As Gabriel leaves America (and, it appears, The Americans), everyone talks of sacrifice. Picking up from the wordless, radiant meeting of Gabriel and Paige at the conclusion of “Crossbreed,” Gabriel tries to explain—to this girl he’s known all her life but never met—exactly who her parents are. Frank Langella, as ever, walks between avuncular warmth and bright-eyed wariness—and Elizabeth and Philip keep breaking in to guide the narrative—as Gabriel tells Paige that the sacrifices her parents have made for decades make them heroes. “They’ve stood for something larger than themselves,” he tells her, quoting Marx, as Paige, head nodding and eyes searching, attempts to understand. Later, Paige meets with Pastor Tim, who cites Jesus’ example on the same subject, telling her, “We make sacrifices in our own life for the benefit of someone else.” Again, Paige nods and tries to take comfort in the idea that giving over yourself to something bigger is worth all the pain and confusion, that the sacrifice of who you are and what you want means something.
Everyone involved in the various types of espionage on The Americans makes sacrifices most of us would find abhorrent or simply unthinkable. And everyone attempts to make peace with the lives they are able to fashion from the pieces left to them. The lure and enduring power of the series is in watching people make impossible choices between the greater good as they understand it and the need to simply be a person. The idea that doing often terrible things in the service of humanity balances out the loss of individual humanity. Gabriel, bidding an affectionate goodbye to Elizabeth, praises how she and Philip have raised Paige, saying, with a flash of disdain, “She doesn’t think the world owes her happiness, which is not a small accomplishment growing up in this country.” But on his way out the door after giving a very different farewell to Philip, Gabriel tells him, almost as an afterthought, “You were right about Paige. She should be kept out of all this.”
Gabriel’s last words shake Philip (and us). Matthew Rhys (who directed tonight’s episode) stands unmoving after Gabriel has left, his mouth opening then closing as he stares at the door Gabriel has just closed, forever. Toting the purloined super-wheat that represents their last ever mission together, Gabriel had greeted Philip with a tired, “I’m glad it’s ending on this. Something good.” But they both know that, in the lives they’ve chosen, good is relative and contaminated. Philip killed an innocent (enough) man in pursuit of this unassuming handful of greenery, one of the many people Philip and Elizabeth have killed (and/or deceived, betrayed, and used) in their decades of service. “You said when you were younger you did terrible things,” says Philip, before asking his longtime contact and mentor to tell him what those things were. And then Gabriel does.
It’s only the sureness of nearly every aspect of The Americans—from storytelling to casting to the unobtrusively layered world it takes place in—that mitigates the yawning sense of loss Langella’s exit engenders here. Still, Gabriel’s haunted eyes and weary, patient guidance offered Philip and Elizabeth a stability that is deeply felt in its departure. Margo Martindale’s Claudia will presumably take up the role of the Jennings’ primary contact, and as formidable as Claudia is, Gabriel is taking another scrap of this world’s humanity with him back to Russia. There’s never been a sense that The Americans would spin out of control—but without Gabriel, there’s the very real fear that events within The Americans could. Sitting across from Philip, it’s never been clearer that Gabriel represents the lonely best case scenario for what Philip could become. When Gabriel laid his huge paws over Elizabeth’s hands earlier in the day, the goodbye was warm. Here, the goodbye to Philip is devastating, because Gabriel and Philip both know that their compromised souls are so similar.
When Gabriel tells of his former life as a guard at the horrific Soviet work camps, Rhys lets Philip flinch, just once, registering the connection with Philip’s father’s shared occupation. “It was worse than you could imagine,” says the old man, “Some were counter-revolutionaries. But some… some hadn’t done anything. Just people. I did it, too.” Asked why, Gabriel doesn’t flinch as he confesses, “I believed I was acting in the service of a higher purpose. But I was just scared.” Standing up, he pats Philip on the arm and, carefully packing up the precious wheat in its be-ribboned potted plant disguise, he heads for the door, his last message to be an admission that all the platitudes about sacrifice can’t obscure the human weaknesses that are inextricably bound with them.
But Philip isn’t Gabriel, at least not yet, and stops him to ask, point-blank, “Is Stan Beeman’s new girlfriend one of us?” Langella—as he did when he answered Paige’s similarly blunt question, “Are you a spy?”—punctures the weighty moment with a flash of undisguised humanity. With Paige, waggling his mighty eyebrows and letting a little smile form around his “Yes,” he was the sprightly grandfather. Here, snapping an annoyed “Are you serious? You’re losing it, Philip,” he’s the disappointed father, telling Philip that, as far as he knows, Renee isn’t a Russian spy. (He also hints that the Center might not tell him if she were, raising the specter of Philip’s wavering commitment without saying the words.) When Philip told Paige that her cherished childhood stuffed tiger (Jesse!) was a gift from Gabriel, it cemented the idea that they were all part of the same family. (We learn that Gabriel has only a few scattered relatives back home, presumably unconcerned with his return.) So here, Gabriel’s choice to leave his surrogate son with not the practical facts he knows, but instead his fervent wish that Paige not follow in their footsteps, is as shocking as any action-packed cliffhanger could be. Philip can only stand, stunned, wondering just what sacrifice is being asked of him—and what it will mean for his family.
