The Americans Recap: The Family Business

The Americans

The Midges
Season 5 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Lost in the mission drift of their assignment, perpetually tormented by the sins and mistakes that have withered their souls — to say nothing of their resolve — Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have had to fight through their ambivalence to indoctrinate Paige to the cause. It has been an ongoing catastrophe, full of conflict and uncertainty and heartbreaking scenes, like Philip and Elizabeth coming home to find Paige curled up in the bedroom closet, still traumatized over the violence she’s witnessed. At moments like that, she’s their child, not the next phase of Soviet espionage in America.

But finally, finally, Philip and Elizabeth have the opportunity to make their case to Paige — and perhaps to themselves, too, as their enthusiasm for this work has begun to waver. The possibility that American intelligence is harvesting Australian “midges” to wither the Soviet grain supply and starve an already struggling populace allows them to lock onto an act of pure, unmitigated evil. It’s one thing for state actors from both sides to engage in the bloody rituals of cloak-and-dagger, but it would be unconscionable for the United States to cause deliberate harm to untold scores of innocent men, women, and children. Forget Paige: An initiative to starve an entire population could probably convince Stan Beeman to join the management at the travel agency.

We know from Oleg’s new assignment in Moscow that the hunger issue in Russia isn’t nearly so cut-and-dried. We’ve witnessed a government elite picking from a cart full of pastries, and there’s suspicion that certain grocers have secured more favorable arrangements with their suppliers than others. We know, too, that Philip and Elizabeth’s own childhoods were marked by periods of extreme austerity, during which Philip’s family would slurp on bowls of hot, onion-flavored water and Elizabeth’s mother would pass every last scrap of food to her kids. Midges or not, the Soviet government is facing a moral and existential question: What kind of country fails to feed its own people?

Still, Philip and Elizabeth have come across the perfect case to introduce to Paige, one that casts them as heroes working against the hidden tyrannies of their daughter’s native-born country. But it’s more than just lighting the first kindling for anti-American sentiment to catch fire in Paige’s conscience. What makes it truly ideal is the simplicity of the scenario that’s being presented to her, which fits into the clear-cut notions of right and wrong that have brought her to this point in her life. Good kids don’t understand the necessity of a white lie; they don’t know the value of withholding truths that could hurt other people. All they know is that lying is wrong — and Paige, as a churchgoer, is more uncomfortable with that sin than most teenagers would be.

Philip and Elizabeth lead her gently down this slippery slope. If Paige can agree that releasing pests to destroy crops is awful, then she can start to embrace the shadier aspects of the operation. She can learn that the CIA snuck in Alexei, an agricultural expert, and that her parents must impersonate other people to get close to him. (That they’re acting as a pilot and stewardess makes them seem almost cute.) “Are you pretending to be his friend?” Paige asks. “Sometimes we have to do that, in order to get the information we need,” Elizabeth replies. “Is it hard?” Paige wonders. “Yeah, sometimes it’s really hard,” Philip says, no doubt suppressing the ocean of bile that’s flooding his esophagus as he speaks.

Last week’s episode had Philip and Elizabeth giving Paige their version of “the talk,” but “The Midges” follows through with a much tougher and more nuanced discussion, pertinent both to the spy game and to being an adult. The “technique” Paige’s parents teach her — to rub her thumb and forefinger together as a way of remembering them when she feels uncertain — is, in essence, a lesson in obfuscation. When Paige rubs her fingers together and thinks about her family, she’s also having to think about protecting their little secret. She can’t tell Matthew what’s bothering her, so she makes up some excuse about being stressed about a history paper. She’s disturbed by how easy it is to lie to him and how gross she feels about it afterward. Elizabeth reminds her again of the stakes — not just for all of them, but for Matthew, who’s better off not knowing the truth.

The beauty of this discussion — and of “The Midges,” the best episode of the season so far — is that it reinforces the series as a higher-stakes version of parenthood. All children lie and are punished for it from an early age. Sometimes they figure out how to lie and not get caught later, as they inch toward adolescence and beyond. But there always comes a time when they will learn that lying — or simply not disclosing everything, even to those closest to them — is an essential mechanism for making their way in the world. Philip and Elizabeth are pushing hard for Paige to understand why it’s important for them to assume false identities to get close to a source, or why it’s important for her to make up some harmless fib about an upcoming paper on Napoleon. They have to get close to the source in order to stop pests from decimating crops; she has to keep Matthew in the dark in order to protect both their families from harm.

These are the types of moral calculations adults face all the time, just without life-or-death consequences. And the funny thing is, Philip and Elizabeth are still giving Paige the G-rated version: They tell her they’re developing a relationship with an agricultural expert, but say nothing about Tuan and Pasha, or about the hostilities underlying their conversations. They tell her about going to Oklahoma City as part of the operation, but say nothing about what they intend to do while they’re there, or what they might do if their identities are compromised. The final line of the episode is wonderfully sardonic, spoken as they drag the body of a lab technician to the car for disposal: “Should we tell Paige about this?” Paige needs to know about the net benefits of lying. Learning about the net benefits of killing is a lesson for another time.

Hammers and Sickles

• Martha’s back! I’d apologize for burying the lede, but “The Midges” does too. Merely noting her presence as Oleg leaves the grocery store is a brilliant way to bookmark her return without having to make a big deal of it. She’ll surely get a proper reintroduction later.

• The Roxy Music song “More Than This” has become such a wedding standby that it’s worth remembering the darker undercurrents that tug beneath its dreamy surface. The lines “Maybe I’m learning / Why the sea on the tide / Has no way of turning” seem appropriately doom-laden for this episode.

• It’s almost comical how much everyone resents Alexei’s anti-Russian sentiment: Pasha and his mother are furious about emigrating to America without warning or content; Tuan calls him a “traitor” for betraying his country; Philip and Elizabeth are constitutionally resistant to a man who badmouths a state they continue to sacrifice themselves to defend. And yet, Alexei is speaking truths that clearly make Philip itch a little. The country Alexei describes isn’t far from the country he knew.

• The contrast between Tuan’s ideological extremism and the Jennings’ git-er-done pragmatism makes for a fascinating backseat/front seat dynamic between them. It’s possible that Philip and Elizabeth once had Tuan’s passion, but experience has drained it out of them.

• Philip’s son is inching his way to America like Scatman Crothers responding to a psychic distress call at the Overlook. Hopefully, he’ll meet a kinder fate.

The Americans Recap: The Family Business