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The Americans shows that table-setting is as riveting as any car chase

Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Ivan Mok (Photo: Jeffrey Neira/FX)
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The Americans’ showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields promised that season five would have fewer of the energizing espionage set pieces that have marked the series in the past. There are a few suspenseful plot moves tonight—nearly everyone is a spy or being spied upon, after all. Stan and Aderholt continue their tentative FBI seduction of the wary Sofia at a local museum, coaching her about the finer points of nonchalantly lying about where she eats lunch. (“You don’t want to look worried” and “You don’t want to seem nervous” are where the FBI guys are starting from with their new charge.) And after a nifty, silent tutorial in multiple-car tailing technique, Elizabeth creeps around a seedy motel in broad daylight in order to capture photos of Evgheniya having an affair, with, it turns out, a promisingly Russia-bound CIA man. But “Immersion” reveals how the show’s taut web of relationships doesn’t need flashy action to thrum with tension. Hardly anything of note happens here, and it’s riveting nonetheless, every conversation vibrating with things known and things unspoken.

Apart from maybe Better Call Saul, no show on television right now toys with our expectations better than The Americans. Tonight, as we open on Philip driving alone through the darkness, we’re as adrift as he was at the end of last episode, after Gabriel’s final warning to keep Paige out of the family business left him stunned and lost. As it turns out when Philip turns into the Jennings’ driveway, we haven’t jumped forward at all. Philip’s pained, exhausted visage is not in the service of some new mission, but the result, simply, of the drive home. The mood continues inside, episode director Kevin Bray’s camera gliding silently through the empty house as if Philip were walking into enemy territory. When it reveals Elizabeth in bed reading, it’d be a relief, except that the conversation where Philip tells Elizabeth about his meeting with Gabriel—while scrupulously forthcoming—carries the weight of their complex relationship and history in every word and glance.

Philip tells Elizabeth that Gabriel responded to his question about Renee by accusing Philip of “losing it.” Elizabeth doesn’t address that Philip’s ability to soldier on in their mission has been of concern to everyone since the first time we met them. Philip tells Elizabeth that he’s glad Gabriel’s gone, and that he’s not sure Gabriel ever saw them as anything but a means to an end, and Elizabeth’s watchful gaze and abrupt assertion of “He’s a good person” seeks to settle the question, even though that question remains very much open in Philip’s mind. And when Philip tells Elizabeth of Gabriel’s wish for Paige, her control cracks momentarily. “He said that?” Elizabeth asks, genuinely shocked, before the enormity of that long-standing, seemingly insoluble dilemma between them is brushed aside, too. Her equally glib, “Wouldn’t it be a nice world if nobody had to do this?” echoes with her unspoken knowledge that Gabriel had offered no such advice to her when they spoke in parting, earlier in the same day.

Keri Russell (Screenshot: FX)

When Philip and Elizabeth return to the nondescript safehouse, the camera glides there, too, until it reveals Claudia, sitting in Gabriel’s place. Another patiently suspenseful reveal of the mundane, Margo Martindale, as ever, brings a potently prim implacability to Claudia’s no-nonsense words. If the pairing of Philip and Gabriel suggested a glimpse into Philip’s future self, The Americans presents Claudia’s pragmatism as Elizabeth’s likely endgame. When Philip cuts Claudia short as she attempts to feel out how their undercover operations are proceeding with a curt, “Let’s do this a little differently, from now on…” Claudia seems relieved. ”You don’t want anybody inside your heads,” she says, “Fair enough. Not my strong suit anyway.”

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With Gabriel gone, the Jennings’ mission is in the hands of someone seemingly less inclined to worry about them as human beings. “I think he got tired of this,” says Philip to Elizabeth of Gabriel’s return to Russia, and the memory of Frank Langella’s eyes when Gabriel paid a last, rueful visit to the Lincoln Memorial bears that out. Claudia’s recently returned from a visit home, where, after years away, her grandchildren don’t recognize her. Claudia tells Elizabeth, with an implied shrug, that’s to be expected. When Elizabeth sits down with Claudia alone, the two find an easier rhythm, the women sharing that narrowed focus, even as Elizabeth bristles at Claudia’s mention of Paige and her private life. (Russell has a way of purposefully locking someone in her gaze that’s, frankly, terrifying.) “I’m not asking for the Center. I’m just asking,” Claudia assures her, and here again, The Americans does viewers the respect of allowing us to intuit the various levels upon which their conversation is being engaged without elaborating. Claudia’s job as handler has seen her expressing doubts about Philip’s commitment (and getting her face pummeled by Elizabeth for her troubles), but the two women here can speak, an undercurrent of shared knowledge their unspoken vocabulary. Leaving their meeting earlier, Philip had asked of Claudia, with disdain, “Back when Gabriel was shooting people at home, what do you think she was doing?” Here, Elizabeth is able to follow up on her episode-opening line to Philip about the necessity of their work. She tells Claudia earnestly of Paige, “I want her to believe in something. I want her to care about things that matter.”

