Keri Russell (left), Matthew Rhys (Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings didn’t have to fall in love. It wasn’t in the assignment. In fact, it’s arguable that the Centre would prefer if Philip and Elizabeth hadn’t fallen in love. Emotions can be a good cover, but Mikhail and Nadezhda both went through extensive training to separate feelings from their work. We see them relying on this training in “Lotus 1-2-3,” searching rooms and their minds for some form of distraction while they sleep with their marks in the Kansas honey trap. Philip finds it in a painful memory from youth, a flashback to famine in which his family dines on bread that looks like fist-sized lava rocks. Elizabeth has a harder time of it, because Gorp Guy is, shall we say, also GGG Guy, and he changes tactics just as Elizabeth has locked in on his dumb, dull hiking boots.

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Considering the look on Elizabeth’s face right before “Lotus 1-2-3” smash cuts to Paige’s lo mein (a showy but spectacular piece of editing), we shouldn’t be as surprised as Philip is when makes that unexpected and unprompted call to the travel agency a few scenes later. That’s a gesture between partners, not co-workers. Same goes for the exchange that ends the episode, in which the Jennings work through their remorse about killing the lab worker, whom they now know was helping to strengthen, not weaken wheat.

Philip: This has been hard for me. For a long time. You know that, right?

Elizabeth: I do.

Look, when we know this kind of thing is coming up, maybe it can just be me.

Philip: No, no. It’s us, Elizabeth. It’s us.

It’s a powerfully written scene, but a raw transcript of the dialogue doesn’t convey its full power. It’s in the pauses between the words. It’s in Matthew Rhys’ hangdog expression. It’s in Keri Russell maintaining Elizabeth’s composure, playing the pillar of strength in a difficult conversation. And it’s in the way both actors look across the table at one another at episode’s end, framed in a medium shot that erases the separation of the previous over-the-shoulder setups to push Russell and Rhys closer together. But there’s still that little bit of distance between them—despite their complex show of love and support.

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For most of “Lotus 1-2-3,” Philip and Elizabeth are apart. While Elizabeth gathers valuable intelligence on Gorp Guy, Philip orders Chinese takeout, attends an EST meeting, and spies on Renee—who’s suspected (in these reviews and by Philip) of preying on Stan for the KGB. Having feelings, and having those feelings reciprocated, has improved the lives of these characters, but in “Lotus 1-2-3,” there’s something fishy about feelings. Renee must have ulterior motives. Deidre is emotionally unattached—she uses spreadsheet software as foreplay and post-coital conversation. Paige feels so twisted about her relationship with Matthew that she tells her father “Maybe I’m just meant to be alone.”

“Lotus 1-2-3” is the third episode of The Americans directed by Noah Emmerich, and the producers just keep on handing him bombshells. This week’s episode doesn’t contain anything as earth-shattering as the “Walter Taffet” abduction or the wig reveal in “Clark’s Place,” but it is a tense affair. It’s also a unique blend of tones for the series: If anyone ever again tells you “The Americans doesn’t have a sense of humor,” please point them toward the aforementioned takeout smash cut, Deidre saying “I can show you some printouts,” or the Jennings’ stunned expressions after they hear that Henry is some sort of math whiz. (Perhaps Emmerich picked up some pointers from Stan’s trip to see Romancing The Stone.) These are not the products of a series whose only mode is “grim,” and yet they blend easily with two of the most cutting conclusions in the series’ run.

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Margo Martindale (left), Frank Langella (Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX)

About those conclusions: They’re so much more poignant because of what Philip, Elizabeth, and Gabriel have invested in them. Speaking with Claudia about Mischa’s arrival, Gabriel defends both Philip and his son, he, the tenacious protector, clashing with her, the cool guardian figure. When Frank Langella comes into focus at the meeting spot, it’s a real stomach-dropping moment. Frank Langella could so easily come off as an angel of death in a scene like this, but the warmth in his voice, the clarity of his words to Russian-speaking Mischa, say otherwise. Eventually, he gives up the halting cadence, and speaks much more fluidly. It’s like he’s simultaneously addressing himself, Philip, and Mischa. In a few simple words, he brings Mischa’s arduous journey to a close, and Langella carries it off with touching grace.

“You care about him. We both do. But he’s… shaky,” Claudia says of Gabriel’s response to the Mischa news. That last part betrays how she cares about the Jennings: As spies, but not as people. That type of attitude is what leads Philip to mistrust Renee; it’s the Gabriel approach that informs Elizabeth’s homecoming: the smiles that flash across the kitchen, the look over Philip’s shoulder when they hug, the way Philip watches Elizabeth when her eyes fall and she lets out a sigh. But like Claudia’s line to Gabriel, the choice of pronouns in what follows is important:

Elizabeth: “We got it wrong.”

Elizabeth: “Stobert isn’t looking to poison us, or our food.”

Philip: “So the guy in the lab. The one we…”

Elizabeth: “We didn’t know.”

As in the scene that follows, there are meaningful expressions and pauses around the words. But there’s some added complexity to the “We”s and “our”s this time. They begin big: Elizabeth’s talking about the KGB and Russia. But then they narrow: Philip and Elizabeth are talking about themselves, about actions they took on behalf of their country—a country that turned out to be wrong, a country that “cares” about them. But not in the way Gabriel cares about Philip and Elizabeth, or in the way Philip and Elizabeth care about each other. It matters a great deal that the “we”s are getting smaller on The Americans. It means that, sooner or later, the Jennings will have choose defending themselves over defending themselves.

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Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season 5, Week 5: B. Any week with Brenda Neill is going start us out at least a B. But Brenda’s carrying “Lotus 1-2-3”—Philip’s stalker disguise looks like an aged-up version of his Rory Scovell getup, and that beard does not catch the light well. Though that driving sequence segues right into the scene of Gorp Guy’s fireplace s’mores, so maybe the episode is trying to draw parallels between fluffy beards.

  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 5, Week 5: A. The bluesy strut of The Rolling Stones’ “Slave” serves dual purposes in “Lotus 1-2-3.” Based on a leftover jam from 1976’s Black And Blue, it’s the “goofing around on a weekend” groove that Philip and Tuan’s game of catch requires. But, being a slinky Stones cut that features the band repeatedly chanting “Do it,” it’s also the soundtrack that one of the show’s steamiest sex scenes needs. No wonder Elizabeth couldn’t find the right distraction.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? Nope. But if there was any Mail Robot, the proper Tattoo You track for the episode would’ve been “Start Me Up.”
  • Over on the Newswire, Esther Zuckerman has some quotes from Noah Emmerich about “Lotus 1-2-3,” including his (correct) observation about Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ “wonderful comedic timing.”

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  • For enhancing your Americans experience, might I suggest following costume designer Katie Irish on Twitter? I mean, I guess you could turn down the suggestion if you’re some kind of monster who doesn’t want to know more about that amazing earrings/dress/tights combo Brenda was wearing tonight.

  • Proust had madeleines dipped in tea. I have mid-’80s McDonald’s packaging. Just one look at those styrofoam containers and my mind flooded with happy memories of good times, great tastes, and poor eating habits that are going to haunt me to the end of my days.

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