Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Americans Passes the Point of No Return

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At this point, it had to happen, right? This was the next to last episode of The Americans. The battle lines are drawn and there’s no real way to avoid the inevitable. It was simply a matter of how. In many ways, “Jennings, Elizabeth” worked the same way as last week’s episode. You spent the entire time waiting for the shoe to drop and the tension lasted just long enough to make you question yourself. Then it all fell apart in the end. There’s no coming back now.

The Death of the Jennings Family

Here we are. Philip was made by FBI agents and nearly arrested. Elizabeth burned her final bridge with the KGB. Paige found out about her mother seducing the Senate intern and all but emancipated herself from her family.

It’s all over. Now we wait to see where the pieces fall.

As usual, The Americans knocked the tension of each scene out of the park. True to the show’s form, there was no explosion, no sudden moment played for extreme drama that let you know this was THE moment where life became irreparable for the Jennings family. Instead it was a series of circumstances steadily moving forward, like a car accident in slow-motion. You saw each crumple of steel and every broken shard of glass leading into the greater tragedy.

It was interesting to watch the way Philip and Elizabeth each burned a separate bridge throughout the episode, whether willingly or not. You could certainly argue that they were screwed either way. Philip’s meeting with Father Andrei screws his and Elizabeth’s cover regardless of anything Elizabeth does. Elizabeth rebuking the KGB ruins their cover as well, even if nothing happens with Philip. There was no escaping the danger once Elizabeth decided to oppose the anti-Gorbachev faction.

By burning both bridges, however, they have ruined their potential sanctuaries from the response of one side or the other.

If the FBI doesn’t make Philip, then he and Elizabeth have the option to go to them ahead of time and earn some goodwill. If not, they could at least lose themselves somewhere else in America or the rest of the world without the FBI knowing who they are and watching them. They would have time to make some preparations for avoiding KGB retribution. If Elizabeth doesn’t turn on the KGB, they could be extracted and return home. They may still be discovered but they’d have cover.

I find it very interesting that Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields settled on the way each of them burned their cover. Throughout this final season, I assumed the FBI would catch on through Elizabeth. Her work has been so sloppy and has left a trail to follow. She was THE active KGB spy in for the FBI to catch. She was also the loyal one, the unquestioning patriot who would not turn on the Soviet Union, no matter what. If you had to guess who the FBI busts, you likely guess it’s Elizabeth.

And if anyone turned on the KGB and led them to want the Jenningses dead, you’d think it would be Philip. He has been jaded for the majority of the show and basically retired since last season. If anyone would cause the KGB to harm them, it would be him, right? Philip always seemed more likely to perform some treason against the Soviet Union. He did not believe in their mission and was basically living as a real American citizen.

Instead it’s Elizabeth who murders a KGB assassin and admits it to Claudia, while Philip gets made by the FBI during a meeting. Now they have no real way out. It’s just a matter of what side catches them first.

The Americans worked this feeling of isolation and danger remarkably well throughout this episode. Between the directing and the expected top-notch acting of Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, I found myself acting just like Philip and Elizabeth. I was scanning every background character nervously, wondering who might be an FBI agent or KGB operative. I wondered just how much Stan knew when he visited the travel agency, how much of his visit was a test, and whether Philip allayed or worsened his suspicions.

This kind of slow-burn tension is hard to pull off consistently. The Americans has always executed it well, but even it sometimes goes too slowly sometimes. That was not the case here. “Jennings, Elizabeth” was a terrifically paced episode that gradually removed every bit of support Philip and Elizabeth once had. They’re all alone. For all intents and purposes, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings no longer exist.

I was actually surprised, even after all these years, at how well The Americans incorporated just about every subplot from this season and past seasons into this episode’s downfall. Who expected a call to Pastor Tim? The travel agency, Paige, Henry, Claudia, Elizabeth’s youth, Gregory, Oleg, Father Andrei, Tatiana…it just went on and on. Was all of it perfectly subtle and sensible? Maybe not, but the fact that I didn’t once find myself wondering why something was included in this episode says something about how well they incorporated all these elements. Including some elements fans have questioned throughout the season.

