids, and to try to forget about the terrible night she just had?
The force of Keri Russell’s delivery of those lines suggest something more than just a snuggle party with Paige and Henry, but that in turn raises another question: what exactly will the Centre let them get away with? Gabriel may have though it in their best interests to go home in the aftermath of William’s arrest, but nothing has happened since to suggest the FBI is onto them, and the Centre has been placing more and more responsibility on their weary shoulders. Would they be allowed retirement at this stage? Or would they, like William, be goaded into one last job — or even a series of one last jobs (“Just give us four more years in Topeka…”) — before it was even a consideration?
And if they don’t, then how would Elizabeth feel about switching sides?
I’m writing this without having watched the screeners of the season’s final episodes, and I’m hopeful that Elizabeth is ready to make some kind of huge move, if only because the muted nature of this year all but begs for a big narrative/emotional explosion as a payoff. And the groundwork’s been laid for her to have some kind of crisis of faith — not as powerful as Philip’s, because he was always more vulnerable to begin with, but enough to move us into wherever the final arc of the series is taking us — as she and her husband have become painfully aware of their superiors’ many failings. When Claudia tells them that the Centre did, indeed, weaponize the virus and unleash it in Afghanistan, it shakes both of them to their core. It’s not a coincidence that the very next scene is the two of them realizing that the best possible thing they can do for Henry is to let him enroll at St. Edwards and get as far as possible — physically, emotionally, spiritually, professionally — from the work that they do, and the impact that it’s had on Paige. And when you couple that with the discovery about the wheat, and then with the visit to John and Natalie Granholm — where Natalie eventually reveals herself to be the woman the KGB is hunting, but perhaps not so vicious a war criminal as Claudia has described — well, can you blame Elizabeth for seeming fed up, even for just a moment in the bloody aftermath?
The riveting confrontation with the Granholms recalled Elizabeth’s murder of poor Betty back in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep”, though where Betty’s only crime was bad timing, Natalie’s confession — which at first seems to be her playing along with these invaders just to spare her husband, before the details become too specific to be that — suggests she did something worth feeling guilty about, whether it was just digging graves after each massacre, sleeping with the Nazis to stay alive, or even playing a more active role in things for the same reason. But she’s definitely not the monster Philip and Elizabeth think they’ve come to kill, and enough is enough already, right?
It’s a strong scene in a season that’s had plenty of strong scenes without really cohering into something grander. We’re at a crossroads now, though. The show has done some muted finales in the past, and had license to do so because the seasons leading up to them were filled with so much physical and emotional violence. This season’s been so understated, though, that if the final two episodes are along the same lines, it will feel like we’ve spent an entire year on set-up. And, as I’ve said, I still have absolute faith in Fields and Weisberg to bring this story home in suitably devastating fashion; it’s just a shame things had to drag along for a bit to get there.
Some other thoughts:
* A nice touch to have veteran Americans writer Joshua Brand — a.k.a. co-creator of iconic Boston hospital drama St. Elsewhere — be the one to get the script where so many consequential things happen in Beantown.
* Oleg, meanwhile, continues to be disillusioned by everything he sees back in Moscow, from the colleague of Ruslan’s lamenting the fact that he had to institutionalize a non-crazy man for speaking out against the government, to the way that Fomina shrugs off their attempts to play hardball because she understands better than the cops do how corrupt the entire Soviet economy is.
* I laughed very long and very hard at Henry being wowed by Mail Robot, followed by Stan telling him, “Ah, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.” Stan would know. And it’s also both funny and sad that, after all the effort to recruit Paige, and all the pain that it’s caused, it’s the other Jennings kid who gets a VIP tour of FBI Counter-Espionage.
* Totally ’80s: I had forgotten McDonald’s packaging used to be quite that brown, and KFC was still going by Kentucky Fried Chicken (the name change happened in 1991).
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com