Years before Joe Weisberg created The Americans and ran the show alongside Joel Fields, he was a case officer for the CIA. It’s a background that I always figured contributed to the show’s nitty-gritty view of tradecraft, the type of perspective that would contribute to, say, the painstaking depiction of Oleg’s invisible ink routine in “Rififi”: Not only applying the solution in order to reveal the cipher, but the shots of Costa Ronin removing the solution’s ingredients from his dopp kit, swirling them together in a coffee cup, letting the solution settle, turning to the exact right page in his notebook, and then applying the solution to reveal the cipher. It’s a small moment, but a suspenseful one, and while we’re left to intuit that Philip’s message has something to do with Elizabeth, Chicago, and the man codenamed “Harvest,” “Rififi” leaves us in suspense about the exact contents—just like the cliffhanger of Philip’s heist-movie-appropriate “one laast job” decision.
But it didn’t really occur to me until that whirlwind scene in which Aderholt introduces Stan to Harvest that Weisberg’s background may have also informed The Americans’ overall structure and its patient pacing. It’s mirrored in the arc of the FBI’s investigation into Directorate S, where progress has come in dribs and drabs until one day: Bam! We’re off to the races, the attempt to nab a Soviet asset operating on U.S. soil (who isn’t infected with a deadly disease—at least not yet) moving as quickly as the deterioration of the Jennings’ marriage. (Though Weisberg’s personal experience seems to have led to more dead ends than anything else.) The fate of the KGB agents will be another episode’s concern, but this one slip is enough to give Agent Beeman his own “one last job” reinvigoration, further juicing what’s already an extremely juicy final season.
The time has come—as underlined by the KGB target’s codename and the holiday weekend during which “Rififi” is set—for The Americans to reap what it has sown. It’s exciting, and it’s heartbreaking. The differences between Philip and Elizabeth have never seemed more insurmountable: When Philip goes reaching into his bag of EST tricks, Elizabeth spits back at him “You can take your Forum bullshit and shove it up your ass.” In a deftly written script acutely aware of Americans history—where Aderholt reminds Stan of his personal connections to the illegals investigation without having to say the names “Amador,” “Nina,” “Martha,” or “Gaad”—this line stands out. If not for the unvarnished, “Show them your face” rage articulated in its profanity and its delivery, then for the critical split it represents.
[UPDATE: I originally heard, and misinterpreted, the line referenced above as “your foreign bullshit.” Then I connected it to the “I don’t want to be like them” conversation from “Urban Transport Planning,” completely forgetting another, earlier scene in which Philip informs us that EST has changed its name to the Forum. My thanks to everyone who informed me of the error.]
It speaks to the way the Jennings have so entrenched themselves in competing, incompatible ideologies, a process that makes it difficult to hang onto their few remaining allies. There’s a lot of meaning in Elizabeth choosing to set up camp in Paige’s room: It isn’t only that she refuses to sleep with Philip, or that Paige’s bedroom has been the site of and refuge from previous blow-ups in the Jennings’ house. It’s also that Paige is someone who’s (ostensibly) on Elizabeth’s side. Elizabeth is putting on a good lone-wolf face, but the calls home say otherwise. And Philip’s doing no better in this regard, as his failures at the travel agency (which he refuses to accept as failures) threaten his connection with Henry and detonate the closeness he didn’t seem to realize he had with Stavos. It’s difficult to say which is a better representation of the acute emotional devastation within “Rififi”: The verbal shots Philip and Elizabeth take at one another, Stavos’ realization that he’s being fired by someone he sees as a friend (poor Stavos), or Henry expressing how strange it is that his mom is taking a sudden interest in him and his schoolwork.
As “Rififi” gathers its head of steam, it shows us how much Philip and Elizabeth miss one another, or at least miss what they once had. In the garage that’s sure to be sniffed out by Aderholt’s task force, Philip rifles through Elizabeth’s disguises, passports, and sketches like they’re belongings left behind by an ex; alone in her Chicago hotel room, Elizabeth calls home and continues her sketching lessons, a way of reaching out to someone who barely tolerates her presence. So many of the relationships in their lives are counterfeits, forged in the service of espionage (like Elizabeth’s new film-buff friend from the senator’s office, a page seemingly ripped from Paige’s book), tainted by deceit (Philip’s friendship with Stan, and FBI agent who’s not above slipping a little American propaganda into a Thanksgiving toast) or distrust (remember how Elizabeth once pounded Claudia’s face in?). There are many reasons the Jennings need one another right now, not the least of which is the fact that they’re the only ones who know what they’ve been through and what they’re going through. Theirs are differences of the mind, not differences of the heart.
The acceleration of “Rififi,” the way it cranks up the heat that’s always been burning beneath (if not always between) Philip and Elizabeth, gives this week’s final phone call that much more weight. There’s emotion, peril, and urgency in this exchange, enough that I had to quell the urge to instantly click to the next screener when “Rififi” ended. But I didn’t, in part because I needed to file this recap, but also because The Americans has taught me, as it taught Dennis Aderholt, that good things come to those who wait.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season 6, Week 6: A-. Gotta give it up for those banging bangs Elizabeth wears as part of her Chicago disguise.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 6, Week 6: B+. I wasn’t familiar with the Tears For Fears deep cut “Ideas As Opiates” before hearing it in “Rififi,” and it was really vexing me who the artist was until Roland Orzabal got to the “lies spread on lies” part. It’s a good representation of Philip’s current inner turmoil, but it’s an even better fit with the overall sound of The Americans. The percussion sounds like its ported directly from a contemporaneous Peter Gabriel record.
- Was There Any Mail Robot? Talk about good things and waiting: Previously on “Was There Any Mail Robot?”, I wondered if Mail Robot could travel from floor to floor. This week, not only do we learn that Mail Robot takes the elevator, but we learn it in such satisfying fashion, as the doors nearly close on Stan and Aderholt, only to reveal: [Fanfare of electronic beeps.] Mail Robot! The shot composition, with Mail Robot wedged in between Noah Emmerich and Brandon J. Dirden, is hilarious, and their characters’ exchange is another example of how deeply “Rififi” is plugged into the show’s history: Aderholt asks Stan if he has any frustrations he’d like to take out, a la their old boss. In a portion of my recent interview with Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields that was left on the cutting-room floor, the showrunners alluded to a Mail Robot appearance that would prove to be particularly satisfying for Mail Robot fans, and I have to think this is what they were talking about. If this is our farewell to Mail Robot, I have no complaints.
- Not to sound like the senate intern, but Elizabeth might sympathize with Rififi director Jules Dassin given his brief membership in Communist Party USA, his persecution at the hands of the U.S. government for such, and subsequent exile from this homeland.
- Neat embroidery on the Black Friday potluck in the vault: Everybody rejoices at the arrival of “Emily’s sweet potatoes.” Tradition, camaraderie, and sentimentality, all in three words.