Stan’s story this week sees him, too, weighing what sacrifices he’s willing to make. Having put his career on the line to protect Oleg from the CIA, he finds out not only that his gambit has worked but also that boss Wolfe has stuck his neck out to keep Stan’s job. (At least for now, using as he did Stan and Aderholt’s tentatively successful recruitment of Sofia as leverage.) Noah Emmerich makes Stan’s relief and bewildered gratitude so winningly human that it makes his later decision to tell Renee a heavily redacted version of his day ticklingly plausible. As Laurie Holden’s Renee either expertly or guilelessly probes him for details, Emmerich makes Stan’s need for connection genuinely touching—maintaining as much secrecy as he can, he relishes in the simple act of letting this woman in, just a little. When Matthew, trying to fend off Paige’s breakup speech, attempts to assert his decency, he separates himself from Stan, pleading, “I’m not like my dad, okay? If I did something wrong, I can fix it!” But making sacrifices in service of “something greater” means not being able to give yourself fully to those you’re purportedly sacrificing things for.
Children and family are what all the Jennings’ sacrifices are for, too, and Paige increasingly has become the battleground on which her parents’ war is being fought. Holly Taylor continues to make Paige’s mounting desperation crushingly painful to watch, her pleading gaze more and more eager to soak in any words that might help her make sense of her increasingly insoluble dilemma. In the opening scene, she demurs at Gabriel’s assertion that she, too, is a hero like her parents, but he persists, claiming, “Despite all the garbage you have been asked to deal with, you asked for the truth, and you faced it, and I think that’s courage.” As with her relationship with her parents, there’s an element of salesmanship in what Gabriel’s saying. In dealing with this bright, inquisitive teenage girl, the adults in Paige’s life are ever watchful for signs that all the “garbage” will undo her resolve. (The scene where Elizabeth consoles Paige about her breakup with Matthew is another masterful balancing act by Keri Russell, relief, wariness, and genuine concern all warring in her tightly controlled features.) But when Philip, finding out about her breakup, lies next to his daughter on her bed, his version of the platitudes (“In time you’ll get used to these things”) falls inadequately between them. They both end the scene staring emptily into the distance, pondering what they’ll be asked to give up next.
- The Americans Wig Report: season five, week seven: B+. We’ve seen Elizabeth’s appropriately tight and mousy blond number as her faux therapy patient and Philip’s unkempt scraggle as Gus, but let’s all let out a yee-haw for Philip and Elizabeth’s Mississippi pickup truck couture. If “going country” meant looking like Dallas extras in “The Midges,” here Philip’s shit-kicker ponytail and baseball cap and Elizabeth’s limply frazzled frizz anticipate 1984’s spate of “save the farm” movies like Country, The River, and Places In The Heart.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: season five, week seven: N/A. It’s like director Rhys knew that the episode was building to the sepulchral symphony of Frank Langella’s goodbye speech and knew nothing could top it.
- Was there any Mail Robot? After so long an absence, it was looking like we’d never see Mail Robot again. But tonight, when Aderholt gets the call from Sofia—blam! Mail Robot, gliding past the open doorway on his way to the next mail delivery, untroubled by our petty human concerns. Oh, to be more like Mail Robot some days.
- Both Philip and Elizabeth are confronted with setbacks in their respective honey traps this week. Philip’s intentionally fumbling attempt (as the earnest Gus) to get closer to Deirdre in Kansas elicits a big red stop sign in Deirdre’s “You’re not great at just letting things take their course. Anyone could see that about you. You need a lot.” And, trailing Gorp Guy (which, as Erik correctly states, is that character’s true name), Elizabeth is similarly brought up short when it turns out GG is two-timing her Brenda. “I didn’t think he was like that,” Elizabeth says to Philip, with just the slightest unreadable hesitation. Neither Philip or Elizabeth get made, but neither is as in control of their situation as they thought either.
- The episode’s title comes from the list Elizabeth steals from the psychiatrist’s office. Overburdened with their various missions (we don’t even see Tuan this week), Elizabeth shrugs as she tells Philip it’s merely a list of names and addresses. More ominously, Gabriel tells Philip later that the attendees were “part of a well-organized opposition to the Party at home.”
- Taylor is wonderful in the breakup scene, responding to Matthew’s lurching grab at her retreating wrist with a flash of the violent skills she’s been learning from her mother. Both she and Matthew are shocked, Paige’s abashed apology as she flees the Beeman house leaving the dumbfounded Matthew as baffled as he is crushed.
- Digging up the super-wheat after spotting Gorp Guy’s infidelity, Elizabeth responds to Philip’s solicitous “It’s okay to care” with a quick, firm, “No it isn’t, Philip. Not for me.” It might be a little on the nose, but going forward, Elizabeth’s and Philip’s differing approaches to their mission will only become more of an issue.
- “I feel like one of the guys in the posters,” muses Philip as he holds up two handfuls of the super-wheat in a nighttime Mississippi field. Something like this, perhaps:
- Oleg tells his mother that the men who’ve been pressuring him to meet have disappeared. (Thanks to Stan, although he doesn’t know that.) His mother replies, “Why doesn’t matter,” but we see Oleg later requesting files on a woman named Yelena Alexandrovna Burova, formerly of the notorious Kraslag lumbering work camp, and—unless I’m mistaken—Oleg’s mother. Considering what we know of Philip’s father, that connection bears watching.
- Oleg also muses on family, confiding that his father drives him crazy and wishing he could share with his late brother how well Tretyak is playing.
- Good old Agent Aderholt gets called by his first name. Naturally, that first name is Dennis, which (fictionally anyway) is reserved for the nondescript and ineffectual.
- Those are some sweet flared jeans he gets to sport when he and Stan go to meet with Sofia, though.
- After Stan refuses to overstate how much assistance they can give Sofia if she chooses to inform on her TASS colleagues, Stan argues, “If we’re honest, she’ll know she can trust us.” Dennis, true to his Dennis-hood, isn’t having it.
- Thanks to Erik Adams for letting me fill in on The Americans’ desk this week. Erik is on a two-week vacation and not—repeat not—undertaking a dangerous A.V. Club secret mission abroad.