One of the lessons we’ve learned about the spy game from The Americans — and one of the lessons that Elizabeth has imparted forcefully on Paige — is that sometimes you come up empty. You risk your life to get information. You take a life to get information. You give your body to get information. And sometimes you get nothing out of it. Or worse, you destroy another person’s life on a botched mission and lose some piece of your soul in the bargain. The dead ends and dead bodies keep on piling up for Elizabeth, like the debt that’s accumulated on Philip’s bank loans. There’s always been some rationalization that all this red ink in the moral ledger would be balanced out by the justice achieved by the larger mission. But this is the final season of The Americans, which happens to coincide with the end of the Cold War. The bill is about to arrive.
Elizabeth is currently on two important missions related to the upcoming arms summit. Let’s check in on them, shall we? As part of the “Dead Hand” initiative laid out for her by a messenger for anti-Gorbachev hawks in Mexico, Elizabeth has been asked to track down a radiation sensor, which is presumably crucial in developing a device that will trigger a retaliation in the event of an American nuclear strike. (It only just occurs to me now that Dead Hand is essentially the “doomsday machine” referenced in Dr. Strangelove, which brought me to this New Yorker piece by Eric Schlosser, “Almost Everything in Dr. Strangelove Was True.”) So far, Elizabeth has tried and failed to coax the device out an Air Force general, whose supposed “suicide” is so absurd on its face that Philip openly questions it in front of Paige. In this episode, she shoots three or four security guards in an effort to steal the sensor herself, taking advantage of information she gleaned from another security guard, whom she then had to kill in a hotel room. She still doesn’t have the sensor.
Meanwhile, she’s been working as a private nurse to get close to Glenn Haskard, a member of the nuclear negotiating team for the State Department. Eager to get information about a Russian official who’s partnered with Glenn in the lead-up to the summit, Elizabeth catches a break when she convinces Glenn’s terminally ill wife Erica to attend a World Series party where the Russian will be in attendance. She steals Haskard’s jacket, has a bug sewn into the seam, returns the jacket, drags Erica to the party, and winds up covered in vomit, but she does get a minute of precious conversation between the two men on tape. It turns out the Russian just wanted to extend his sympathy to Glenn, nothing more. Elizabeth gets zilch out of the party, and from what we can gather, she’s gotten nothing out of the entire operation.
What she has gotten, however, are uncomfortable insights into what she’s become. Elizabeth’s contempt for the frivolity of artistic pursuits has, in the face of Erica’s startling candor, forced her to get introspective and even pick up a sketchbook herself — first as an indulgence to her patient, and now as a more serious means of self-reflection. She claims to love a painting that Erica waves off as “sentimental,” but her eyes are drawn to portraits of faces smeared in darkness and distortion, like a blurring effect caused by psychic stress. These new paintings are no doubt a reflection of Erica’s agony as she approaches death, but there’s something primal about them that speaks to Elizabeth, even though the show isn’t explicit about it.
However, the show isn’t ambiguous at all about the takeaway from Erica’s monologue about how pointless it was to believe that her work would leave something of value behind. “All those hours,” she says. “Honestly, I wish I’d spent them with Glenn, just being with him, doing I don’t know what.” As students of history, we know that Elizabeth’s legacy won’t be a meaningful one, that the role she’s playing in the Cold War will be rendered obsolete, and that her achievements, such as they are, will amount to nothing. She can’t see that clearly yet — in poker terms, she’s “pot-committed” to the mission — but these last two seasons of The Americans have hit that point particularly hard.
The double life that Philip and Elizabeth have been leading for 20 years has always existed an alternative life, where they’re ordinary middle-class suburbanites who have a nice house and good kids and get to work together all day. It says something that the title of this episode is “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup,” referring to two characters, Sofia and Gennadi, who don’t even make an appearance. Sofia and Gennadi are, in Stan’s assessment, a near-total bust for the amount of effort he’s put into working them. Philip and Elizabeth have unquestionably been more engaged, but the episode’s title and theme implies that their efforts have yielded nothing of value, either. At least Sofia got some personal security out of the bargain.
In the end, it might be Oleg who has something to show for his efforts. And the difference is that he consistently chooses his conscience over the dictates of the state. That’s what led him to start talking to Stan, which nearly got him killed back home, and that’s what’s leading him back to the States, where he feels he can do his part to promote an agreement between the two countries. “One thing I learned here is [Americans] are not crazy,” he tells Philip. “We can make peace with them.” With a wife and newborn back home, he’s risking his life for his convictions. That’s a legacy.
Hammers and Sickles
• There have been so many dramatic scenes and throw-downs between Philip and Elizabeth over the years that I appreciated the figuratively cold open that ends with the two of them standing across from each other in the kitchen, barely able to ask rote questions. He asks if she wants a beer. She shakes her head. Boom, opening credits.
• It’s not uncommon for parents to feel more responsible for one child than another, but the Jennings appear to have come to a formal agreement over who gets which kid. It’s like a custody battle in reverse, where the parents stay married but the kids are separated. We can only imagine the bargaining that took place, but the end result is that Philip doesn’t have much influence over Paige and Elizabeth doesn’t care much about how Philip’s financial problems might affect Henry. The schism in their marriage grew awfully deep in the three years we missed.
• Paige’s eyes scanning to her new hookup’s badge is a bad, bad sign. She wants to please her mother so much that she won’t listen to her explicit instructions.
• Sofia and Gennadi may be worthless as sources, but it’s starting to look like they may play a central role in bringing Stan closer to knowing his neighbors’ true identity. You can have subplots about the uselessness of certain characters, but those same characters cannot be useless to you.
• From the land of want to the land of plenty: Philip flashing back to a childhood scraping food from kitchen pots underlines the difference between the two countries. Last season was obsessed with Russia’s failures to feed its own people. This was a stark reminder.