The Americans Recap: One Tough Mother

The Americans

Dinner for Seven
Season 4 Episode 11
Editor’s Rating *****
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Frank Langella as Gabriel, Marceline Hugot. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX

As Pastor Tim’s role has grown, The Americans has explored matters of belief, faith, and the characters’ understanding of their world and themselves. Philip’s involvement with EST also does this, to an extent, but EST hasn’t had a fraction of the narrative effect that Pastor Tim has. No matter your thoughts on the guy himself (or his hairstyle), it’s hard to deny that he has a way of forcing the non-Henry members of the Jennings clan to look inward and grapple with what they see. After his wanderings in Ethiopia and the panic he caused back home, though, father-to-be Pastor Tim has adopted a new theme: parenthood, and the responsibilities and complications that lie therein.

During his surprise drop-in on Philip and Elizabeth, Pastor Tim tells them he thought about them while he was lost, along with “all the things being a parent can mean.” There may as well be a “THESIS STATEMENT” chryon flashing underneath Kelly AuCoin in this moment, so weighted with import is this declaration. (Pastor Tim is well-practiced in the art of the sermon, after all.) It’s certainly a good time for The Americans to pick up this thread, on the heels of Alice’s ill-considered mama-bear display and Philip and Elizabeth’s continued deception of Paige. Both points underscore the fact that parenting decisions are far from clear-cut, and are often difficult to separate from the instinctual drive to protect one’s offspring.

Elizabeth gets a firsthand lesson in this conundrum during the closing moments of “Dinner for Seven.” In a heart-stopping sequence, Paige witnesses the full extent of her mother’s, ahem, “peacekeeping” abilities. (Not exactly the “social justice with a healthy dollop of Jesus in the mix” she’s used to.) What initially seems like a vindicating, triumphant moment — “Sweet, Paige is going to see her mom kick some ass!” — curdles into something horrible and dread-soaked with the flick of a pocketknife. In the act of defending herself and her child, Elizabeth reveals something that she didn’t want Paige to know: This soft-spoken mom might straight-up kill you if you cross her. (Now that’s how you do an ill-considered mama-bear display, Alice.) The abject horror on Paige’s face as she witnesses what her mom has done to their attacker, with such practiced ease, makes clear the trauma this incident will inflict.

The irony of Elizabeth’s impulsive behavior in this last scene is that she spends the majority of “Dinner for Seven” acting in such measured ways, especially around Paige and Pastor Tim. There are a few possible ways to read the uptick in Elizabeth’s interest in Pastor Tim, but I suspect she saw an opportunity in his comments about family — an opportunity to reinforce her position as Paige’s caring mother, thereby reminding Pastor Tim what he and Alice carry the potential to destroy.

In all three of Elizabeth’s conversations with Pastor Tim, she awkwardly seeks and receives his counsel, and the pair talk around the issues of belief and faith that separate them. Although it’s possible that Elizabeth might be speaking from a genuine place, it’s also not hard to believe she’s exploiting Pastor Tim’s image of himself as a wise confidant, in order to downplay the threat she poses to him and his wife. She’s almost certainly doing this when she talks to him about Stan, whose sudden arrival at the Jenningses’ Pastor Tim dinner gives this episode its name. Witness how deftly she pivots from the question of how Russian spies came to live across the street from an FBI agent, to flattering Pastor Tim over how he’s helped her and Paige grow closer. This is the sort of spycraft Elizabeth and Philip have told Paige about — getting people to trust them — and Elizabeth more or less admits to Paige that she’s manipulating Pastor Tim and Alice. Paige knows this — hell, she’s an active participant in the manipulation at this point. But the bloody display that follows is something very new, and something much more difficult to accept.

We find an even sadder irony in the Young Hee and Don story line, where the idea of motherhood is used in a much more malicious way to manipulate someone. We finally get the full scope of Directorate S’s plans to use Don to get the Level Four codes, and it turns out to be even more appalling than mere extortion, which is what I assumed it would be. The goal was never to get Don to hand over the codes, but rather to get him out of his office so Gabriel could snoop around, along with an unnamed woman played by The Leftovers’ Marceline Hugot. (Is she the fiftysomething computer expert who speaks perfect English that Tatiana asked Oleg about last week? Or maybe the fortysomething librarian Gabriel mentioned? Directorate S suddenly needs a lot of unassuming older ladies, it seems.)

I’m no spy, but I find it hard to believe the Center really couldn’t come up with a better plan than the one they force Elizabeth and Philip to carry out. Have “Patty” tell Don he impregnated her during their would-be tryst, stage Patty’s suicide as a result of Don’s reaction to this revelation, and then have Patty’s “family” demand Don pay for her funeral and transport back home — a payment he must leave the office to procure, while Patty’s infirm parents stay behind in his office. It sounds even more convoluted all typed out like that, and frankly, it strains credulity when it works. (Well, it sort of works. They don’t find the codes, but they do get Don’s computer files.) On an emotional level, though, it works like gangbusters. The realization of just how much damage has been inflicted on this family — and the fact that Young Hee will never know what happened to her good friend Patty — is absolutely gutting.

Like Young Hee, Stan also struggles to achieve closure over a loss — or rather, he struggles with how to achieve that closure. In his conversation with Philip about Gaad’s murder, it’s clear Stan believes the KGB is somehow responsible, and that the Soviets are monsters. In this moment, he seems like a man set on revenge. But later, when he meets with Oleg, Stan unloads on his rival/ally about how avenging Amador’s death (R.I.P. Vlad) more or less ruined him. After some pointed comments about all the ways his bosses want him to blackmail Oleg, Stan tells him, “I don’t want you on my conscience, too,” and says they’ll never see each other again. Maybe revenge isn’t on the menu for Stan right now — which is a bit of a relief, frankly. Stan went a little off the rails as an FBI agent (and a person) after the Amador/Vlad thing, and it seems like Gaad’s death has inspired him to get back on the straight and narrow, hence severing ties with his most problematic professional acquaintance.

Of course, Stan’s comments to Oleg might be part of a bigger ruse, but I’m inclined to believe that he wants to pursue the truth about Gaad’s death, not merely avenge it. And thanks to an observation from eagle-eyed Aderholt — regarding a suspicious death at the facility where Mail Robot was serviced — he may be closer to that truth than he’s been in a long time. After everything that’s happened with Pastor Tim and Alice, it’s easy to forget that the biggest threat to the Jenningses still lives across the street from them, bumming their beer and crashing their dinner parties. One day soon, he might ruin their lives.

The Americans Recap: One Tough Mother