SEASON 5, EPISODE 9: IHOP
What’s best for me? I understand everything now, Gabriel. All of it. You can go. And please, don’t come back again. – Martha
It’s pretty clear at this point The Americans isn’t amidst its best season. It was somewhat predictable, because Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields know their end date. They recognize next season is the last, and are now filling holes to get to the homestretch. Under that reality, we’ve seen at times too much, at times too little this year. It’s not a lame duck season, but it just hasn’t had the pop we’ve seen in the past, even from a show notorious and brilliant in its slow burn brand of pacing.
“IHOP” was another example of the problem, as Philip and Elizabeth were again stretched around numerous spy operations for the KGB, and also were dealing with a headstrong, high achieving Henry, a disappearing Tuan, and for some reason, the return of Kimmy. It’s not that the story wasn’t good, and it even led somewhere with Philip overhearing the conversation that makes him think Russia weaponized the virus to use in Afghanistan, and that the story of protecting the country after a nuclear attack was bogus. It’s just another addition to an already convoluted set of jobs and responsibilities the Jennings are doing. The point may well be to show how overextended they are, but the problem is it complicates the basic plot, and inundates the viewer with more than he or she needs.
That said, the reaction after the virus chatter backs up the way the show has characterized Philip Jennings all season, as a man increasingly losing interest in his cause and all that accompanies it. Elizabeth tries to say the USSR wouldn’t do something like that, but even she wavers a bit. This season has largely been about creating a lasting rift, a substantial divide between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings and the Soviet Union.
Still, they know the stakes, and when Tuan doesn’t come home as expected, then makes moves that seem out of the ordinary, they’re waiting to potentially cut his throat if there’s evidence he betrayed them. That’s the ultimate dichotomy of The Americans. These people are always semi-sympathetic, but never entirely, because both Philip and Elizabeth act AGAINST their own emotions. Everything Philip Jennings has become is positive. He’s a guy you’d like to have a beer with or go to a game with, and even when he’s in a room by himself, Matthew Rhys shows the pain and stress in his face. His station in life is unfortunate. He’s approached more than one breaking point in this season alone, and we still haven’t seen that one that might actually send him careening off a figurative ravine.
Perhaps the most telling scene from this week’s episode may have seemed innocuous, but if you stop and ponder it further, it explains a great deal. Henry brings the St. Edwards brochure to his parents and tells them he’s already sent in the application. What’s important here has nothing to do with the argument or whether he should or shouldn’t be allowed to go to boarding school. In fact, what’s important came minutes before St. Edwards factored into the equation. Elizabeth remarks to Philip how surprised she is at her son’s report card and how bright he is. She’s incredulous, at least to some extent, that Henry is doing as well as he is, because neither parent has paid much attention to him. Or, they have when we haven’t been watching, but to nowhere near the level of their daughter.
And that’s the point.
Paige is not doing all that well, or not as well as Henry, and there’s a reason for that. Yes, he’s a smart kid, but he also doesn’t know his parents are KGB agents, he doesn’t know anything about what they do on a day to day basis, and he’s been allowed to actually exist as an adolescent without the weight of that information. That’s huge. A few weeks back, I suggested the adage of ignorance being bliss often proving true in television, and this could be the best illustration of that fact. Elizabeth recognizes Henry’s intelligence, but she hasn’t figured out that much of it has to do with his innocence. He doesn’t have the worries his sister does, and eventually, one of the two parents is going to realize they ruined Paige. Philip is already on that path, Elizabeth is nearing the exit ramp, and Gabriel flat out admitted she should have been kept away from the life before taking a flight back to Russia.
Look at Tuan, who had to go to arduous lengths in order to get information on his leukemia-stricken brother. He tries not to break into tears as he comes clean to Philip and Elizabeth, but here again we have a young man who knows too much and can’t escape it. He buys into the cause, but what has it taken from him? He had to leave his family under cover of either darkness or secrecy and can’t even tell them why it was necessary.
Back in Moscow, Gabriel visits Martha, interrupting the saddest baked potato experience any of us have ever seen. This woman is permanently broken, and we knew it would be this way from the moment we met her. The only other option was death, which wouldn’t have been much better. What happened to her was unthinkable, and whether Clark cared about her or not ended up immaterial. She doesn’t want to hear the stories anymore, and although Gabriel shows up to her door to check on her, to make sure she’s safe and being taken care of, she knows what he represents. Further, he knows what he represents. Frank Langella’s look, specifically his mouth, when she asks him to leave isn’t one of shock, but one of acceptance with a hint of guilt.
He tells her he never had a wife, as it would have gotten in the way of the work. He basically never had a life at all, because when he looks back on what he’s done and who he’s encountered, he was a handler, but he has no legacy. When he left the United States, he left two people behind that loved him, but even when he mentions his family to Martha, he does so with the caveat that he isn’t close to them. This man has no relationships, and if you’ve noticed, any scene we’ve seen in Moscow has been filled with scowls, sighs, and disappointment. Martha looks like a woman ready to die, Gabriel looks like a man who’s had enough, and Oleg Burov looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. These three individuals have all seen their happiness and sense of joy stripped away. Burov and Martha found peace through Nina and Clark, but neither are available anymore. What’s left for the three of them? Where’s the hope?
Burov is still dealing with the realization his mother was in a penal prison camp, and that while she was incarcerated, his family nearly broke apart. He’s still not past the death of his brother, and his father isn’t exactly the loving type. Now add to it the possibility of blackmail, as the FBI learns of the circumstances surrounding Frank Gaad’s death. There’s a compelling reason to put the screws to Oleg and force him into compliance with the United States government. Even Stan, who goes to Gaad’s widow in an attempt to hear her say her husband wouldn’t want revenge against an innocent man, can’t wish this story away. “He would want revenge.” Yeah, you know what, he probably would. Stan views Burov as an ally, and also as a friend.
But, do the larger concerns finally outweigh the individual issues? This is the reverse of the Collective vs. Self debate that helped define the Cold War, and the casualty count is about to grow. Burov also got the information and finally got the name from the jailed food distributor, who was terrified to give it up because of the power those people hold. Oleg’s story about “pictures on a wall” was enough to pull it out of Dmitri. “Fomina Lydia Nikolayevna. God help me.” He was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Burov isn’t a guy who wanted to do what he did in that scene. He’s a guy who had no choice, which is generally the case for everyone in the country. The constant depictions of colorless, drab surroundings aren’t by accident.
Four episodes remain in the season, because FX goes 13 with most of its original drama series, and The Americans should be poised to finish strong. It hasn’t been an even, consistent year, but Weisberg and Fields know they have to leave the fifth season with focused questions. To accomplish that goal, it’s time to kick a few side stories to the curb, simplify the threads, and live minimally for the next few weeks. Get back to the crux of what counts, and be willing to let some other things lapse to preserve what’s ultimately integral to 2018’s final act. I believe we’re going to look back fondly on this season because of how good what we’re about to see will be, but this has been the weakest season of the show to this point. How it concludes will determine its fate. I trust these people, both behind and in front of the camera. It’s still one of the best hours on television.
I’m @JMartOutkick. Tweet me or find me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m more powerful than your father.