Things have to be going really, really poorly if Elizabeth Jennings is thinking about throwing in the towel. But The Americans’ eternal symbol for strength, perseverance, and commitment to the cause isn’t just thinking about a getaway in “Munchkins”—she’s talking about one, too. After Alice threatens to expose the Jennings if Pastor Tim doesn’t return from Ethiopia alive, Elizabeth speaks the previously unspeakable: “We might have to leave.” It’s stunning to hear those words come out of Keri Russell’s mouth, but the situation with Alice, the tape, the lawyer, and the Justice Department is just that dire. The Jennings are cornered by the threat they overlooked—and not for the first time in season four.
It’s also a threat that’s defused without any action on Elizabeth or Philip’s parts. With Alice setting ultimatums and the imminent implosion of Young-hee’s family, it’s easy to forget that the Jennings’ are still ostensibly off-duty. They’re working on the level-four clearance codes (“Munchkins” clears up any lingering ambiguity about Don’s role in the bioweapons drama) and selling pot to Kimmy (Hi, Kimmy!), but they’re also living outside the confines of those assignments. The gulf separating their double lives has never been wider, and it’s responsible for all the meaning behind this act-break-parting shot from Elizabeth: “I thought I could live like this.”
It’s a living without a sense of control. They can’t be responsible for Pastor Tim’s disappearance because they haven’t been responsible for any act of violence since April. Alice is a loose cannon that could sink their entire operation, and they’ve created another unpredictable agent in Don. The Jennings don’t even have control of their house at the moment: In the best scene of “Munchkins,” Henry (who’s heard from but barely seen this week) is outside banging a tennis ball against the garage door, unknowingly providing the ominous soundtrack to a tense discussion about fleeing to Russia.
Yet, for all of the unexpected talk of escape here, there’s very little evidence that it’s possible. Look no further than the fate of poor Frank Gaad, who retired from the FBI but still wound up being done in by a Russian. It’s a tragically ironic end to the former counterterrorism director’s story—killed not by direct Soviet action, but by an unfortunately placed glass shard. Like the other main players we’ve recently lost, Gaad’s usefulness to The Americans subsided before his (forced?) resignation—witness Richard Thomas’ minimized screen time in season four. And just like Nina’s execution and Martha’s disappearance, the end of the character’s life serves to fuel the fire in Stan Beeman’s belly. When Stan learns his old boss is dead, the protracted, meaningful silence that falls over Noah Emmerich matches Keri Russell’s mute phone-booth remorse pound for pound.
These are the reactions of players who are beginning to chafe against the bench. After a few weeks of incident, “Munchkins” provides The Americans with a breather, in which the main characters are steeped in consequence. Paige’s confession to Pastor Tim rears its ugly head in the form of Alice’s tape. Elizabeth doesn’t just have to live with the fallout of drugging Don and convincing him they slept together—she has to do so while watching the secret eat away at Don and Young-hee’s marriage. It’s heavily implied that the men who came to Gaad’s hotel room were sent by Arkady, which would mean he has a failed operation and an ex-G-man’s blood on his hands. In these moments, you can almost see the characters step outside of themselves, surveying the situation in a manner typically reserved for The Americans’ voyeuristic camera setups.
The scene between Kimmy (Yay! Kimmy!) and Philip (in the guise of James) is indicative of this motif. While Philip literally steps outside of himself, Kimmy lets it slip that she knows about her dad and the CIA. The event places Philip on the other end of Paige’s “March 8, 1983” phone call. It’s a moment of perspective, but it’s short-lived: Philip can’t completely remove himself from the conversation. He doesn’t hear the clarity and understanding the revelation affords Kimmy; he only hears another teenager blowing her spy dad’s cover. And he responds in the way he couldn’t respond to Paige: “[The secret] could bring you and your dad closer together, but only if you keep it.”
Prior to this paternal admonishment of Kimmy, Philip pulls out The Americans’ favorite word: “It’s a secret. Telling it breaks your father’s trust.” The word comes up again after Paige debriefs her parents on Pastor Tim’s re-emergence. (Turns out he got lost while searching for a gas station on foot. Classic Pastor Tim.)
“The hardest thing we do in our jobs is trust. We never know for sure if other people are telling us the truth. But the one thing dad and I have is we tell each other the truth.”
They have to place that trust in another person because they can’t control their actions. Paige is being required to tell her parents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth because she violated their trust. And all three of them must now trust Alice’s lawyer not to send that tape to the Justice Department. It’s a razor’s edge, and The Americans dances along it with great poise. The thought that trust might be misplaced is the anxiety that drives the show: We know Paige can’t believe everything her parents tell her because we know they’ve lied about not kidnapping and killing people. We know Paige isn’t reporting every relevant detail she comes across, because Matthew told her about Stan investigating Martha’s disappearance—yet we don’t see her telling that to Philip and Elizabeth.
Of course trust is a delicate thing in this world: There are so many holes, leaks, and omissions ready to undermine it. It’s to the point that both Elizabeth and Philip have thought about running this season. The number of people they have faith in is dwindling, as the number of people they’ve placed their faith in rises. Even with their reduced workload, there are so many moving parts for Philip and Elizabeth to deal with, and Elizabeth is invested in one of those pieces like none before it. (Give or take a Gregory.) It’s good for her emotional well-being, but bad for business.
When Gabriel asks if Elizabeth wants to pursue an alternate source for the level-four codes, she needs a few beats to think about her answer. There’s no taking back what she did to Don, but she can still save the man’s family. It’s a powerful, contemplative performance from Keri Russell, and the implications of her decision weigh on the closing frames of “Munchkins.” And this question weighs on The Americans as it heads into next week’s episode: Can Elizabeth trust Gabriel to honor her request?
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week 10: B. James and his ’70s hangover ’do make a long overdue comeback, like Fleetwood Mac on Mirage.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Four, Week 10: N/A, though the greatness of that tennis-ball-on-garage-door sound design cannot be underestimated.
- Was there any Mail Robot? Mail Robot has been reported missing, is presumed to have joined Pastor Tim on the search for gasoline.
- And now, a new weekly Americans feature: How do the Jennings sleep at night? Paige needs the caffeine boost of the Beemans’ Maxim brand instant coffee. “I haven’t really been sleeping much.”
- Underlining the seriousness of Elizabeth’s escape talk: Philip’s anecdote about his mother retrieving a delinquent paycheck is played over footage of Elizabeth leaving Young-hee’s. This is not someone who’s used to cutting and running—she’d much rather squeeze a co-op supervisor for overdue rake money.
- The death of his predecessor overshadows the introduction of Agent Wolfe, the new counterintelligence boss. But we know this much about him: He’s a stickler about margins, and he might be an expert in self-defense.