Keri Russell has two big scenes with Holly Taylor’s Paige tonight, both centering on her commitment to being a spy and both partaking of that same combination of complete honesty—and deliberate omission. When, continuing their garage sparring sessions (complete with baseball bat this time), Paige asks when she’ll be capable enough to not be so scared all the time, Elizabeth’s face undergoes the smallest, yet most arresting transformation as she makes the decision to tell her daughter about her rape. Here, Bray’s camera follows Elizabeth’s gaze as she focuses on a patch of drywall over Paige’s right shoulder, holding there for a long moment before she begins to speak. Bridging her scenes with Claudia, Russell’s Elizabeth—two vertical creases under her right eye in profile, like tears that aren’t going to fall—lets the words describing her assault drop on the shocked girl in measured tones. The men in the parking lot promised sexual menace. Elizabeth’s ability to protect herself and Paige opened Paige’s eyes to the need for such strength and violence, but all Paige’s lessons have done is show her how unprepared she is for life as a woman in this world of such men, spy or not. So Elizabeth tells her her story, Russell’s way of making Elizabeth’s eyes glow cold with resolve selling her message that, after her rape, she trained herself so “No one was going to hurt me like that again. And I was okay.”

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Except Elizabeth leaves out the fact that the man who raped her was one of the men who was teaching her how to fight (and that Philip eventually killed the man in that same garage upon finding out). Paige stands up to embrace her mother partway through Elizabeth’s story, and Elizabeth stops her. The pain is not the point. The use she made of the pain is the point, to Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth tells Claudia of her disagreement with Philip about Paige’s fate, saying flatly, “We’ll never see eye-to-eye on it,” it’s not exactly a betrayal of her husband’s trust so much as an acknowledgement of the continuum upon which these women exist. Later, pulling Paige away from her aimless channel surfing for a walk in the cold air (ads for Whatchamacallit and Skor bars hinting at the frivolousness of Paige’s pursuit), Elizabeth continues to try to explain her unwavering focus on her impossibly difficult job. She brushes aside Paige’s dismissal of her own heartbreak over Matthew, telling the girl, simply, “Other things become more important.” Paige, referring tentatively to her mother’s rape, can’t fathom ever getting over something so, to her, inconceivable. But Elizabeth’s eyes flash with that tightly focused determination that makes her so formidable, always.

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Elizabeth knows what Claudia did, she knows what she’s had to do, and, couching her advice here so delicately, she knows what her daughter will have to do. When Paige scoffs at the idea that Elizabeth could have been a doctor if it hadn’t been necessary for her to become a spy (“You have no bedside manner, mom.”), Elizabeth’s indulges the fantasy about going to the neediest places in the world to heal people. “Maybe it wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t so… perfect at that,” she muses, the last line of the episode.

Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Five, Week Eight: C. We’ve seen the Eckerts’ tousled airliner numbers before, and the Jennings’ surveillance hair is appropriately nondescript. However, the fact that Philip appears to have taken the time to add freckles/facial blemishes to his beard guy disguise? A+.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Five, Week Eight: N/A. In a tensely contemplative episode, the ’80s jukebox was sagely left unplugged.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? One scene at FBI HQ provided no further fleeting glimpse of Mail Robot. But we know he’s there, making his rounds. I take comfort in that.
  • Both Philip and Elizabeth see their respective honeypot missions continue to go off the rails in different ways. Elizabeth has kept up with Gorp Guy’s tai chi, and, calling to tell him she won’t be back in town for a few weeks, there’s the barest hint of genuine admiration in Brenda’s gushing about GG “helping millions of people.” Her last lines to Paige tonight are informed by it.
  • Philip, meanwhile, gets flat-out dumped. Calling in to do his own honeypot check-in, Philip is stunned when the ever-affectless Deirdre tells Gus, “It’s not you, it’s me,” when, in fact, Gus’ bland decency has put her to sleep. “I didn’t tank it,” Philip protests to Elizabeth afterward. (“We’re not all as attractive as you, Elizabeth,” is hilarious in context.) But, urged back into the breach by his wife, Philip-as-Gus intuits that some drama is what’s needed, and a concocted story about an unhappy marriage later, the call-screening Deirdre picks up the phone.
  • “Next time, you might have to hurt someone’s feelings again,” counsels Elizabeth over Philip’s romantic failure, bringing up the specter of Martha, and hinting that all Philip’s EST-related soul-searching might have dulled his edge. He demurs, explaining, “I think it’s more a part of me I’ve never thought about.” But when listening to Tuan’s proposal to turn on the lonely Pasha, Philip can barely conceal his tired revulsion at the cruelty of it. Of Tuan’s plan to facilitate the mother and son Morozov’s exit, Elizabeth’s businesslike “If he’s miserable enough” is concluded by Tuan’s “…it could work.” Philip sighs deeply, looks to Elizabeth, and agrees.
  • Oleg has his room in his parents’ apartment destructively searched by men from Directorate K, possibly because he took an unauthorized look at his mother’s records. The precariousness of life in the show’s Soviet Russia is enhanced by the averted glances of both Oleg’s powerful Party member father and his boss in the face of the intrusion. Oleg reassures his parents, “It’s not like that any more,” while his boss echoes, “Things were different then.” But Oleg’s frightened mother warns her son, “They find things even when there’s nothing.”
  • I’m still not sold that Sofia’s as innocent as she presents herself, but her toothy smile of gratitude when Stan and Aderholt tell her the FBI can get her a dentist is lovely.
  • Henry has friends! Playing video games and scarfing sandwiches in the Jennings’ den, Henry is shown hanging with a kid named Rich and a young woman who he might have the hots for, in his Henry way. She’s not named, but Elizabeth confides in Philip and the visiting Stan, “I think he likes the girl,” so good on Henry.
  • Thanks for reading the last few weeks as I attempted to fill Erik’s vintage Chuck Taylors. He’ll be back next week from his ordinary, innocent vacation where he did not—and I wish to stress that—engage in any espionage activities whatsoever.
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