Spoilers below for this week’s episode of The Americans.
“I want you to come at me and hit me.”
That invitation from Philip Jennings to Paige in Wednesday night’s exceptional episode of The Americans led to a father-daughter sparring match that qualifies as one of the more memorable moments in the show’s six seasons. Like many memorable Americans scenes, it stands out because of its violence — Philip almost chokes out his own daughter! — but even more because of the layers of emotion and subtext stacked beneath its surface. It’s a grudge match of sorts, in the sense that it’s motivated by a number of grudges that Phillip is currently holding against his wife and daughter.
In his recap of “The Great Patriotic War,” Scott Tobias writes that Philip’s increasingly intense “training session” allows Philip to express his simmering frustration with both Elizabeth and Paige: “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.” This is all very true. Before Philip visits Paige at her apartment, he’s long felt like the third wheel in the family. (The fourth wheel, Henry, has basically been removed from the car entirely, which is why it hurt when Elizabeth previously told Philip that Henry is “your department,” the equivalent of giving him busy work while she handles the “real” job of toughening up Paige.)
Even the framing of an earlier scene in which Paige and Elizabeth spar in the garage, where Philip peeks around corners and eavesdrops on their conversation while they ignore him, suggests that in this parent-child relationship, he’s been pushed out and forced to (irony alert!) spy to know what’s really going on with his daughter. So when he gets to Paige’s apartment and has to listen to her say, “I know you’re not into what me and Mom do,” as if she and her mother were the original spy duo and he has zero spy credits on his résumé, it triggers him. His initial response should be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever been a parent or mentored young adults: It’s that wave of outrage that washes over you when they act like they know better than you do.
Matthew Rhys is so, so good in this scene, specifically the way Philip cocks his head after hearing Paige’s comment. (It screams, “What did you just say to me?!” without him ever needing to utter those words.) Also, funny side note: When I talked to Rhys on set about this scene, one I had not yet watched, he self-deprecatingly said that he’s not as gifted at picking up fight choreography as Keri Russell and Holly Taylor. “In the fight scenes, they go, Oh, I just need to see it once, and then they do it inch-perfect every time, where I’m the blundering fool more often than not.” Russell immediately denied this — “Oh, that’s so not true!” — but perhaps feeling a bit lesser-than was helpful to Rhys in playing out this dynamic.
Part of what motivates Philip to challenge Paige to spar — without “pads,” a word he practically spits at her — is that he wants to assert his authority, not just as a father but as a trained professional who has more experience than she does and was actually very good at his job. And yes, I think a bit of testosterone kicks in, too. On more than one occasion, Elizabeth has spoken to Paige about her father in a way that makes him seem weak. Philip is tired of being emasculated, and that makes him take their sparring match more seriously and much farther than his better judgment would normally allow.
Ultimately, though, it’s Philip’s anger with Elizabeth that motivates him here, both because of his emasculation and also because he feels manipulated by her. Earlier in the episode, Elizabeth — who has been too tired to devote much energy to anything outside her work, including her marriage — initiates sex with Philip for the first time in what we’re led to believe is a while. I believe she does this in part out of genuine love for him — the way she tenderly touches his cheek conveys as much — but there’s also no question she’s buttering up her husband so that when she asks him the next morning to go see Kimmy in Greece and use her as collateral to get intel out of Kimmy’s father, he’ll be more inclined to say yes. It is still a calculated move, and don’t let the fact that Elizabeth tosses aside Philip’s calculator when they start kissing make you think otherwise.
Philip knows this and he resents it, and that resentment about what he’s forced to do with Kimmy sparks even more resentment about Elizabeth taking control of Paige’s life. In his mind, Elizabeth is creating scenarios that endanger two women who are, literally in one case, figuratively in the other, daughters to him. When he spars with Paige, squeezing her in a headlock so she almost can’t breathe, he’s really trying to suffocate his wife or whatever it is that compels her to act the way she’s acting. (There’s no denying that Elizabeth’s moral compass has gone totally kablooey this season, but in her partial defense, she’s taking the steps she’s taking because she knows her own life — and potentially her family’s lives — is in jeopardy. Philip doesn’t have any information about Dead Hand, so he has no way to fully comprehend what’s motivating her.)
In a conversation about this episode, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff notes that the toe-to-toe match between Philip and Paige is shot in ways that mirror the flashback in the pilot of a young Elizabeth sparring with her Russian mentor and then being raped by him. Obviously Philip does not rape Paige, but by so forcefully battling with her, he consciously or subconsciously conveys the same message that was conveyed to Elizabeth when her superior took advantage of her in the most terrible way: Men, even ones you trust or think you can overpower, can still be dangerous. (It’s worth noting that at another point in this episode, based on the grim look on his face while he has consensual sex with Kimmy, Philip feels like a rapist.)
The sparring scene also reminded me of another event from the pilot: the moment when Philip tracks down Errol, the dude who hit on Paige at the mall, and beats the snot out of him. (“It’s no use fighting guys like that,” Philip told Paige before he went to the guy’s house and stabbed him in the penis with a barbecue fork. Obviously, she has forgotten that advice.) Philip’s ethical code has always full-stopped at the thought of older men hitting on young girls. The fact that Elizabeth forces him to do just that with Kimmy makes him angry with her and himself. The fact that Paige is now going to bars and possibly sleeping with multiple partners makes him mad at Paige, the guys who disrespected her, Elizabeth, and, again, himself, not to mention the whole life they created that has led to this situation.
In the first episode of The Americans, Philip tried to protect Paige by unleashing his rage on Errol. In one of the show’s last episodes, he unleashes his rage for a whole lot of reasons, including the fact that he knows he can’t protect his little girl anymore.