Midway Through Its Final Season, Every Damn Character in ‘The Americans’ Seems Destined for Inevitable Tragedy
Elizabeth Jennings isn’t happy, Philip Jennings isn’t happy, and Paige Jennings is being manipulated by both her mother and her father. Here we are, midway through the sixth and final season of The Americans! (Spoilers for the first half of the sixth season follow.)
When we looked back on season five a few weeks ago, I pondered what this three-year time jump could mean for the Jennings family, especially as the Cold War has begun to wind down and their mission—once that of married partners Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys), and now more that of Elizabeth and Paige (Holly Taylor), the daughter she is molding in her own image—is, as we know, for naught. The USSR did not win the Cold War. The USSR did not stay intact. The Pizza Hut opening in Moscow, a development that causes Elizabeth to rant about how much she hates the American way of life, was not an anomaly, but the first sign of an onslaught of change.
With last night’s fifth episode, “The Great Patriotic War,” we reached halfway to endgame, and holy shit, those 83 minutes marked a point of no return. Every single main character in “The Great Patriotic War” is reminded of how their actions never involve only themselves, how their choices reverberate outward and don’t dissipate but lay in wait until the exact right time to remind their creators of how tragedies happen suddenly but also inevitably.
The fissure between Elizabeth and Philip is now a chasm. She murders Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) informants in the same CIA safe house where their child is watching TV; it is one of the most brutal scenes I have seen on The Americans—I can’t stop thinking about all that blood—which keeps redefining just how much its characters and we as viewers can take. Meanwhile, the only affection she has shown to Philip all season is a precursor to a request: that he help the KGB set up the teenager he’s been working for years, Kimmy (Julia Garner), as a way to get to her father, the head of the CIA Soviet division. Elizabeth wants Philip to help ensnare the girl—who, of course, she doesn’t see as “just a kid,” unlike Philip—and when she asks him later if the plan worked, she doesn’t ask for details. She doesn’t want to know, nor care to know, what Philip did to secure Kimmy’s trust—which was sleep with her, a young woman the same age as his daughter, the daughter that Elizabeth has claimed entirely as her own.
The pressures on Elizabeth in this sixth season are, even for her, seemingly overwhelmingly daunting. With Philip out of the spy game, Elizabeth has drawn closer to Claudia (character actress Margo Martindale) (despite their relationship once involving snarkiness, blank-faced glares, and oh yeah, torture) and is even more committed to her belief in the Soviet cause and her hatred of the American government. In the three years we don’t see because of the time jump, she’s grown more unyielding and more brittle — we rarely see her eat, she’s constantly smoking cigarettes, and it’s clear that the only reason she comes home is to have somewhere to sleep. The disconnect between her and Philip is obvious to both of them, but only Philip seems to care. Think of how often Philip looks at Elizabeth this season through windows (he can see her, but the distance is impenetrable) or how often she turns away from him when they are together — there is an opacity to her interactions with her husband that is a directive from the KGB, but also her own intentional choice.
Performing alone the work that they both used to do, Elizabeth is leaving a trail of bodies as she pursues two different directives in the weeks before the summit involving President Ronald Reagan and USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. The first task involves a Soviet negotiator who has been meeting with the U.S. government; this leads Elizabeth to pose as a night nurse for the ailing wife of U.S. negotiator Glenn Haskard (Scott Cohen, the underrated Max Medina from Gilmore Girls!), hoping to gather intel from his home. The second task is to retrieve information about the doomsday device the Dead Hand, specifically a radiation sensor that would equal the playing field between the United States and the USSR.
But despite her success in murdering Stan’s informants, Gennadi (Yuri Kolokolnikov) and Sofia (Darya Ekamasova), neither of Elizabeth’s main missions is going particularly well. With no one watching her back with the attention and focus that Philip used to, Elizabeth is resorting to murder, over and over again, more regularly — and more casually, I think — then we’ve seen in preceding seasons. She stabs a guard in the neck in the middle of the street; she chokes out an employee from the warehouse holding the radiation sensor when she realizes that his girlfriend, who works in security at the same facility, will be a loose end; she’s involved in a scuffle that leaves an uncooperative general dead, with his blood and brains splattered on her face; she tries to break into the warehouse where the guy she killed worked, but then kills even more people when the mission goes sideways. Even for Elizabeth, this is a lot, and the cyanide pill she was given in the beginning of the season seems more and more viable with each episode. Elizabeth rarely wears jewelry, but she slides the necklace where the pill is hidden over her head as soon as she realizes what it is. This isn’t superficial vanity; this is a willing acceptance of suicidal sacrifice.
