Last week, Philip Jennings was forced to once again confront the morality of his beliefs and actions. It’s an awkward position to be in, because much of the time, morality and beliefs are one in the same. However, The Americans is unique, using a portrayal of Russian spies in America who are seeing a thriving society whose basic capitalistic tenets fly completely in the face of everything they were taught. These people were raised to believe in the collective, not the individual.
When Elizabeth sees Paige reading Karl Marx, she inquires as to her daughter’s feelings, and then attempts to explain her own. Paige agrees with Marx, because if one simply reads the words and disregards the impossibility of the Utopian ideal, it sounds like a good thing. “We’re all in together,” her mother says, after first answering a question about how equal the Soviet populous is. The problem comes right there, because in that few seconds, Elizabeth basically tells Paige the people aren’t equal. That’s the goal, but that’s not how society will ever work. The conditions that would have to exist to make such a thing possible without an authoritarian, punishing federal apparatus simply don’t.
Those who argue for communism do so under the auspices that it CAN work, but it’s never been done correctly before. These individuals will concede the many examples of failed attempts at socialism, Marxism, or communism, but they’ll add the caveat that in X or Y, the system wasn’t applied properly, and capitalist greed got in the way, either internally or externally through other developed nations. The concept requires an excuse, because it’s fatally flawed and has resulted in more deaths than any ideology, religion, or cause in history.
When Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields brought The Americans to television, my initial question was how Russian theory would be portrayed. How would the philosophy of that portion of the world be used, and would it be lionized in any way? It’s not a ridiculous query, because much of Hollywood does attempt to mitigate the horrors of communism, avoiding the terror and the genocide and instead focusing on the Utopian ideals. That’s not to say many would balk against it from the first available second, but for this show, they had to get it right. And they have.
Without taking a direct stand, nothing in Russia is shown as a positive, because nothing was a positive. We feel sympathy for Elizabeth and Philip for the sole reason they never knew anything else, and communism was implanted into their brains from a very young age. Generally, our alignment has been with Philip more than his wife, and it’s always felt intentional. He’s the more human of the two, and he’s also the one that didn’t blind himself to the opportunity available to his and everyone else’s children in the United States.
One of the things that makes this show so transcendent is in its ability to exist within a sort of duality, where Philip does his job and sometimes performs with gusto, but often acts with a shadowy tinge of regret behind every step. It’s as if he realizes he’s an antihero in a popular television show, and wants his parents to be proud of him and understand him. He has to play one of Stringer or Marlo’s guys, but he’s not unaware of the misery he’s helping to propagate.
As his emotions get the better of him, when he’s unable to separate his conscience from the Center, Elizabeth at first would be the concrete slab that could stabilize the cracked wall inside his mind. But, as the series has progressed, and especially this season, she’s also struggling with orders and consequences. The Americans has continued to evolve, but in a wholly natural way, which makes it satisfying and immensely intelligent as a complete story.
While Brenda is in Topeka boinking Mr. Tai-Chi, Elizabeth desperately wants to extract the wheat information that could save her homeland. She also respects Ben Stobert and his mission, which makes me think there’s more to him than we know. Something about this guy isn’t right. She has an objective, just as she does in the psychiatrist’s office, but Elizabeth is now thinking for herself. She asks Gabriel in the episode’s opening minutes whether something is wrong with her. She’s the rock. She knows she’s supposed to be the rock. The job has gotten to her too.
She thinks back to the marriage and friendship she wrecked last year as part of her responsibility to the Russian government. She remembers how much she liked that woman, and how much fun she had with her. It was just a brief flashback to one dinner with that family, but it was enough to momentarily stun her. Maybe she saw the happiness of that night, and considered what her family could be like at the dinner table without the stress.
Philip goes catatonic once he hears the truth about his father from Gabriel. He wasn’t a logger; he worked as a guard at a penal camp, where logging was involved. Philip knows how cruel many of those men were, how many murders they committed, and the horrors that involved anyone attempting to escape. His mother never told him the truth, and he then realizes he knew nothing about either one of them. He grew up, watching his dad bring home scraps and barely enough to survive, but was the work honorable? Philip Jennings in Season 1 might have thought one thing, but the Philip of today appears physically ill after hearing the information.
He still doesn’t know Mischa was sent back home after reaching America either, and that will come out before all is said and done.
Gabriel is headed back to Russia, because “it’s time,” despite both Elizabeth and Philip believing there has to be more to it. They blame themselves, and although he often brings tough news, they see him as much more than a handler. He’s been their father. He’s kept them safe or steered them away from trouble. And he’s leaving. Coupling Paige’s newfound interest in Pastor Tim’s Marxist library and Philip’s lack of knowledge of his own upbringing, the decision to bring her to meet Gabriel before he leaves makes a good bit of sense. It tangles her up much further in the family business, but they love this man, and they feel she needs to speak to him, to hear from him, or maybe to learn from him.
Or, they want her to know of his existence, because of the profound impact he’s head on their lives, and by proxy on her own.
Meanwhile, Stan just needs to adopt Henry. The forgotten genius Jennings is interested in a girl in science class, has a smokeshow for a teacher, and Stan treats the boy as if he’s a Beeman. These two get along so well, and Henry has basically had a surrogate father for years on this show. Stan wasn’t surprised to hear Henry was smart, and you can see the appreciation on the young man’s face. He matters to Stan Beeman. Even though he cheated on a gorgeous wife, Stan is a good man, even if flawed.
No Renee this week, because there was nowhere she would have fit. She’ll be back, but Stan’s role was to be with Henry and to approach Ms. Kovalenko in the park alongside Dennis Aderholt. No Matthew for the same reasons. Paige was hanging out with Karl and Gabe, not her boyfriend. Not much of Oleg either, although the writers maximized his scenes. He and Ruslan went after the food-distributor at his house, and put him behind bars. He also burned the blackmail note from the CIA and destroyed the audio recording the agency used for leverage.
I get the feeling Oleg Burov might not be with us for too much longer. He appears to be a man who is growing increasingly tired of breathing. If he commits suicide in the season finale, I won’t be the least bit surprised at that turn of events. I hope not, but I could see it. He feels he has no friends and he’s already lost the woman of his dreams more than once. I would place him on self-injury watch.
The last two episodes have been real downers, even for The Americans. Actually, dating back to the snapped neck in Oklahoma City, it’s been a rough go for this cast of characters. But, a season that started a bit slow has become impossible to look away from, and even with perhaps the slowest burn since the early stages of the first season, the series is in top form. This is basically (23 minutes shy of it) the midway point of the 2017 run, and the uncertainty surrounding Philip’s future and both he and wife’s psyche, as well as what’s to come as Paige meets Gabriel, plus the various possibilities for Stan and Oleg, are all making for yet another stellar season of drama.
And, lest we forget, Martha is in Moscow. She WILL run into Burov before the final fade to black. That is going to be amazing television. Who knows what might come from it? Or, maybe they never meet and we’ve seen Alison Wright for the last time. I’m hedging my bets. I hope not. It needs to happen.
I’m @JMartOutkick. I have no idea if the tip of my tongue is red, but I can sense the heart heat. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or don’t.