Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Americans Stalls Plot but Develops Characters

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This was a relatively uneventful episode for The Americans. The plot did not advance too much. No drastic event defined it. It was defined mostly by goodbyes, as Gabriel’s coming departure dominated events. As a result, “The Committee on Human Rights” was a possibly frustrating episode for some fans. Still, slow episodes of this show still beat out what most shows are capable of, and this episode was no different.

Spoilers for 5×07 “The Committee on Human Rights” below


We start off this week where we left off last week, with Paige meeting Gabriel. She learns a bit about Gabriel and his relationship with her parents while he lovingly compliments her and them. Seriously, this had to mean a lot to Gabriel. Paige talks with her parents about him afterwards and shows off her observational skills about the safe house’s lack of personal belongings.

Back home, Philip and Elizabeth look over recon of the wheat plant greenhouse and discuss strategies involving their Kansas contacts. They also talk about Paige’s improving mindset regarding their work.  Speaking of, Elizabeth successfully breaks into the therapist office and steals a file. Stan’s own work improves when the FBI gets a call from the woman they approached last week. They set up a meeting with her.

Over in Kansas, Philip has an awkward dinner date with Deidre where she shoots down any serious relationship and says he is needy.  Damn, she’s good. Meanwhile, Oleg tells his mother about the CIA not showing up for the meetings they wanted and talks about missing his brother. Stan and Aderholt meet up with another concerned Russian mother, the one they set the meeting with, to try and recruit her. Turns out they’re investigating TASS, a Soviet news agency. Stan refuses to promise her safety and Aderholt calls him out on it when she walks away.

Philip returns home from Kansas as Paige and Elizabeth talk about Gabriel. Paige asks about the grain operation. They don’t tell her the truth about America strengthening grain rather than sabotaging it. Paige wonders why they can’t go to the press to expose the truth. Which, of course, they don’t tell her.

Afterwards they match up intel and decide to go to Mississippi. I’m sure they’ll love that. Paige goes over to babysit for Pastor Tim and his wife and talk about her improving attitude towards her parents. Stan finds out about the CIA backing off Oleg, but that it comes at the price of leaving counter-intelligence. His boss uses his current operation with TASS as an excuse to keep him.

Paige messily breaks up with Matthew while Philip and Elizabeth follow Ben in Mississippi, where he is planting the resistant grain. They find out he has another girlfriend there and go back to dig up a couple plants from the field. Elizabeth brings them to Gabriel, and they talk about Paige and him leaving. When she returns home, she and Paige talk about the break-up.

Stan’s relationship is going better. He watches a movie with Renee and after initial reluctance, tells her vaguely about the whole issue with Oleg. Aw, he’s learning to be a good boyfriend. Philip finds out about Paige’s break-up when he comes home and goes to talk to her about it. He does a much better job than Elizabeth. Elizabeth also says he needs to see Gabriel before he leaves. Over in Moscow, Oleg looks into his mother’s stint in prison.

And finally, Philip goes to say goodbye to Gabriel. They talk about the grain operation and the file Elizabeth stole. They also talk about the terrible things Gabriel did for the Soviet Union during his youth. Before he leaves, Philip asks if Renee is KGB. Gabriel says he’s crazy but can’t dismiss it. Then he tells Philip he should keep Paige out of the spy life.


Something remarkable about this episode (and The Americans in general) is how they can pack such monumental character definition and development in such a stalling episode. That’s not to say nothing happened this week. We found out the therapist operation was about names of Soviet opposition. The grain operation continued along. Paige broke up with Matthew. Stan faced consequences for his gamble with Oleg, and we found out the purpose of his operation with Aderholt. Gabriel left.

Where the problem exists with most is how none of this drastically changed the circumstances for these characters.

With the season more than halfway over, fans are still waiting for that BOOM moment delivering on the season’s plotlines. Many thought Mischa showing up at Philip’s door would be it, but now he’s back in the Soviet Union. Others thought something would happen with Oleg or Stan by now. Maybe Paige would tell someone about her parents, or Henry would do something, or Renee would be exposed as KGB. Fans want something monumental to happen.

