Matthew Rhys (left), Frank Langella, Marceline Hugot (photo: FX/Eric Liebowitz)

To quote a peculiar dinner from a film that’s probably in Stan Beeman’s home-video library: This means something. This is important.

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The Americans isn’t the type of show to telegraph huge, tide-changing moments, but the titular scene of “Dinner For Seven” is an exception. While watching the episode, I was overcome by screener-induced impatience, and IM’ed The A.V. Club’s own Joshua Alston in order to all-caps shout about the scene’s merits and its implications. Joshua, in his characteristically sensible, unerringly correct manner, had this to say: “That dinner scene is pivotal. We’ll be talking about that dinner scene two seasons from now.” Our conversation took place after news of the show’s renewal and endpoint broke; still, FX sure timed that announcement to the right episode, didn’t they?

In the here and now, let’s just focus on the dinner. There are so many parts in motion, so many dynamics at play, so many things to talk about. Big kudos to director Nicole Kassell for wrangling the tone of the scene, which is edge-of-your-seat exhilarating for something that amounts to seven people politely chatting over dinner. In the long history of Stan Beeman near misses, he’s never been in the company of so many people who know Philip and Elizabeth’s secret. (Just another thing he and Henry have in common.) The topics of conversation would give Emily Post a coronary: Religion is unavoidable with Pastor Tim, but Henry’s bragging about Tim and Stan’s accomplishments puts politics on the table, too.

In one fell swoop, The Americans’ current roster of major players gets acquainted. And all this in an episode that connects some crucial dots: Sorting through the Martha files, Aderholt uncovers the lonesome death of Betty Turner. The FBI is getting wise to related events the viewers have known about for ages.

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But season four still allows itself to get off on being withholding from time to time. For all of the unannounced drop-ins in “Dinner For Seven,” the episode’s biggest surprise comes from who’s not showing up at the door: Patti. The sham pregnancy and fabricated suicide of an impostor Mary Kay rep reveal the Don-and-Young-hee mission to be an operation of extreme shame-inducement. This storyline never fully tipped its hand, and that pays off tonight, as we learn of these developments at the same time as Don. His shock is our shock, even though we’ve spent so much time with the people conspiring against him.

Our shock is also Elizabeth’s distress, as the full extent of the mission illuminates the misgivings she expressed in “The Day After” and “Munchkins.” “I’m going to miss her” takes on a whole new meaning once we know the full extent of Elizabeth’s estrangement from Young-hee. For Elizabeth, the disappointments come early and often in “Dinner For Seven,” which dashes the hopes of “Munchkins” right out of the credits: Elizabeth’s request to The Centre has been turned down (if Gabriel even made it in the first place), and the mission has to go on as planned. Keri Russell enters the safe house set with a spring in her step and ends the scene crestfallen. No amount of pierogi is going to sweeten that deal.

The editing there is crucial: Not only does it send Elizabeth from safe house to stakeout, but leaving her in silence underlines her current lack of confidantes. She and Philip have each other, but even Philip has Stan around to chew the fat with. (“Just chatting up my friend,” Stan says when Elizabeth comes home in the middle of his story about Gaad.) And that’s where Pastor Tim comes in. Paige attending more church events means Elizabeth spending more time waiting to pick Paige up from church events, and Pastor Tim’s always there to lend a sympathetic and understanding ear.

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The three exchanges between Elizabeth and Pastor Tim could be the start of another operation. For now, however, I think Elizabeth’s on the level. She’s seen the peace and comfort that Paige and Philip find in Christianity and EST, respectively, and “Dinner For Seven” nudges her down a similar road. She stammers through the first meeting until Tim establishes an environment of confidentiality. The next time she stops by the church, the conversation is more cordial, as they compare notes on the dinner (Elizabeth: “Can’t choose your neighbors.” Pastor Tim: “Can’t you?” Elizabeth: “We lived there first”) and their competing philosophies. The third time, she’s going out of her way to check in, heading downtown to the food pantry in a scene that, not so coincidentally, follows a check of Patti’s answering machine.

Rob Yang (photo: FX/Eric Liebowitz)

This budding friendship is a great continuation of Elizabeth’s arc, and even better use of Pastor Tim. The cold open of “Dinner For Seven”—in which Tim apologizes for Alice’s ultimatum—sets the events of the episode in motion, but its true service is to the pastor himself. For once, he feels like a character on The Americans, and not an obstacle. The same thing happened to Alice in her scenes with Paige last week, and even Don gets some dimensions in “Dinner For Seven.” Don’s a tough nut to crack because he’s just so damn reasonable, offering to pay for the abortion and going with Philip to withdraw the money to pay for funeral expenses. Ultimately, it takes four agents to get the job done—and even then, he’s not careless enough to have left the clearance codes anywhere that Gabriel or Gladys from The Leftovers could find them.

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While the supporting characters are filling out, Elizabeth keeps fraying. She’s gone so far, done so much, and still the codes are just beyond her reach. She’s reaching out to Tim because the operation has left her feeling so alone—and the visuals of “Dinner For Seven” reinforce that. When Philip returns with the news from Foster Medical Research, part of their conversation takes place in the Jennings’ bathroom mirror. There’s a line between two of the panes that’s separates Elizabeth from Philip; when he turns to leave, that line practically winks him out of existence. She’s taking one-way phone calls from Young-hee because, like Stan, this life just keeps taking people from her.

So when a mugger tries to lay his fingers on Paige, Elizabeth puts four knuckles into his face. The encounter is a deadly mix of KGB training, maternal instinct, and the frustrations of a woman who has no other outlet. What begins as one type of Americans scene quickly morphs into a different type: The scenery shifts from front porches to chain link, and the tone goes from Gilmore Girls to Gary Gilmore. Just moments after Paige was relishing her role in the Cold War, the awful truth rears its head.

“None of us are in control,” Pastor Tim tells Elizabeth in an earlier scene. “Not really. Not ever.” All of the unexpected visitors—real and imagined—in “Dinner For Seven” confirm that. It’s important for The Americans to maintain this sense of spontaneity for the next 25 episodes, even as the moments that inform that endgame make themselves apparent. This is not a world of easy-listening saxophone and enough pot roast to feed six. It’s one where the FBI agent across the street meets the clergymen whose wife has a tape that accuses you of being a Soviet sleeper agent. They say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer—what do they say when friends and enemies are one in the same?

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Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week 11: B+. Philip needs to put some fear into Don, and nothing says “I will potentially fuck you up for what you did to my sister” like long, stringy hair over wire-rimmed glasses. That guy looks like he should be hanging out with the muggers at the end of the episode.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Four, Week 11: Inconclusive. Both the dinner-party music and the choir rehearsal defy my usual technique for this feature (“Plug the lyrics of the songs I don’t know into Google”), so we’ll call this one a draw. (But if you can identify the songs, I’d love to know what they are!)
  • Was there any Mail Robot: Somebody’s mechanical ears (and/or the recording device in its guts) must be burning, because guess who wheels through the background while Aderholt relates the “Gaad went batshit on the Mail Robot” report?
  • How do the Jennings sleep at night? No further info here, but Stan’s not doing too well in this department: “I’m tired. Not sleeping a lot.”

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