Keri Russell (left), Holly Taylor, Matthew Rhys (photo: FX/Patrick Harbron)

Tonight’s episode of The Americans contains two humongous developments of tremendous consequence for our favorite Soviet secret agents. The show has been building to these turning points for weeks (in one case) and years (in the other), and to see them play out on-screen is to see serialized storytelling at its very best. Just as TV fans still recall where they were when Luke wed Laura on Paige Jennings’ favorite soap opera, we will remember “A Roy Rogers In Franconia” for its twin colossi of Americans milestones. I speak, of course, of Paige Jennings’ first kiss and Matthew Beeman’s revelation that you can play a Commodore 64 through a standard television set.

I keed, I keed. (But there was a sweetness and an authenticity to the way Paige and Matthew’s lips just sort of drift together over those cans of soda. As far as TV first kisses go, this one is aces.) The moments I actually meant to set up above occur within a few minutes of each other in the closing scenes of “A Roy Rogers In Franconia.” First, counterintelligence narrows its bioweapons sweep to one William Crandall, placing an actual illegal in Stan’s crosshairs. Next, Paige—fresh from watching her mother straight up stab a dude in the neck—appeals to her parents’ sense of trust, asking to know exactly why Philip is about to dash out of the house. Philip acquiesces, and Paige learns that her parents’ combat activities extend beyond neck-stabbing. In further testament to The Americans’ able handling of its teenaged characters, the pacifist daughter of two soldiers in a global conflict sets up the season finale with pitch-perfect sarcasm: “Great.”

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In all sincerity, it is great. “A Roy Rogers In Franconia” is another breathless chapter in what’s proven to be the best season of the best show on TV. No other ongoing series can match The Americans for its balance of long-term and short-term storytelling. Tonight’s episode achieves that all-important Peak TV goal—payoff—while also functioning as a compelling piece of standalone entertainment. It’s a sterling example of The Americans seeing the forest and the trees, wondering through its characters if working toward a greater good is worth all the personal sacrifices it requires.

(photo: FX/Patrick Harbron)

Paige Jennings is ideally suited for this type of quandary. Through her faith, she’s found solace and identity in something larger than herself. She’s protested nuclear proliferation and pitched in at the food pantry, but she’s still a teenager, so she’s not entirely selfless. She’s looking forward to the day when she can drive herself to school and church, and she has no patience for Philip and Elizabeth talking over her head.

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Paige is also too young and too protected to have seen all the carnage her parents have seen, which leaves her understandably shaken after the events of “Dinner For Seven.” Holly Taylor’s eyebrows get a real work out in “Roy Rogers,” cast in various states of fear, confusion, and frustration. What Paige wants is an honest explanation of what her parents do (and what they’re capable of), but the shock of the stabbing incident suggests that she might be overreaching. It’s a classic can’t-wait-to-grow-up scenario, which partially explains why she leaned in for that kiss from Matthew—and why she’s so quick to head back across the street.

The most valid of Paige’s concerns opens the door for a “Roy Rogers” motif: People asking questions, but never getting the answer they wanted. It’s especially vexing in her case because Elizabeth and Philip tend to respond to inquiry by turning questions back on the questioner. When they do provide an answer, it’s either hopelessly oblique (“How did you know how to do that?” “I was trained to defend myself”) or meaningless sloganeering (“It’s always ‘I want to make the world better or safer,’ but it’s never what happened, never the whole truth”). Philip’s candor at the end of the episode is a big step, but it’s preceded by Elizabeth letting Paige in on her KGB origin story, a stunning Keri Russell monologue that pulls us back to Smolensk in the wake of World War II. “Dangerous didn’t matter” she says of the Soviet resistance fighters who inspired her into service. That’s an Elizabeth Jennings credo if I’ve ever heard one.

Director Chris Long makes a bold choice in one of the early “Roy Rogers” question-and-answer sessions. Most of the episode’s conversations are shot over-the-shoulder, but as Paige and Elizabeth dissects the assault, the camera focuses not on the speaker, but the listener. So much of what follows this conversation deals with Paige’s emotional fallout, but with Keri Russell’s face as the focal point, these few frames—from “He was just…” to “You killed him, Mom”—give Elizabeth her own space for reflection. It’s an affecting way of showing that there are some things the KGB didn’t train the Jennings for.

When mother and daughter later indulge in some playing-hooky daytime TV, it’s Elizabeth who struggles to grasp what’s going on. “It’s not logical, it’s emotional,” Paige explains. That’s selling General Hospital a little short—the machinations of soap-opera plotting require a hearty internal logic—but it’s still a nice wink to The Americans’ audience. In TV, logic and emotion aren’t mutually exclusive properties, as “A Roy Rogers In Franconia” attests. It’s both a touchingly emotional episode and a cruelly logical one, in which feelings feed the Rube Goldberg machine that produces the episode’s dual cliffhangers.

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Primarily the feelings of William and Oleg, neither of whom want a lassa outbreak on their consciences. It’s a laughing matter for Tatiana—who’ll be the new rezident in Nairobi as long she doesn’t “kill half of the people on the Eastern seaboard in the next week or so”—but William puts the threat in more graphic terms. “Lassa fever’s a very undignified way to go,” he tells Philip after getting the level-four clearance codes. “You basically dissolve inside, then squirt yourself out your anus—in liquid form. First it’s ‘whoosh,’ then it’s a trickle.” Word choice is very, very important in “Roy Rogers.”

