How many times has this happened to you: You’re watching taut basic-cable drama The Americans, and a long-running character is supposedly saying their farewell. They’re being arrested for treason, boarding an airplane to who knows where, or leaving their surrogate son with the parting words “You’re losing it, Philip.” Surely, this is the last time we’ll see this person, whose only mistake was getting tangled up in Soviet intelligence operations in the United States. Their departure will leave a that-character-sized hole in The Americans, one that some other supporting players could attempt to fill, but will never do so completely. It’s a loss that’s deeply felt, because The Americans pays attention to its characters, and you’ve always feared the worst for them.
This isn’t the worst—it’s not a suitcase or a steel casket; it’s not Amador confronting Philip or Stan kidnapping Vlad. But it does seem that their story is at an end. Until, a few months or weeks later, it isn’t.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Frank Langella’s name turn up in the credits for tonight’s episode, just as I shouldn’t have been surprised to run into Martha at the market or encounter Nina in prison. The important thing is that “IHOP” doesn’t waste the surprise of Gabriel’s encore appearance. It doubles down on it, inserting Alison Wright into Langella’s coda for a tearjerker reunion between one person who chose to return to the motherland, and one who did not. Although he’s no longer tending to brittle spies, he is reaching out to someone who’s a stranger in a strange land, and Langella pours on the comforting gestures, demonstrating the bedside manner that Philip discusses with the Russian Orthodox priest earlier in the episode. But Martha, rightfully, is having none of it, and Wright is righteous in Martha’s fury at the man who took her from everything she knew, to this place where she cooks sad potato snacks in a drab box surrounded by people she can’t communicate with.
Gabriel insists that he knows what’s best for Martha, but what’s best for her is just barely better than the fates of Nina, Amador, Vlad, Annelise, and Hans. Gabriel and Martha might’ve dropped off the radar, but they don’t have it easier than the fallen. Because The Americans can call them back to active duty at any time.
“IHOP” sets up a veritable International House Of Returning Characters, with Kimmy Breland and Linh Gaad joining Martha and Gabriel as reminders that The Americans never forgets. With its focus on the disappearing Tuan, “IHOP” is a tribute to The Americans’ way of shipping characters off for episodes at a time, only to bring them back into the show’s orbit in surprisingly meaningful ways, like the apparent reference to glanders on the Breland tapes or Linh telling a conflicted Stan Beeman that her late husband would want his death avenged. The episode derives its sense of accelerated momentum and life-or-death tension from Tuan’s absence, with that sequence of Elizabeth searching the Eckert place—covering her tracks so well that she uses a ruler to make sure the closet doors are just the way she found them—containing more mid-episode charge than The Americans has had all season.
That’s driven home by the fact that Henry, not Paige, has this week’s big kitchen-island confrontation. Philip and Elizabeth’s pride in their son’s scholastic performance is turned against them in crushing fashion: Henry wants to go to a private school in New Hampshire, and he has the grades and connections to get in. While the Jennings and the show took their eyes off Henry, he turned into his parents’ worst nightmare: an aspiring yuppie. He’s climbing the ladder to success, and he knows people who know people. Philip and Elizabeth have done everything they can to help their kids assimilate into American society without losing them to American values, but all that does is leave the Jennings children to “rebel” in ways that are ironically wholesome. Paige found the bible. Henry found The Preppy Handbook.
The scene with Henry is one of The Americans’ finest parenting moments, in ways that are almost entirely new to the series. Rather than the fire this type of exchange usually carries, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys ground their reactions in dumbstruck awe. Their body language as Henry lays out his St. Edward’s pitch is priceless, their jaws slacked and their eyes popped as if the kid was casually letting it slip that he chopped Paul Allen into bits after delivering an impassioned defense of Huey Lewis And The News. The danger that Henry’s boarding-school attendance could pose to their mission doesn’t even come up, because Henry’s attitude indicates that some elements of the mission have already failed. In a clever Americans variation on “kids these days” kvetching, Philip and Elizabeth think back to their own childhoods of want and marvel at the gall of someone who’d want more than the planned-community prosperity that Henry has been raised in. Their descriptions of the school are telling: “an Ivy League college,” “a country club,” “a fancy orphanage.” It’s so vulgar, it’s so aspirational, it’s so… American.
As an echo of this parenting crisis, “IHOP” has Elizabeth and Philip fretting about their other “son,” the one who believes what they believe but loves chain restaurants anyway. It makes unnerving use of the paranoia hanging over season five, the buildup playing on suspicions about Tuan while the climax recalls the death of the lab technician. If Tuan’s telling the truth, then Philip and Elizabeth just menaced a kid who only wanted to console his dying foster brother. It might not always seem this way, because of the domestic focus of season five, but temperatures are running hot on The Americans. Ivan Mok just breaks my heart in this scene, and if he’s lying, that heart will break even more.
The scene also illustrates an insurmountable disagreement between Philip and Elizabeth, one that’s been slowly ratcheting up ever since Paige learned the truth about her parents. Like Gabriel does with Martha, Philip and Elizabeth think they know what’s best for Paige, Henry, and, to a lesser extent, Tuan. They also seem to have competing ideas of who those kids are, or at least how they reflect their own personal journeys. The parting shot of “IHOP” is a devastator: Philip sees Tuan’s actions as a potential cry for help, “to be pulled out of this shit, start over.” Elizabeth, who believes Tuan (a question Philip doesn’t answer), doesn’t think so. “That’s not who he is.”
But have they spent enough time with him to even know? They live with Henry, and they still didn’t detect his metamorphosis into a math wizard. That’s the ingenious narrative function of The Americans’ offscreen characters: For all we know, they could be up to anything—speaking of, happy belated birthday, Kimmy!—and on a show as dependent on surprise and suspense as this one, that can only help. It’s rarely ever “goodbye” on The Americans. It’s usually “so long until the next shocking turn of the screw!”
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Five, Week Nine: B. Developments in the Tuan detail require some hasty disguises and a lot of wigs under hats. However, “IHOP” marks the return of the dirtbag disguise that Philip uses when he meets with Kimmy, and he’s clearly been doing some upkeep on that one so as to appear extra skeevy.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Five, Week Nine: B. And the icing on that gross-out cake is the a cappella version of “Forever Young” that Philip sings to the birthday girl.
- Was there any Mail Robot? May you grow up to be righteous, may you grow up to be true, may you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you—and may you not be on vacation when Mail Robot makes its sole season-five appearance to date.
- Tonight’s episode title makes a straightforward acknowledgement of Tuan’s destination in Harrisburg, rather than pursuing the wordplay route of “Rooty Tuan Fresh And Fruity.” If The Americans is going to leave a pun like that on the table, can it at least let Philip and Elizabeth try out the disguise used in the Rooty Tooty Fresh And Fruit spot above?
- There’s no way Oleg makes it out of this season alive, right? He gets hauled in to PGU headquarters this week, shortly before his investigation into food distribution yields a name and hints at a shadowy cabal determining which food gets sent where. Meanwhile, the pressure’s about to be re-applied by the FBI, as revenge for Gaad. Good luck and godspeed, comrade.
- My thanks to Dennis Perkins for his excellent work on the last two episodes’ reviews. Having a fill-in of Dennis’ caliber made it much easier for me to relax while I was definitely, absolutely vacationing in the Great Plains and Mountain States of the United States, where I did not engage in any activities involving the international intelligence community. No way, no how.