And so we’ve reached the end of a particularly fraught season of The Americans, one in which the emphasis has been on the innocent people — the lab technician, Pasha and his family, the Russian woman in “Dyatkovo,” Paige and Henry, Martha back in Russia — who have been victimized in service of a larger cause, one that Philip and Elizabeth can’t be entirely sure is as righteous as they once believed. Yet Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage has never been stronger. They got properly married, after all, and Elizabeth’s resentment over her husband’s turbulent emotional state, which peaked over Martha and his EST meetings, has softened into sympathy and a shared moral burden.
After last week’s episode focused on parenthood and the consequential choices that parents make for their children, it seems appropriate that the season ends with a touching hour on marriage, which is its own kind of adventure. The most crucial scene in “The Soviet Division” finds Philip and Elizabeth winding down their relationship with Tuan after Pasha’s suicide attempt finally convinces his mother to bring him back home to Russia. The end would seem to justify the means, supporting Tuan’s belief that a suicide attempt, whether successful or not, would achieve the desired goal of getting Pasha’s mother in the right place. In typical Americans fashion, however, the gambit is significantly messier than planned: Pasha didn’t exercise restraint in slashing one wrist while missing the artery. He slashed both wrists up to the elbow. It wasn’t a cry for help; it was a legitimate bid to end his life.
When they get back to the house, however, Tuan confesses to a tough report on Philip and Elizabeth, on top of disclosing his ill-advised efforts to reach loved ones with an out-of-state phone call. The Jennings did not commit to their cover as fully as he would have liked and they put the entire mission at risk due to “certain petty, bourgeois goals” (i.e. keeping a teenager from killing himself). When Elizabeth takes him aside to talk about his report, we’re primed for one of her patented beatdowns, but she takes a remarkably different tack. She accepts his criticism over their lapses in cover, with the caveat that they were running multiple missions at once. She doesn’t even address the dig of “petty, bourgeois goals,” which seems the more grievous insult. Instead, she hits him with an honest warning about his future endeavors: “You’re not going to make it.” “It’s too hard,” she adds, “the work we do, to do alone … You will fail. Something will happen. You’ll get caught. Or you’ll die. One day it will all come crashing down.”
What’s striking about the scene is that Elizabeth doesn’t say these words out of malice. She sees herself in Tuan. She’s the good soldier, too, and when she was his age, maybe she would have attacked her elders for compromising the mission over other concerns. In talking to Tuan, it’s almost as if she’s giving advice to her younger self, understanding now what a terrible psychological weight she’s had to carry over the years, when missions end badly or “split-second decisions” turn out to be regrettable ones. She’s wise enough to understand, more at this moment than in years past, that having a partner to share your burdens and doubts — and to have your back in sticky situations — is essential in the long term. Tuan may be a rock-ribbed ideologue today, but circumstances will crack his resolve, just as they have Elizabeth’s, and he’ll have no one there to pick up the pieces.
When Philip and Elizabeth meet with Claudia later to discuss the Morozovs, the effects of breaking up their family is a primary concern. “We almost killed her son and now we’re sending her back to be blackmailed,” Philip says. “Do we have to tear this family apart, too?” It’s mostly a rhetorical question, because the larger strategy is to split the family up and push Pasha’s mother into the arms of another man. But Philip’s distress over the answer surfaces later when he angrily reneges on his promise to let Henry go to boarding school. He doesn’t let his son down easy or show any regret about going back on his word. They’re a family and families stay together. End of story. Even if they weren’t planning to pull up stakes and move back to Russia, you get the sense that Philip would have said the same thing with the same tone. He never wanted Henry to leave.
All of this is prelude, however, to the wonderful scene that ends the season and further affirms the strength of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. With one foot out the door, Philip’s unsavory long-term assignment with Kimmy has finally borne fruit, giving them access to a newly appointed official in the “Soviet Division.” Philip nearly tosses the recording in the lake to get them out of it, but his loyalty to his wife stays his hand and leads him to bring her in on the decision, too. Elizabeth is always looking for ways to redeem their mission in America and this is one more lifeline for her, justifying the importance of their sacrifices. But what she says next is surprising: She suggests that Philip can stop doing any spy work beyond getting the recordings from Kimmy. He can retreat into the humdrum work of the travel-agency business while she goes it alone. “I’m making you stay and it keeps getting worse for you,” she says. “I don’t want to see you like this anymore.”
The Americans leaves season five with that possibility hanging in the air, though even if Philip and their bosses accept it, it seems unlikely that he’ll take a passive role in the final season. But it shows that she’s looking out for his needs, allowing him to give up his active partnership in exchange for accepting her need to follow through on the mission. That’s compromise. That’s marriage.
Hammers and Sickles
• So Renee, huh? Her excuse for moving in with Stan is suspicious enough, but the scene where she encourages him not to quit the department really rings the bell, particularly in light of his current assignment. We might expect Stan to be oblivious, based on his dalliance with Nina, but Noah Emmerich gives a subtle look that suggests that maybe Stan has picked up on something, too. He had told Henry in an earlier episode that working at the FBI is a terrible job because he can’t trust anyone, not even “the greatest kid in the world.” He may yet avoid this honey trap.
• In this grim end to a grim season, we get at least one sliver of sunshine: Martha may have some company. When her teacher reveals that Gabriel made arrangements with the orphanage for her to adopt a little pig-tailed girl she sees on the playground, the camera holds on her face for a few extra beats as her eyes fill with tears. Maybe Gabriel was right and her handlers do care about her happiness, after all.
• Playing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in its entirety is a bold move, but the show more than gets away with it. The lyrics to that song are bizarre — it’s one of those numbers where you sing the chorus and mumble through the rest — but the sentiment of turning the page and moving on seems an appropriate end to the show’s second-to-last season. It’s also worth noting that, during the montage, Paige walks alone through the area where she and her mother were attacked. She does it confidently, too. She’s a different person now. No more curling up in her closet.
• In terms of big music cues, I’m fonder of R.E.M.’s “So. Central Rain” playing over the scene where Philip has to wind down his relationship with Kimmy. Unlike the Elton John montage, the song is way down in the mix, but the chorus (“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”) surfaces right at the appropriate moment and at a volume that doesn’t make it as heavy-handed as it might have been.
• Elizabeth pops Paige on the mouth and she spars through it. She’s ready for Phase II.