overnights

The Americans Recap: The War at Home

The Americans

Urban Transport Planning
Season 6 Episode 3
Editor’s Rating *****
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings in The Americans. Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX/FX Networks.

“Urban Transport Planning” opens in the immediate aftermath of the park shooting of an American general, with Elizabeth furiously scrubbing the blood off her face in some ill-lit safe house. Foremost on her mind, of course, is Paige. She’s angry at Paige for allowing her emotional response to supersede her commitment to procedure and she’s prepared to unload on her as only Elizabeth can. She had already fretted about Paige mistakenly identifying a Naval security officer — a loose thread she tied up lethally, as she’s been doing a lot lately — and now her daughter has not only filed away another traumatizing image, but potentially compromised the team.

There’s a lot to unpack about the pre-credits scene at the Jennings home, where Philip and Elizabeth take vastly different approaches to handling their daughter. And we’ll get to those in a moment. But the irony that’s slipped into the scene, almost imperceptibly, is that the true compromise is happening at home: Philip has started spying on his wife in earnest. Elizabeth is so worried about Paige’s actions compromising the mission that she’s unaware of how much the mission is being compromised just by spilling in her own home. Until now, she’s been guarded about how much she’s willing to tell her husband about the job, mainly because it’s not his business to know about it anymore. But her fury over the evening’s events leads to a frank postmortem over not only what happened, but to whom and, very, very closely, to why.

Because Philip is out of the game — and line-dancing and begging for payment extensions at Henry’s school and awkwardly leading his travel agency team in a sales-motivation session — we’re tempted to see him as weak, especially as he’s comforting Paige with talk of EST and self-help bromides about “letting yourself feel bad or scared” rather than pushing those feelings away. But we forget that Philip was a spy until very recently, and he’s exceptionally crafty at leading Elizabeth to make sensitive disclosures that she’s been explicitly told to keep from her husband. The script, credited to Tracey Scott Wilson, is seamless in transitioning from Philip and Elizabeth arguing over how to handle Paige, to Philip quietly pumping Elizabeth for more details about what happened. Old intimacies yield a new betrayal: He gets the identity of the victim. He gets the name of the device she was seeking. And he gets close to finding out what such a device might be used for. For someone who’s been out of the spy game as long as he has, Philip’s muscle memory is still intact.

The sixth season of The Americans lays bare the philosophical divide that has quietly expanded between Philip and Elizabeth over the years. Philip likes being an American. He’s like the actor who’s so fully immersed himself in a role that there’s no longer any separation between him and the part. It turns out that being a middle-class suburban dad ain’t too shabby and that the distaste that he’s supposed to harbor for capitalist values has twisted into robust sales pitches for cruise promotions. It’s well known to Elizabeth and to us that Philip struggled with the moral and psychological stresses of espionage work, but it’s now becoming clearer that his retirement wasn’t entirely about disincentives. He wanted his double life to be his real one, and though Philip has been pinched by a contracting business, Matthew Rhys has looked uncommonly relaxed at times, even happy. (Besides, what’s more American than carrying debt?)

There can be no doubt now, though, that Philip has become a turncoat in the Cold War, actively working to undermine the KGB in its efforts to beat back the reforms promised by Gorbachev. Or if not a turncoat, then someone who is no longer taking orders, but acting on his own convictions — convictions that have been informed by his experiences in America. There’s a wonderful scene, late in the episode, when Elizabeth brings back a Tupperware full of zharkoye, perhaps because she senses that he needs a Proustian taste from home, something to remind him of Russia’s cultural richness. He’s tempted enough to down a couple forkfuls, despite having just eaten Chinese takeout, but even then, he’s not persuaded. Stan could come over for zharkoye in a couple of years, he says. They’re opening a Pizza Hut in Moscow!

Elizabeth recoils at the thought. Along with Paige and Claudia, she’s part of a sanctuary of Russian culture, a secret place where they listen to Tchaikovsky recordings, watch soap operas, and unearth old recipes for zharkoye and golubtsy. When she leaves that sanctuary, America has a smell so acutely rotten it stings her nose; if anything, her desire to go back to Russia has only increased over time, now that the kids are getting older. She seems to have a reactionary streak, too: The threat of glasnost has her clinging more fervently to the past, even though, as Philip suggests, she hasn’t been home in 20 years and has no idea how people are feeling. They’re in a position now where they love each other deeply — this is an arranged marriage that has become an indisputably real one — but are working at cross-purposes. It’s hard to fathom the cataclysm to come.

Hammers and Sickles

• Paige is the difficult one to read at this point. Philip has all but conceded her to Elizabeth; it’s easier for him to be a hockey dad for Henry than manage Paige’s initiation into a life that tormented him. While Paige doesn’t exactly roll her eyes at her dad floating EST-isms in her direction, she’s much more attuned to her mother, whom she’s desperate to please. But Elizabeth is clearly concerned that Paige is not cut out for the work and she’s still sugar-coating it, here by making up an absurd lie about the general committing suicide. There may come a point when Paige discovers truths that tug at her conscience and she starts to come around to her father’s line of thinking.

• “We’re Soviets. We know how to keep secrets. It’s what we do.” Credit Stan for not bursting into flames upon hearing that line from Sophia, who has done nothing but reveal secrets about their operation. Now they’re going to have to arrange for witness protection and separate the family, all for a negligible sum of information.

• Speaking of a negligible sum of information: Presuming that Renee is a Russian operative, she doesn’t appear to be getting much from her intimacies with Stan. A query about joining the FBI seems desperate, but maybe there’s a Plan B. Or a Plan C. Or whatever plan she might be on now.

• Stan also has a difficult conversation with Oleg, mainly because Oleg is still bitter over the effort to exploit their relationship, however hard Stan worked to derail it. Oleg opts not to disclose why he’s come back to America, but if Stan does any poking around (and surely he will), he may come to see his neighbor in a new light.

• Elizabeth talking openly with Paige about being willing to sacrifice your life to support your convictions is only the latest in a series of grim portents about her future. Could be foreshadowing, could be misdirection.

• What does it say about Philip that the America he’s embraced most fervently can be found in self-help seminars and bookstore aisles? He’s reaching for meaning and finding it in EST or books like Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude.

• The closing song is Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” played over scenes of Elizabeth strangling a security guard and Philip meeting with Oleg at the park. Cohen claimed the song was inspired by the Holocaust. Here it gives a sufficient impression of finality.

The Americans Recap: The War at Home