With an episode title like “The Summit” happening this late in the final season, you had to imagine something significant would go down. The Americans seemed to take pleasure in playing with those expectations. Numerous moments came and went where I expected something earth-shattering to happen. With ten or so minutes left and nothing yet to come, I figured The Americans would put things off another week.
Then Elizabeth Jennings dropped the bomb.
The Greater Good
Say what you want about Elizabeth Jennings, but you can never doubt her motivations. She truly believes everything she does serves the betterment of the world. She’s certainly done some awful things, but this show has never given you reason to think Elizabeth doubts the mission those awful moments serve. Even her guiltiest moments never really made her question her mission.
In this way she has always differed from Philip. This difference between them served as the foundation of this final season from the very beginning. Philip has been jaded his entire life. He always viewed his spy work as political machinations between his country and America, machinations he participated in because they gave him an opportunity to escape the hardships of his childhood. He had his beliefs about America’s intentions, but long ago stopped viewing the Soviet Union or America as “good” in their conflict.
Elizabeth could not differ more. She views the Soviet Union as right. Working for the KGB gave focus to her defining desire to have a positive influence on the world. The Soviet Union is right, America is wrong, and she would perform whatever terrible acts necessary to make sure the bad guys did not expand.
There’s no question she willingly deludes herself to some extent. You can’t ruin or take lives like she has without questioning the morality of it all. Elizabeth has always managed that level of naiveté, though, and rather easily. After all, her enemy was always clear. She was part of a unified front against the United States. If someone had to die, it was because they worked for the bad guys. Even if they were a good persons he could tell herself as much. If she was sent to kill a defector, it was because they betrayed the good mission she fought for.
Throughout this season, we’ve seen Elizabeth struggle. Between the extra work accrued due to Philip’s semi-retirement and her long years as a spy, the burden began to overwhelm her. It didn’t help that her target was no longer America. She was working a mission against her own country. Suddenly the clear-cut morality of her work came into question.
“The Summit” eliminated this morality entirely. Elizabeth recognized how she became a pawn in the political machinations of the Soviet Union’s rift. And what’s worse, she saw how she ended up on what she believed to be the wrong side of it.
One of the biggest reasons why Elizabeth Jennings became one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen on TV is because of her need to do good. There’s a reason she admired Paige’s church work despite their theological differences, and a reason she came around on Pastor Tim; she recognized their desire to effect positive change in the world. There are alternate universes where Elizabeth Jennings is a world-changing activist or political leader. Where she is creating immense change for the better within a community. She has such a powerful, dominating need to make the world better. Seeing her struggle between the death and ruin of spy work and her belief in its purpose makes her one of the most morally interesting characters I’ve ever seen.
Maybe she surprised some fans by refusing the assassination ordered in this episode. Maybe she surprised some even more by siding with the Gorbachev side of the Soviet political conflict. She didn’t surprise me. And it was specifically because of her need to do good.
The second she listened to the recording of the meeting Nestorenko attended, her view of the KGB as the good guys was shaken. All the lies fell away. Gorbachev was the side of good, working towards nuclear disarmament. Opposing him means opposing Elizabeth’s beliefs. Think about how many missions she’s performed under the guise of protecting the Soviet Union from the American nuclear arsenal. She would absolutely side with Gorbachev on this.
And even if she questioned his weakness, she’s still being asked to kill good people of her own homeland. It’s one thing to kill a good person working for America or who defected. Killing someone who is working towards ending the conflict between America and Russia, and is doing so without any hint of betraying the Soviet side, is something beyond Elizabeth’s ability to reason away.
Ultimately, there is no good reason she can see for killing Nestorenko or taking down Gorbachev. All she sees is political machinations manipulating her towards beliefs she does not agree with. In fact, she probably views the KGB side as the traitors.
I wonder just how much of this she realized, possibly subconsciously, throughout the season. There’s no doubt that she had a lot more on her plate without Philip to help. Decades in the spy game certainly didn’t help, either. Still, this sense of mystery about her overall mission and why she must carry it out secretly had to weigh heavy on her mind. We’ve seen her make uncharacteristic mistakes all season. Obviously there were multiple reasons for those mistakes, but I have to wonder how many of her failures fall back to her inability to truly find motivation.