This is what the waiting’s for. Weeks of thwarted attempts to secure the clearance codes put William in possession of lassa right when there’s a target on his back and two new security details on his tail. (Fun mind games: William’s street scenes in “Roy Rogers” both give fleeting attention to interlopers who could be part of a surveillance team, or could just be random passersby.) Not that season four ever dragged its feet: Spreading various missions and emotional beats around the spine of the bioweapons operation has made for a streamlined narrative, and only “Munchkins” ever felt like the show nudging pieces into place for an hour. In the current hour-long landscape, that’s quite the feat. “Chasing spies—it’s not like car chases and stuff,” Matthew tells Paige in the episode’s other major meta moment. “There’s a lot of figuring out, waiting. He says being an FBI agent taught him patience.”

And in that line of work, you can’t overlook the details. Aderholt’s conversation with the machine-shop owner illustrates the care with which the Jennings’ staged Betty Turner’s death: It looked enough like natural causes that the family ordered neither an autopsy nor a follow-up investigation. But Aderholt isn’t so easily persuaded, so he oversees the dissection of Mail Robot (Mail Robot! No! It’s “Robot Rumpus” all over again!) that yields a recording device and the sting operation that gives the episode its title. Mail Robot becomes so crucial to the season’s climax that it’s no wonder we didn’t see more of the guy earlier in the season. He had a greater role to serve, as the needle in Agent Aderholt’s haystack.

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We’ve seen the FBI run into enough dead ends at this point to know that meticulousness isn’t a surefire technique for closing a case. That affects the Soviets, too: Oleg delivers a dramatic-irony punchline when he’s poring over schematics for the Centaur-G rocket stage, determining whether or not the U.S. means to weaponize Space Shuttle Challenger. Sometimes, however, you just have to wait for the right call: Stan and Oleg supposedly parted ways for good last week, but there’s Oleg climbing into Stan’s passenger seat all over again in “A Roy Rogers In Franconia.” Where Elizabeth and Gabriel’s “Roy Rogers” soliloquies bring the emotion, Oleg’s provides the logic, explaining how the USSR’s surplus of scientific know-how plus its deficit of resources equals a probably pandemic. Costa Ronin’s motormouthed delivery articulates Oleg’s anxiety and his reluctance about sharing this information, as does the uninterrupted shot in which he delivers his preamble. Long presses the camera right up to Ronin’s face, enhancing the urgency of the meeting while reversing the “fuzzy speaker, crisp listener” setup from Paige’s bedroom—which is revisited after Oleg asks the question of the hour: “Do you know anything about biological weapons?”

From there, it’s off to the races. Oleg’s information trumps the Mail Robot sting. Gabriel and Philip have their sit down with William, and Gabriel sits down on the steps to illustrate the personal cost of the bioweapons race. Matthew drives Paige home, Paige demands answers over groceries, Aderholt gets off the phone with the Louisville field office. Once the machine has all of its parts, it operates with jaw-dropping intensity.

And so it’s important that “A Roy Rogers In Franconia” allows its characters to catch their breath every few scenes. Beginning in Paige’s bedroom and ending in the foyer of the safe house, “Roy Rogers” stages stirring tableaux that capture soon-to-be-busy players in moments of repose. My favorites, in descending order of suitability-for-framing: Elizabeth looking uncertain about Paige and Matthew, Oleg and the Lenin portrait in the door frame, Philip and Elizabeth on the living room couch, Aderholt seated among the bustle of the counterintelligence division. (I’ll try to drop some screenshots in after the episode posts online.)

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They need all the rest they can get. The finale’s shaping up to be more momentous than the two-faced betrayal of Mail Robot. (Mail Robot! How could you?)

Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week 12: C+. An encore appearance from Philip’s Walter White getup. Walt would definitely give Philip a dressing down for not reading up on lassa.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Four, Week 12: N/A. But I do have an update on the hymn from last week’s episode: Twitter users @tenenhouse and @pacifictimezone correctly identified the song as “Down In The River To Pray,” which you might remember from O Brother Where Art Thou.

  • Was there any Mail Robot? Please, please tell me now: Does Mail Robot know what he’s done? Does he possess the proper balance of emotion and logic to comprehend the trouble he’s causing the Jennings? The Jennings weren’t the ones who sent him to the repair shop in the first place!
  • How do the Jennings sleep at night? Elizabeth to Paige, the morning after: “You sleep at all?” “Not really.”
  • Here’s an amazing Easter egg: When Paige and Elizabeth tune in to General Hospital, they’re watching a scene between Brian Patrick Clarke and Sherilyn Wolter as Port Charles lovebirds Grant Putnam and Celia Quartermaine. But there’s a twist: Grant isn’t Grant at all! He’s Grant Andrews, a.k.a. Andrei Chernin, a Russian spy working for the shadowy organization known as DVX. Even when the Jennings aren’t watching The Day After or David Copperfield, their viewing choices still say something about them.

  • Outlandish theory time: The games Henry plays on the computer (which was provided by The Centre) are a combination Soviet training/recruiting tool. And even if that’s not the case: Sending Henry to go digging through the garage for electronics is a Bad Idea.
  • William’s last name is Crandall? I’ve been calling him “Krabappel!” Why didn’t someone tell me? Oh, I’ve been making an idiot out of myself!
  • Of course the mob was used as cover for the Mail Robot operation: Frank Langella sounds every bit the imposing mafia don when he tells William “You’ll do this one last thing” in that leonine purr of his.
  • Paige retroactively takes back her appreciation of Matthew’s musical efforts: “Do you still have your band?” “No, we weren’t very good.” “No, you weren’t.” Don’t be so hard on yourself, Matthew: “Mississippi Queen” sounds kind of crummy even when Mountain is playing it.

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