While Elizabeth is toiling away to fulfill the Soviet dream she signed up to advance as a KGB operative, Philip is realizing that the American dream he coveted for so long is all smoke and mirrors — not that different, really, from the types of lies he told to Martha (Alison Wright) as Clarke before she was sent to the USSR, or those his alias Jim Baxter once told to the now college-aged Kimmy before he warns her away from visiting Communist countries and removes himself from her life. His responsibilities as Jim—the older dude committed to his dated look of middle-part hair, oversized aviators, and beat-up leather jacket, even as ’80s fashions keep on changing—are the only KGB work that Philip retained. Otherwise, it’s full time at Dupont Circle Travel, which he expanded recently with a large loan. But the work isn’t coming in, the industry is changing around him, and even the motivational self-help language that Philip doles out to his employees isn’t turning anything around. The trappings of success for which Philip longed for years are now, well, a trap: the fancy car with the sunroof, the cowboy boots at the line-dancing bar, the posh new offices, everywhere renovated but the wood-paneled room where Philip and Elizabeth used to whisper together. That small enclosure is trapped in time, whereas everything else Philip longed for has flittered into and out of his grasp—proving as ephemeral as the American dream itself.
Emotionally, Philip and Elizabeth are detached enough already, and they pull their children into it, too. Think of the deadpan way Elizabeth asks “Are you rich yet?” in the fourth episode, “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup,” as Philip pores over bills, realizing that he can’t keep paying for Henry’s (Keidrich Sellati) private school tuition; her disinterested tone signifies very clearly that nothing about his business plan was her idea, and it doesn’t affect her, anyway. Henry is Philip’s “department”; that was their “deal.” Philip’s phone calls to Henry seem like a secret; he doesn’t mention his wife, and his son doesn’t mention his mother. The familial fissure is passing down a generation, and the “Everything’s fine” Philip tries to reassure Henry with in the promo for next week’s “Rififi” couldn’t sound more false.
Inversely, Philip seems set apart from Paige, who Elizabeth has been training for a career as a spy within the U.S. government; when he encourages the two to talk about the failures of a recent mission, they each rebuff his appeal to discuss their feelings. Much like Elizabeth has no time for Philip anymore, no longer does Paige—she’s committed to a cause that he abandoned, as she patronizingly tells him in “The Great Patriotic War.” Think of Philip’s smirking face when his daughter said to him, “I don’t think I’m the same as you, Dad. I know you’re not into what me and Mom do, but I am”—it’s disgust with her naiveté, yes, but also acceptance that she is truly Elizabeth’s daughter, and that she’ll need to be a lot tougher to survive this life. The sneering way Rhys delivers “There aren’t really pads in the real world” should nab him another Emmy nomination, but it’s a sign of ugliness that we haven’t seen from Philip in years—in contrast to his final words to Paige, his whispered “Not bad,” before he leaves her apartment and waits for the elevator, totally and utterly alone.
The choice Philip made to let Elizabeth train Paige is coming back to haunt him; the choices Stan made in extracting Gennadi and Sofia and failing to protect them are coming back to haunt him; the choice Oleg made years ago to inform Arkady (Lev Gorn) about his suspicions regarding Rezidentura colleague Tatiana (Vera Cherny) and leak information to Stan about her biological warfare operation are coming back to haunt him. Oleg tries to pull a Don Draper on Tatiana when she confronts him on the George Mason University campus (“The only thing that’s done any good for me … is moving on”), but she’s not having it; as committed to the cause as Elizabeth and Claudia, she tells the new Rezident to cable back to the USSR about Oleg, “He’s not here for us. He’s not loyal.” Oleg came to the United States to secure a better future for his child, but the machinations of the past are putting everyone—from his father to his wife to his son—in danger.
Tatiana says to Oleg during their exchange, “Maybe you should look behind you sometime,” but that sort of self-awareness requires also a sense of doubt—of questioning what you could have done wrong to create the situation in which you’re now ensnared. That’s what is plaguing Philip—and what, I think, fuels the fan theories that he will eventually flip on the USSR and turn into an informant for Stan against Elizabeth—but when you’re committed to the cause, even the worst situations you experience as an individual are meaningless if they further the mission. How else to explain Claudia, drunk off vodka shots as a way to train Paige to hold her liquor, telling her faux granddaughter about trading her body for food? Or the matter-of-fact way Elizabeth shares that they used to eat rats, before launching into a story about a sexual experience in which the boy thought he was losing his virginity to the already-experienced Elizabeth, who let him believe the lie? When Paige goes wild on the dudes who put their hands on her at the bar, those are the women she’s channeling. Remember what Elizabeth said to her about Philip in “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup”: “He loves me, he loves you, but somewhere … something got lost. This work can get to be too much for people. Even the best ones. I’m so proud of you, Paige. Really proud.”
These are oppositional sides. These are people talking at each other, not to each other. This is the dissolution of not only a marriage but a whole way of a life, and I can’t think of any way in which both Philip and Elizabeth make it out alive.
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