Keri Russell (left), Matthew Rhys
Photo: Eric Liebowitz (FX)

By traditional metrics, tonight’s episode of The Americans extends the series’ recent hot streak. But scored by a count of goosebumps, tensed muscles, and involuntary retches, “Harvest” is the absolute top of the season-six heap. It may form the second half of an unofficial two-parter with last week’s “Rififi,” but “Harvest” stands alone in terms of pure, visceral tension, which it’s kind enough to break with an extra-innings denouement that solidifies one of the notions that’s been floating around for the past seven episodes: Everything the Jennnings do—and here, that means Elizabeth, Philip, and Paige—they do by choice.

“Harvest” is driven by silence and punctuated by pregnant pauses, during which gears turn in characters’ heads, orders aren’t necessary for action, and discomfort is articulated without words. This first leapt out at me during Elizabeth and Philip’s quiet, regionally dressed dinner, a brief inhalation prior to the messy task that lies ahead, encompassing all of the takeaways listed above—and then some. Until they return from Chicago, everything the Jennings do in “Harvest” could be a “last”: Last meal together, last apology to Henry, last heart-to-heart with Stan. Beneath a neon hot dog, husband and wife sit in tacit acknowledgement of the danger they face.

Then the episode progresses and the silence expands. In the parking garage following the deaths of Harvest, Marilyn, and the two FBI agents, it’s both a device and a practical reality: The bated breath of watching the Jennings evade detection, and the lengths they must go to in order to do so. Later, after the stately piano of the Patti Smith Group’s “Broken Flag” gives the show something akin to its “Layla” moment (albeit one where the bodies stay hidden), Stan acts on a bothersome hunch that The Americans has held off for as long as possible, his friends’ strange hours and suspiciously timed business trips nudging him into their yard and past their back door, tiptoeing through the Jennings family home in search of anything that might confirm or deny the feelings currently roiling in his guts.

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Scenes like these are clear and present actors’ showcases, but they also provide a chance for other Americans departments to shine. Some of that has to do with what’s filling the sound mix in lieu of dialogue: Nathan Barr’s pinging neo-noir accompaniment for Stan’s break-in, the Foley work as Elizabeth and Philip cover their tracks in Chicago. As it was with Annelise in “Baggage,” the gruesome process of making Marilyn disappear in “Harvest” is both amplified and dampened through audio. Director Stefan Schwartz does not flinch the first time the fire axe comes down, but the cut away and the clank of metal on concrete gives us a way of knowing when this will all be over. The click-clack of footsteps adds to the story in sound, but it’s a false alarm—a sick joke on the Jennings, who are each packing a disguise in addition to the ones they’re already wearing, and yet go completely unnoticed in the act of dismembering a corpse. Is this because they’re in a secure site? Surely Harvest wouldn’t have directed them to dump the van in any old garage on Milwaukee Avenue—but by then he would’ve realized that the Americans were monitoring his usual spots, so… I’m a little unclear on this.

The scene means so much to Elizabeth and Philip’s individual and collective that I’m reluctant to nitpick the logic. That’s the other thing about “Harvest”: how cumulative this all feels, without feeling like a culmination. There are moments during Harvest’s aborted exfiltration when I certainly thought, “Well, it’s all over now,” but only one KGB agent in that van has to swallow their suicide capsule; the other person wearing lethal jewelry lives to go home, where she reminds her husband—who’s now in possession of valuable information about Dead Hand, as well as Harvest’s dying requests—that the summit is only a few days away. Hey now, hey now: Don’t dream it’s over.

The past two episodes have begun the act of stringing together the players and events on The Americans’ conspiracy board, which leaves me with some qualms about “Harvest”’s reliance on flashbacks. The script and Noah Emmerich’s performance do such a sharp job of connecting the dots without footage of past episodes! But that conspiracy board is also densely populated. Just look at the walls of the vault, plastered with a gallery of the KGB’s handiwork, which hangs in juxtaposition to Elizabeth’s rudimentary airplane-window sketch. (Clearly, violence is her true medium.) That’s the type of thing that typically strikes me as good writing, in which the show lets us work out the connections for ourselves; or they’re organically integrated into the scene, like Stan and his box of evidence from the Philadelphia case.

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But as I thought more about them, I warmed to those clips. They’re not hand-holding; they’re a gentle reminder. And they resonate in the silences: When Stan contemplates a Jennings family portrait, he hears William’s voice in his head, a reminder that the FBI has had more than just police sketches to go on in their pursuit of the D.C.-area illegals. These blasts from the past have narrative and emotional purpose. It’s brought to a head in the final moment of “Harvest,” with Philip, saddled with new information and new guilt acquired through skills he’s spent three years suppressing, gets lost in reminiscence of what’s at stake and why he went to Chicago: The memory of standing in that church basement, hand-in-hand with Elizabeth. Before Harvest made his dying requests, this was the last time anyone spoke to Philip in his native language.

