The Americans Recap: Human Origami

Philip, on the phone with Elizabeth. Photo: FX
The Americans
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On the outside, there isn't much difference between a spy and a con artist. They're both professional deceivers, men and women whose entire craft revolves around forming bonds with people specifically to manipulate and betray them. The difference, arguably, is that a con artist destroys people for profit, while a spy destroys them for something much larger: their country. Con artists grift; spies sacrifice.

It's often easier to think of Elizabeth and Philip as soldiers, especially when they're disposing of corpses. This week they've been tasked with the body that used to be Annalise, a woman whose tragically basic blend of insecurity and self-importance has proven fatal in a game she was never really equipped to play. 

Philip, who suddenly materializes to rescue her killer like a magical murder angel, rushes Yousef into another hotel room and assures him that this whole strangling-a-person-to-death thing is going to be no big. "As long as you let me do what I do, it'll be okay," promises Philip, who still has not identified himself. He hands Yousef a cold bottle of beer, the way you do when any pal shows up at your house, and then heads out the door to take care of business. They are murder friends now!

Philip calls Elizabeth, who shows up with a large suitcase, although not large enough to hold a body — unless, of course, you snap it into pieces. And that is exactly what they do for several minutes, and it is horrifying. When you break a bone, or at least a big one, here is exactly what it sounds like: a tree branch snapping in half. Elizabeth and Philip regard the pile of bones and skin in front of them with the clinical eye of a carpenter, as though she is simply a collection of hard edges and angles, a puzzle of flesh. They fold her into a terrifying piece of human origami and roll her out in a suitcase. She has been solved.

What's remarkable about the way Philip flips Yousef is the absence of force: Rather than threatening, he simply behaves as though Yousef has already agreed to do what he wants, and in his shock and terror, he simply does. Philip convinces him to meet up with the CIA so he and Elizabeth can finally figure out which agents are working in the Afghanistan group. When Yousef and the agent take off in a car, Elizabeth tails them to a bar, angering Philip, who insists her play was too dangerous.

Philip is becoming one risk-averse motherfucker when it comes to his family, which makes him a big liability as a spy. After all, the only reason Annalise got involved in the first place was because he didn't want to use Elizabeth, and his angry refusals to tell Paige the truth about her heritage feel increasingly like a slap in the face to both Elizabeth and the KGB. Somehow, I think Moscow is starting to doubt his commitment to Sparkle Motion. 

Elsewhere, five FBI agents in matching trench coats stand in the middle of a warehouse, like wax-faced color swatches carefully arranged for maximum, billboard-friendly drama. A forklift lowers a box to the floor in front of them, and when they pry it open, a woman emerges, gasping desperately from a mask connected to an oxygen tank. It feels like science fiction for a second, like an alien emerging from cryosleep. Her name is Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya, and she is a Soviet defector. 

Zinaida says she worked at an institute that reported to the Soviet leadership on geopolitical issues, and the Americans want to send her on a media tour to talk shit about the Soviet Union. She is happy to do this, because she is hungry for America. She is also hungry for Milky Ways, which she eats with great enthusiasm. She wants to go out, to see the sights in America. She seems like someone who's been starved — not just for food but for pleasure. America is warm and soft and sweet; America loves to consume and be consumed. And she is hungry. 

Back in Soviet prison, pretty triple-agent Nina Sergeevna is peeing in a metal can in the corner, looking 100 percent resigned to her treason conviction and likely execution. When a frightened Belgian woman arrives to share her cell and insists that she's innocent, Nina simply replies, "This is not a prison for innocent people."

Later, a guard brings Nina to a holding cell where we finally meet Oleg's father, the powerful Soviet official whose name was dropped so often last season. He says that Oleg — who fell in love with Nina at the embassy — has begged him to use his influence and save her. Nina stares ahead for a moment, and rather than asking for his help, she simply asks him to tell Oleg that she wasn't pretending with him. Nina knows that she is guilty; her punishment seems right to her, somehow. She's exactly where she's supposed to be.

Elizabeth knows what it means to be a traitor, too; as we learn in a flashback, her own father was a deserter (presumably in the Soviet army) and was shot for it. In many ways, the way Nina sees the world is just as inflexible as the way Elizabeth does, except that Nina betrayed her country, and now she has to live with both her loyalty and her betrayal, eating each other alive until her execution. Rigid things don't bend well; they break instead. Maybe that's why Elizabeth doesn't bend. "Parents are always trying to understand our children better, to do what's best for them," says Oleg's father. Elizabeth knows that, too. 

Oleg, meanwhile, finally confronts Stan over his betrayal of Nina. "I don't know if you'll believe me, but I did love her," says Stan. This does not comfort Oleg, who holds a gun to Stan's head and threatens to shoot. Stan tells him to do what he needs to do and walks away — but no shot ever comes. Hey, maybe that self-help seminar really did work! Later, Stan breaks down over his near-death experience in front of his ex-wife Sandra, finally offering her the real emotional connection she'd always wanted. It's too late, of course; she tells him that she's glad that he's safe, but "that's all. That's all there is."

Elizabeth returns to spend more solo time at her handler Gabriel's house, where she seems far more at home than she does at her own. Maybe it's because everything she shares with Gabriel — about herself, her real life — is precisely equal to what she hides from her children. 

They talk for a bit about Elizabeth's mother, who is apparently still very beautiful and very serious. "That generation. My generation. Everybody lost everything in the war," says Gabriel. "But maybe she's a little happier now because her daughter's alive, and she's glad she's making a difference in the world." It's not a very subtle transition to talking about Paige, but Elizabeth takes the bait anyway, confiding that things have become complicated with her own daughter. "She's a teenager in this country," says Elizabeth, worried. It gnaws at her, surely: She has devoted her life to destroying America, and yet now she has an American daughter.

Idealistic young Paige, conversely, is worried about her parents, but for all the wrong reasons, naturally. She nervously suggests to Elizabeth that Philip's late nights might mean he's having an affair, and Elizabeth manages to contain her laughter. "I don't think about that too much," she says, reassuring her daughter. After all, you don't exactly worry about your husband cheating on you when you know he's already sleeping with countless people as part of his regular spy duties. If we're being honest, she's probably far more concerned about him cheating on the U.S.S.R. with America.

Paige drops an off-hand comment that ends up hitting Elizabeth a lot harder than intended: "You guys look out for each other, you and dad. More than us." Paige insists that it's good — better than an affair, at least — but it's also an indictment of all the ways that her parents have put their children second and cut them out of the biggest part of their lives. The work Elizabeth does for the KGB is something that Paige and her brother aren't a part of, something that cuts them off not only from the belief system that drives their mother, but everything that she invests in it — which is to say, almost all of her.

Elizabeth closes out the episode by telling Philip the story of how she decided to join the KGB. She was only 16 and had only a week to decide. When she told her mother, "she didn't blink. She told me to go and serve my country. When I was called, my mother didn't hesitate."

Philip looks sad, because it's everything he wishes he could leave behind about his homeland: the austerity and sacrifice passed from generation to generation like a genetic disease. On some level, he has been seduced by America not for its candy bars or TVs and air conditioners, but rather the promise that it offers to so many immigrants: that his children might live a better life here than he did. He might betray his country for that. He almost did once. The harder that Philip pushes back — the more he hesitates about Paige — the more Elizabeth might start to see him the way her mother saw her father: as a traitor who deserved what he got.