The Americans Recap: The Breaking Point

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Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX/FX Networks.
The Americans

The Americans

The Great Patriotic War Season 6 Episode 5
Editor's Rating 5 stars

“She’s just a kid.”

“Not anymore.”

Let us remember that Sofia did all of this for her child. That was her primary reason for cooperating with the FBI, because to her it was worth the risk to give her boy a firm footing and a better life in America. The very last time she speaks to Stan, she again frets over their impending move to Oklahoma and what that might mean for her son’s future. Last week’s episode was all about operations that yield nothing, and its title, “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup,” referred to Sofia and Gennadi, who were a source of constant frustration for Stan and the FBI, which had committed significant resources in the vain hope of getting useful information from them. Now we see the result of Sofia’s sacrifice: Her boy gets to find his parents stabbed to death. In our last glimpse of him, he’s being shuttled off into the night, careening toward destinations unknown.

The cost that children have to bear for their parents’ decisions is a common thread in this devastating episode. All parents want the best for their child, but life has a way of intervening and compromising that goal. Sometimes, a well-intentioned decision can go tragically wrong, like Sofia agreeing to work with the FBI; sometimes, transformative events happen out of sight, like Kimmy striking up a strange friendship with a mysterious older gentleman without her father’s awareness; and sometimes, there are cases of deliberate harm, like Elizabeth dragging Paige into an ideological war, if only to justify her own continued participation in it. When Philip was cradling his first-born daughter as an infant, surely he never imagined that 20 years later, he’d be wrapping that same arm around her neck. It’s an extreme example of a universal theme: You start with the best intentions, but things don’t always go as planned.

Let’s start with the chokehold. Philip’s confrontation with Paige has been a long time coming, though that doesn’t diminish the shock of that scene or its complexity. It’s no secret that Philip has been deeply unhappy with Project Paige from the start, and the parenting arrangement that pairs Paige with Elizabeth and Henry with him hasn’t alleviated his concerns. When Paige’s latest missteps have even Elizabeth openly questioning whether she’s cut out for spy work, Philip snipes back, “She can do it. My point was always that she shouldn’t.” He was there when Paige was curled up in her closet in terror. And he was there when she photographed and developed the pages in Pastor Tim’s diary as a cry for help. Elizabeth has worked hard to strengthen her daughter’s resolve through fight training and propaganda, but the mission still unsettles Philip.

There’s more to it than that, though. Philip has bristled at Elizabeth’s handling of Paige, particularly the suggestion that he doesn’t do the work anymore because he’s weak. (“This work can be too much for people,” she told Paige in the last episode. “Even the best ones.”) There’s a certain sarcastic tone that slips into Matthew Rhys’s line-readings when he senses this from Paige. We heard it once in response to her brushing off the “suicide” of the Air Force general as “sometimes bad things happen in the world” (“Please don’t tell me about the world, Paige”), and we hear it again tonight, when he tells her there aren’t “pads” in real-life physical confrontations. He wants to expose the spin that Elizabeth continues to work on Paige by protecting her from the true ugliness of the job — there’s plenty of padding outside of the garage, too — and lay bare the lie that he’s somehow not cut out for what they do.

Yet what Philip does to Paige isn’t exactly a gesture of tough love, either. He’s angry with her and he chooses to express that anger by throwing her around her apartment like a rag doll. Children are often the victims of a proxy battle between dysfunctional parents, and Paige becomes the vessel through which Philip can unleash his hostility toward Elizabeth. But there’s plenty left over for Paige, too, for denying his true reasons for walking away and for allowing herself to be so easily manipulated by her mother. One big question is: Did he show up at Paige’s apartment intending to fight her? Watching the scene a few times, I have my doubts. He wanted to get his perspective across forcefully — hence asking if her roommate was around — but her response sets him off. He intends to talk through the dangers of uncorking her newfound power as she did in the bar, but winds up losing control and teaching her another, more impulsive lesson in power.

At the heart of all this, too, is a lesson in using sex as a weapon. The Cold War between Philip and Elizabeth in the bedroom thaws unexpectedly, but the next morning, with Philip still flashing a dopey postcoital grin, Elizabeth goads him into getting Kimmy arrested in order to get information from her father. Does he say “yes” if she doesn’t sleep with him like any other source? Probably not. And when Kimmy balks at his offer to meet her in Greece, Philip has to do the terrible thing and sleep with her in order to get her to cooperate. (The look on his face during the sex scene could be described as Munich-esque.) Neither Elizabeth nor Philip want Paige to head down the same confusing avenue, where she’s using her body to manipulate sources, but her motives for sleeping with a congressional intern are in a hazy area between desire and spy-game curiosity.

Now, halfway through the final season, Philip has finally, definitively turned against his wife and the agenda they once pursued together. The breaking point is hearing, through Stan, about what happened to Sofia, Gennadi, and their son, and knowing that Elizabeth was responsible. When he cuts Kimmy loose through a pay-phone call, she’s mystified even before he offers the curiously specific advice about not letting anyone lure her into a Communist country while she’s in Greece.

The key exchange:

“Something’s wrong with you.”

“I know. But I’m trying my best.”

We’ll see where Philip’s best gets him.

Hammers and sickles

• The death of Mr. and Mrs. Teacup is staged as a disaster that Elizabeth has to slash her way through. She expects to find Gennadi alone, tries to bail when she discovers he has company, and gets forced into action when he spots her hiding behind the door. She’s not so divorced from humanity to keep from feeling shame about the innocent child sitting in the next room. But she’s also not like Philip, who drops the Kimmy operation the moment he hears about what happened. She’s moving forward.

• Miriam Shor has just been extraordinary as Erica Haskard, who may be the only person ever to intimidate Elizabeth. Shor has played her so soulfully, iron-willed yet immensely vulnerable and reflective. Erica doesn’t have much time left, so she demands absolute candor of herself and the people around her. And she’s forcing Elizabeth into an uncomfortable position of self-examination. If you’re wondering where you’ve seen Shor before, she played Yitzak in the stage and screen version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Diana Trout on TV Land’s Younger.

• Oleg seems doomed. The FBI is already monitoring his activities, but his encounter with Tatiana portends real danger. He left his young family and came to America to promote peace, and he may well have to sacrifice himself for his values.

• That Coors beer commercial that airs while Stan and Gennadi watch a hockey game together sent me down the rabbit hole of cornpone mid-’80s Mark Harmon Coors commercials. Here’s the one from the episode, but I’m more a fan of the barley-centric spots like this one and this one.

The Americans Recap: The Breaking Point