So. That was a bummer. Not a shocking-twist TV-style bummer, but a low-grade undercurrent of despair and ennui; the kind of thing that precedes a mid-life crisis. You’ve gotta give it to The Americans (I guess), for not being afraid to devote an entire episode to that kind of a bummer. It’s certainly more true to life. Ugh, thanks for reminding us of that.
After spending the first half of the season building up a juicy new case for the Jennings’, last week’s episode pulled the rug out from under all of us. The US, it seems, isn’t trying to cause a famine in the USSR. It’s trying to end hunger throughout the world. Elizabeth and Phillip’s mission was based on the same assumption they’ve been working with for nearly thirty years: America is the bad guy and Russia the good. All at once, they’ve come to realize that it’s no longer that simple, and — even worse — perhaps it never was. This hour-long anti-climax isn’t all that fun to watch, but it’s a necessary recalibration, and a pause in which everyone is forced to confront some uncomfortable questions. What exactly are we fighting for?
This quandary has been burning a hole in Phillip’s pocket since Season One, and by this point, his reluctance is visible from space. It’s no wonder that, as Gabriel says, “As long as you’re here, the center is going to continue to be concerned about you...To be honest, I’m worried.” This, Gabriel delivers along with the news that he’s leaving. He’s going back to Russia, just because “it’s time,” he says, though not a soul is buying it. This whole scene reads as daddy telling the kids that while he may be moving out, nothing is going to change, he promises.
Is the KGB bailing on Elizabeth and Phillip? Are they closing the net around Phillip exclusively? Or maybe it’s another not-so-cinematic bummer. Maybe this whole operation is just winding down.
Pausing and reflecting is not the Jennings’ strong suit, but now they’re both being dragged back into memory, even as they half-heartedly keep chugging forward with work. A Mary Kay agent comes to the door and Elizabeth can’t help but recall the friendship she forged with Patty (also a Mary Kay consultant) and they was forced to destroy.
Phillip is still grappling with flashbacks from his childhood and his mysterious parents. “My father used to bring home all this stuff,” he says, as we watch one such memory play out: His father hands a pair of boots to his mother, and she begins to wash off the caked-on mud. Phillip seems to be circling a truth about his origins, which, until now, hadn’t occurred to him to look for. Elizabeth reminds him that Gabriel knows more about them than they do themselves, and urges him to inquire before it’s too late.
“Was he a logger?” Phillip asks.
“He worked at a logging camp,” Gabriel replies. “A penal camp.” Not as a logger, but as a guard.
You don’t have to know much about the Gulag system to know that this is not exactly thrilling news to hear about your dad. “Some guards were cruel. Some were kind,” Gabriel continues, though this is almost laughable optimism. The only things we really know about Phillip’s father is that he was employed by the KGB and that he brought miscellaneous items, including someone else’s boots, home from work. Odds are he was not a nice guy. With this revelation, Phillip seems to sink even more deeply into depression, making himself more vulnerable than ever.
The only ray of hope is Paige, curled up in bed with Karl Marx. Elizabeth asks her what she thinks of it, and Paige — like millions of idealistic teens before her — says she kind of likes this whole equality thing. Is that what it’s like in the Motherland? “Is everyone equal?” To her credit, Elizabeth gives a slight shake of her head and admits, “We have our problems. But everybody is in it together.” Paige counters like the polite smart-mouth she is: “You haven’t been there in a long time.”
Over there, things seem to be moving along at a similar pace. In Moscow (where there is still no sign of Martha, thanksalot), Oleg and Ruslan finally capture Dmitri, the corrupt grocery distributor. But this bust is just as fruitless as Elizabeth and Phillip’s mission (and, while we’re at it, Stan and Aderholt’s), because he isn’t talking. They toss him in a cell where he will likely live out his days in grim silence rather than name names and suffer a more brutal fate. After this, Oleg makes a final visit to the park, waiting for the FBI contact who never comes, then heads home — evidently giving up.
This brings the episode to its ominous conclusion. Dialogue ceases and Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands On Me” does all the talking for the remainder. “No luck, no golden chances/No mitigating circumstances now” Gabriel sings as Oleg takes a long (last?) look at his parents, then heads up to his rooftop with the FBI’s map and the tape of his recorded conversation with Stan. “It's only common sense/There are no accidents around here.” He opens his lighter and sets fire to them both.
Now back in the states, Phillip and Elizabeth pull up to Gabriel’s apartment building — with Paige in the back seat. “I am willing/Lay your hands on me/I am ready/Lay your hands on me.” Upstairs, Gabriel comes out of the kitchen to greet them. Phillip stands, resigned. Elizabeth smiles. Gently, she nudges Paige forward.
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