Yet somehow The Americans keeps managing to keep these characters fluid, to keep everything happening around them relevant to their circumstances. Following Ben and failing to learn anything new may not feel like anything special, yet it spoke volumes about Philip and Elizabeth. Stan watching TV with Renee may not do anything for Stan’s career, but it displayed his growth over the past 4 seasons. Gabriel’s goodbye may not have offered a surprise, but it spoke volumes about his handling of his agents and care for them.

This style may not appeal to everyone. That does not make it any less effective. I love it. Yeah, I know, I’m the resident slow-burn story lover and reviewer around here. I love The Americans, I love Better Call Saul, I love A Feast for Crows as much as any other A Song of Ice and Fire book. Where other audiences see slow and boring, where they see lack of plot movement, I see incredibly well-defined characters engaging me in their lives and circumstances.

The reason for this love is simple; it’s hard to pull off. So many stories stagnate their characters in between the obvious, shocking moments of development. They depend on those moments because their writers can’t naturally accumulate development from episode to episode, or they know audiences are not drawn to that kind of development. It’s so much easier to let characters exist as is until some sudden violence, trauma, or joy makes an obvious change in them. You can’t help but tie character development to plot development, and audiences often assume a lack of one always means a lack of the other.

The Americans has never been that kind of show. It has always been one to take the development of one huge moment and break it into pieces spread across a season, so that the development takes course piece by piece from episode to episode.  And I will always argue this method as the difference between the best shows I’ve ever seen and those in the middle of the pack, which will actually be bland and boring for groups of episodes at a time. When you’re always engaged in the characters and always seeing development in them, it makes these light plot episodes better to watch.

“The Committee on Human Rights” did exactly that. I love seeing Paige use her self-defense on Matthew and knowing what prompted her reaction, because The Americans has done its job well.  Elizabeth’s jealousy over Ben’s other girlfriend was about more than her and him. It was used to reveal the fundamental differences between herself and Philip. Stan’s refusal to make promises to the woman he wants to recruit did not just provide a moment for Aderholt to make fun of him. He both showed his growth as a person since his divorce from Sandra and the way his lies to Nina still bother him.

This consistent, natural growth of an amazing cast elevated The Americans into the conversation among the best show on TV, and is the reason it remains there. There are so few shows capable of pulling this style off. I know few people like slow, methodical progression compared to big, shocking moments which keep you entertained. The style favors binging over the week to week grind, where you have no idea what payoff will come and when. Following slow burns from week to week can be a frustrating experience.

I love it, though, and I love The Americans for doing it so well.

Still, we are here at the halfway point of season 5 and things have not changed much since the premiere. Philip’s disillusion has increased a bit. Paige has broken up with Matthew. Stan’s career is facing a crossroads and will force a choice on him soon. Gabriel’s gone and the Jenningses new handler will probably usher in huge change.

Have faith, Americans fans. If we’ve learned anything over the past 4 years, the big moments are coming and when they do, they will be all the better for the slow burn preceding them.

Other Thoughts:

  • Deidre can really read people. She nailed Philip’s character perfectly during their dinner date. I love how she saw through both Philip’s actual personality and the personality he puts on for her.
  • We have a couple big questions now about the FBI and KGB. Why investigate TASS? What exactly will the KGB do with the list Elizabeth stole?
  • I also wonder just what Oleg’s thinking about that has him looking into his mother’s stint in a prison camp.
  • Philip: “It’s okay to care.” Elizabeth: “No, it isn’t. Not for me.”
  • Could you sum up their characters and loyalty any better than that?
  • Gabriel’s ability to manipulate often goes underappreciated, and his comments about Paige put it on full display. He supported bringing Paige into the spy game to Elizabeth, and opposed it when talking to Philip. What’s the game here?
  • He really did care about Paige, though. I loved seeing that.
  • Philip and Elizabeth still don’t understand Paige’s problem. She isn’t upset because she can’t get used to the secrets. She’s upset because she doesn’t want to get used to it. Getting used to it is her biggest fear.
  • Matthew Rhys’s various redneck disguises make him look frightening. Add the Mississippi disguise to the list.

Images Courtesy of FX

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