Whatever the case, Elizabeth has reached her turning point. Not only will she not carry out the KGB’s mission to take down Gorbachev, but she will actively work against it.
So what happens now? Damn good question. I’m both more and less optimistic than last week. I can see this going a variety of ways that please and crush me. Knowing The Americans, both will happen.
Needless to say, both Claudia and Elizabeth made a mistake letting the other walk out of that room at the end. Both know each other too well to think the other will just let this go. Even if there was a chance of Claudia leaving Elizabeth alone, that will change since Elizabeth is looking to stop the KGB plot. So now we may have the final conflicts ending The Americans; Elizabeth and Philip vs. the KGB. Only Philip and Elizabeth remain divided. And Stan is still on their case, while the FBI might be watching the Jennings’ spy garage. And Paige doesn’t know. Yeah, this is going to go bad.
The next steps taken are going to be fascinating to watch play out. Who reaches Paige first, Elizabeth or Claudia? Do Elizabeth and Philip try to reconcile? How far will Elizabeth go to stop the anti-Gorbachev faction? What will Philip and Oleg do now that she’s on their side? When will Stan make his move? Will the FBI’s various surveillance efforts catch anyone in the act? Just what is Renee’s deal?
I think this is all ultimately leading to a moment where someone close to Elizabeth and Philip will be asked to kill them. It’s the only way they could possibly catch them off-guard. If Renee is more than she says (yeah, I’m back on that train), it could be her. However, I’m having the increasingly sinking feeling that this season is leading to Paige being asked to kill her parents. Or at least Elizabeth.
I know it might be a stretch, but all season we’ve seen how effectively Claudia and Elizabeth have convinced Paige of their moral righteousness. What if they did their job too well, Claudia gets to Paige, and manages to convince her that Elizabeth has lost her way? All season fans have theorized over a coming moment creator Joe Weisberg said he and fellow showrunner Joel Fields would go to Hell over. A situation where either Paige kills a parent or one of them kills her certainly qualifies. And it seems like the best way Claudia can get at Philip and Elizabeth.
I admit I’m having a hard time imagining Paige agreeing to something so terrible, let alone going through with an attempt. I don’t think it’s impossible, though, and I’m having a sinking feeling that it is inevitable.
Whatever the case, this represents a moment of irrevocable change for the Jennings family. Either the FBI or the KGB is going to catch up to them. Stan represents the lawful side coming for them, while Claudia represents the more deadly side. They can’t really go to either for help. They are truly alone, even to each other. Just because Elizabeth came around to Philip’s way of thinking, doesn’t change the betrayal she feels over him spying on her. They are not united. They will not want to handle the inevitable end in the same manner.
With so many pieces in play here, it’s hard to feel overly confident about the direction The Americans goes in here at the end. In fact, I wonder if there are too many pieces. Can they possibly tie all this together? Will they leave too many subplots open-ended? There’s just so much happening. I have faith The Americans will tie it all together but I still wonder.
But not too much. This final season has been wonderfully dramatic and tense. Wherever they go with it, I have complete faith The Americans will end this story with a gut-punch worthy of this show’s legacy.
- Elizabeth killing Erica with one of Erica’s paint brushes has to be foreshadowing or symbolism of some kind. Something like dying by the instruments of her trade.
- Someone with an understanding of art I don’t have will have to explain the meaning behind Elizabeth choosing the painting she did.
- Yes, I’m back on the “Renee has to be someone” train. Her story continues to linger on here at the end, and she would be one of the best candidates to either stop Stan before he discovers the Jenningses or get the assignment to kill them.
- Add Elizabeth’s seduction of the Senate aide to the uncharacteristic mistakes she’s made this season. She was so blunt and unsubtle throughout the entire process.
- Of course Stavos knew. He’s been there since the beginning, when Philip and Elizabeth didn’t have kids and therefore less reason to maintain a normal personal life.
- The movie Philip watches, “The Garage,” was banned in the Soviet Union since it is seen as a satire about Soviet corruption. Makes sense he’d watch it now.
Images courtesy of FX