The Americans Recap: Failed State

The Americans

Season 5 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Throughout his run on The Americans, Frank Langella has done such subtle work as Gabriel that it’s been hard to think of him as an individual separate from the dictates of the Center. We might notice that Gabriel takes a gentler hand in dealing with Philip and Elizabeth than Claudia, whose approach could get so underhanded and adversarial that Elizabeth brushed her back memorably on occasion. We might also notice that he’s been acting as a buffer between the Center and the Jennings, reassuring Philip, in particular, of his value and tamping down concerns that he’s “shaky,” as Claudia so ominously put it.

But it’s never been Langella’s style to draw too much attention to himself. He’s been a steady performer since the early 1970s, but with the exception of his work on stage and screen as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon — and, okay, his turn as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe — Langella allows his imposing physical presence and his deep, mellifluous voice to do most of the heavy lifting. In his run as KGB handler, Langella has acted as the steady, calming center of a gathering storm — which has had the side effect of keeping the attention on the thunder and lightning. Just last week, I noted how crucial the scene in the car between Gabriel and Claudia was in understanding an episode where the characters’ sad fates were determined by larger forces, but I failed to recognize Gabriel’s evident pain in keeping Misha from meeting his father.

“Crossbreed” gives Gabriel — and Langella’s performance — some long overdue acknowledgement. As Gabriel abruptly announces his retirement, it’s a clarifying moment for his character and for Langella’s value to the show. Certain grace notes spring to mind, like how Gabriel cuts off Philip and Elizabeth before they can express any misgivings about taking on the Topeka assignment. He knows how excruciating it will be for both of them to handle the additional stress, but an order is an order, and he chooses to rip the band-aid off rather than allow them to marinate in despair. He’s like a father figure, setting the guardrails firmly to keep his children from careening off the path.

At the same time, Gabriel has the privilege of retiring while Philip and Elizabeth face the threat of being retired, should the Center ever consider them more of a liability than an asset. Gabriel sincerely attempts to reassure Elizabeth that the unfortunate killing of the lab worker is something that should weigh on her, but should also be considered in the larger context of her mission. On balance, he implies, the work that she’s doing is important and valuable, and such instances of collateral damage should not dominate her conscience or tarnish the righteousness of their cause. And yet Langella’s reading of the line, “It’s a long career,” suggests a deep reservoir of regret and his decision to step away translates his world-weariness into action. He’s not just “tired.” He’s lost faith.

What could Gabriel be thinking when he pays a visit to the Lincoln Memorial? And what could Oleg thinking when he climbs the rooftop of a building and gazes out at the Kremlin? Maybe the same thing. This season of The Americans has been about patriots questioning their faith in a government they’ve devoted their lives to serve and protect. In their separate roles, Gabriel and Oleg are confronting the hunger crisis that’s sweeping their homeland, but for all the intrigue over “midges” and “super-wheat” and a corrupt system of bribes and kickbacks in food distribution, they’re both coming to the tough conclusion that the country is dysfunctional and cannot perform the basic service of feeding its people. They’re giving their lives to a failed state.

Yet everyone must go on. When Elizabeth finds Paige reading Karl Marx in bed, Paige seems energized by Marx’s ideals, just as Elizabeth herself must have been when she was younger. While Paige has trouble reconciling Marx’s views on religion with her own, mother and daughter bond over the essential fairness of a worker state where “no one is exploited.” But even Elizabeth can’t bring herself to endorse the socialist wonderland of Paige’s imagination: Asked if everybody is equal, she replies, “We have our problems. But everyone is in it together.” Which is the nicest way to imply that they’ve all gotten themselves into a terrible mess. When Paige, who’d felt so wonderful getting baptized into the Christian faith, finally gets to meet Gabriel in the final scene, it’s another kind of baptism altogether.

Without Gabriel’s protection and guidance, Philip has no advocate left to offer assurances to the Center that he’ll continue to play his role effectively. “I’ll do my job. I’ve always done it,” says Philip wearily, but there’s nothing approaching conviction in his voice; when Elizabeth offers that maybe something good can come out of the super-wheat assignment after all, he lets it pass without an “Amen.” With further disillusionment arriving this week in news about his father’s past as a guard at a labor camp, Philip cannot summon any enthusiasm for the work and likely never will again. The Center will have to be happy that he has no choice other than to perform at its will, because the consequences of doing otherwise are too dire to consider. Everyone is in it together, all right.

Hammers and Sickles

• “And Stobert just wants to end world hunger. Like Miss America.”

• The image of Philip’s mother scrubbing the dirt and blood caked on a pair of worker boots is a chilling suggestion that his father wasn’t one of the nicer guards. The juxtaposition of that memory of extreme poverty and despair with Philip reminiscing about their lives now, in a queen-sized bed on the second floor of their suburban home, is quite a study in contrasts.

• There’s some evidence that Elizabeth is extracting something from Stobert besides information, something personal. He notices she’s “softer today” than she has been before, which is natural given that she no longer believes he’s intent to starve an entire population. But that tai chi lesson seems to take. Elizabeth is used to speaking with her body, but moving it around for a different purpose seems to relax her. (She also gets to lie to a therapist about taking up “karate.”)

• For all of Philip and Elizabeth’s concerns about how Paige’s relationship with Matthew might blow their cover, there’s evidence that Henry’s bond with Stan is equally threatening. Stan knows more about about Henry’s goings-on than his parents, to the point where he’s up to date on the boy’s crushes. Without even considering a future where Henry might be indoctrinated into the KGB, he’s already inadvertently leaking information on his family to Stan.

• The Peter Gabriel song near the end of the episode, “Lay Your Hands on Me,” comes from his 1982 self-titled album, the same one that produced “Shock the Monkey.” (One of the highlights of the early music-video era, incidentally.) The song is about trust and healing, but it’s set against the scenes where Oleg destroys the blackmail materials and the Jennings cart Paige to a safe house to visit Gabriel. So, ironic.

The Americans Recap: Failed State