Bleeding out in a panel val, Harvest apologizes to his mother and curses his father. Summarizing his life in the States, and his mysterious disappearance from the Soviet Union, he says “I did what I wanted.” Fast forward to Elizabeth’s check-in with Paige, and the conversation strikes a similar tone. Someone Paige knew, who had worked closely with her, is dead. At a critical juncture, she’s given an option: Quit now, or make a commitment for life. “If you do this, it has to be forever,” which isn’t a completely foreign concept to Paige. After all, as Stan’s snooping reminds us, Paige previously pledged her immortal soul to Jesus Christ.

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Like a previous Elizabeth-and-Paige walk-and-talk, we see the mother-and-child disparity more than we hear it. Here, Keri Russell and Holly Taylor are both donning massive ’80s shoulder pads: Elizabeth’s become her, whereas Paige’s diminish her, making her look like a kid playing dress-up. But the dynamic changes over the course of the conversation. It’s a test, mind games like any other that we’ve seen played by spies throughout the run of the series. From Elizabeth’s perspective, and from the camera’s, Paige begins their conversation as a child. But when she leaves it, silently agreeing to the state-department internship plan while stepping out of the protective halo of her mother’s umbrella, we and Elizabeth finally see Paige as an adult.

She’s had some prodding from Elizabeth and Claudia, but Paige made up her mind long ago: She wants to make a difference. She’s said so, over and over again, and it’s a choice that’s defined her character and The Americans for multiple seasons now. Her decisiveness contrasts her father’s latent reservations, but even he’s left thinking about decisions that he meant to last forever. Taking a return flight in the guise of an older couple, we get a glimpse of what the Jennings could one day look like if they both survive the events of the series. It’s a tease, a second honeymoon that ends as soon as they arrive home. But Philip’s on that plane, in that mustache, because he’s doing what he wants, trying to make that future come true.

To a certain extent, he gets what he wants in “Harvest.” With one fewer person in the van, the Soviets probably don’t make it past the roadblock, and Elizabeth probably swallows that pill. But Philip’s sudden departure doesn’t sit well with Stan, and it does little to restore the bonds between him and Elizabeth. The decisions they’ve made throughout the entire series have left a trail for Stan and his co-workers to follow; Philip’s decision to join his wife in Chicago will shape the course of the next three episodes. Based on the quality of the three preceding episodes, they have their work cut out for them.

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Stray observations

Photo: Eric Liebowitz (FX)

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  • The Americans Wig Report: Season 6, Week 7: B- Maybe it’s just me, but Philip looks like he half-assed the wig he wears to Chicago. Without the poignancy of the look the Jennings adopt on the way back, that uncontrolled mop might’ve saddled “Harvest” with a failing wig grade.

  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 6, Week 7: B+ “Broken Flag,” like “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” and “Listening Wind” before it, fits the mold of symbolic season-six soundtrack picks: The martial drumming, lyrics about mending what has been torn, echoes of a foreign conflict, the fact that Patti Smith pulled her own Philip Jennings and went into semi-retirement after the release of Wave. It sets the right mood for the scene it plays over, too, with Elizabeth and Philip dragging themselves through the motions of a what feels increasingly like a doomed mission. But they’re still marching—marching, marching.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? Not to return to this well, but: Who do you think is carrying all that stuff that’s pinned to the wall in the vault? A human employee of the FBI? Unlikely.
  • A bit of characterization I’ve always appreciated is The Americans’ refusal to treat Stan like an idiot for being unable to sniff out the commie saboteurs who are right under his nose. First of all, the Jennings are extremely cautious, as “Harvest” makes abundantly clear. Second of all, evidence of Stan’s competence has been mixed in with that of his faltering: his instincts about Zinaida versus the way he compromised himself with Nina. And since he moved in across the street, there have been a number of developments in Stan’s private life that kept him distracted while he’s off-the-clock. The other main character who’s still in the dark (the one whose room Stan enters and then immediately exits) isn’t stupid, either: Henry knows that his parents don’t keep the hours that other parents do. Their conversation in the car during “Harvest” lampshades their naĂŻvetĂ© to a certain extent, but it’s also a good example of Stan at work: Asking Henry questions by way of their personal connection, until he gets to something—the supposed “Aunt Helen”—that could prove useful. Now if only he would’ve been more thorough with that breaker box in the laundry room!

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