For better or worse (who in the world thinks it’s for the worse?), this was a well-suited penultimate episode of The Americans. Weisberg and Fields delivered an understated earthquake of an episode, one that shifted the continents their characters resided upon for 6 seasons without relying on sudden shocks or deadly twists unnatural to their style.

The Rebirth of Mikhail and Nadezhda

A significant undercurrent of The Americans has always been the loss of identity Philip and Elizabeth went through by becoming KGB operatives. In order to do their job well, they had to let go of the people they used to be. They were Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. Everything in their life was intentionally placed as cover, right down to their children.

In the past 2-3 seasons, we’ve seen a gradual shift reclamation of the identities they once let go of. There was a culmination of this reclamation in their wedding scene last year. Their marriage was no longer a fake vow between their cover identities. Mikhail and Nadezhda made a real commitment of love to each other rather than a commitment to protect their identities. Despite their conflicts this season, they still had that connection.

“Jennings, Elizabeth” used Nadezhda flashbacks for the first time in a while to represent Elizabeth’s awakening at the end of last week’s episode. Philip’s confession last week, as well as the truth about the anti-Gorbachev faction, clearly shook her more than anything has in some time. These flashbacks were here looking back on when exactly she lost her sense of self to the mission, and why. Nadezhda has now made her choice.

Their sense of self ties directly to Father Andrei, and Father Andrei played a huge role in the dissolution of Philip and Elizabeth as a result. Directly in the case of Philip, as it was their meeting that burned him. He also played a role in Elizabeth’s change as well, I think. When she runs, she grabs her and Mikhail’s wedding rings. Those rings symbolize the identities they left behind. Whatever comes next, I think Philip and Elizabeth want to face it as themselves and not the people they were forced to become.

And at this point, they have nothing else. Everything has been stripped away. They can’t go on in their current life because of the FBI. The Soviet Union is not safe since they rebuked the KGB. One child has basically given up on them, and the other made a clear split this week. In the end, they have lost everything from their life as the Jenningses. All that’s left is the choice of who they want to be now.

What will happen to them? It looks bleak. They can’t go to the FBI. They can’t go back to the Soviet Union. I suppose they can try to run, but with both sides after them, I can’t imagine they make it far. I honestly don’t know what they can do here. None of the options feel the least bit promising. In the end, I’m not sure it matters. Once Philip and Elizabeth realize the full impact of how their lives have been erased, they’ll care more about choosing how to go out on their own terms.

They’ll want to face life as Mikhail and Nedezhda, whatever may come. Will this involve them choosing to do so separately? How hard will they try to bring Paige and Henry along with them? We’ll see. What’s more important is that they will make these decisions based on what they want, and who they really are.

Is it just in time for a sorrowful Romeo and Juliet type ending? I guess we’ll see. The finale is here. It could be a Black Sails-style type of wish fulfillment and I’ll still be sad when it’s over. As good as this final season has been, I’m not the least bit ready to see The Americans end.

Other Thoughts:

  • It’s funny, the truth about Philip and Elizabeth seems so obvious that you wonder why Stan didn’t mention his suspicions earlier. Then he starts laying out the case and it doesn’t seem obvious at all. It’s a huge stretch. He could have made a better case, I guess.
  • Poor Oleg. His trip to America was always destined for failure. I hope the pro-Gorbachev side pulls some strings so he avoids long prison time.
  • The KGB sending Tatiana to kill Nesterenko probably shows how much of a minority the anti-Gorbachev faction is. They had no one else remotely as capable as Elizabeth to send.
  • And so ends Paige’s life as a spy. Talk about being destined for failure. All Elizabeth and Claudia really taught her was how to recognize their lies.
  • Speaking of Paige, I’m disappointed that getting to her wasn’t a top priority of both Claudia and Elizabeth. They had this life-changing split and apparently neither thought to tell Paige about it.
  • One last point about the Jennings kids; I’m actually hopeful they’ll make it out of this relatively okay. Henry will likely leave his school, and Paige might suffer for her time working for her mother. Obviously both will have to deal with the consequences of having Soviet spies as parents. Still, neither looks to be in any kind of mortal danger. They can eventually move on with their lives.

Images Courtesy of FX

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