The Americans Recap: Topsy Turvy

The Americans

Jennings, Elizabeth
Season 6 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: FX Networks.

“You lied to me. If you knew me, you’d know never to lie to me.”

“If you lie to me now after everything, I will never forgive you.”

A tale of two scenes, both involving Elizabeth, each in conversation with the other. In the first, Elizabeth informs Claudia that she has thwarted the KGB’s efforts to assassinate Gorbachev’s negotiator, Fyodor Nesterenko, and sent a message informing the Party of the Centre’s subversive intent. In the second, she denies Paige’s deduction that she slept with one of Sam Nunn’s interns in order to get information and “ruined his life.” Elizabeth accuses her surrogate parent of lying in the first scene, then her daughter accuses her of lying in the second, and both relationships are deeply ruptured because of it.

Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, who wrote this episode and the series finale next week, intend the two scenes to rhyme, but it’s to their credit that the comparisons are not so neatly drawn. In both cases, the parent (or surrogate parent) is spinning lies to “protect” the child (or surrogate child) under their watch, which is something all parents do to shield children from information that might be harmful to them. For most of Paige’s life and all of Henry’s, Elizabeth and Philip have been telling one huge lie of omission, peppered by whatever lies were necessary to sustain it, like jetting out to Houston over Thanksgiving for emergency travel-agent business. It’s an extreme version of a common phenomenon: Normal parents might put on a good face to keep the kids from knowing that mom and dad are fighting or struggling to pay the bills. Elizabeth and Philip were spying and sabotaging and killing for a foreign government.

Nevertheless, when Elizabeth tells Claudia, “If you knew me, you’d know never to lie to me,” you could be forgiven for snorting at her hypocrisy. Her entire life in America has been a matryoshka doll of lies within lies within lies, utterly corrosive to the souls of herself and her husband and inevitably tragic to the children, Stan, and anyone else who’s gotten close to them over the years. But there’s a meaningful distinction to made here that also ties into the later scene with Paige: Elizabeth was supposed to be “in the know” as a colleague of Claudia’s, not just a tool for her to manipulate. She understood from the beginning how their relationship worked, that she and Philip were the operatives and that handlers like Claudia and Gabriel were the ones in communication with the muckety-mucks back home. But part of being the tip of the spear is trusting that the person holding the shaft will point it in the right direction. However valued Elizabeth must have felt, she was always outside of the inner circle.

There’s a part of Paige, too, that treasured being “in the know.” As traumatic as Project Paige was for her, The Americans has gone to great lengths, this season especially, to show how important it makes her feel to be in the same room with her mom and Claudia, celebrating Russian culture and taking an active role in making the world a better place. Her mom and dad trusted her with the biggest secret in their lives, finally removing the barrier that she always knew was there, even if she couldn’t quite identify it on her own. Now she’s making a difference on a global scale, far greater than the entry-level philanthropy of boxing groceries for Pastor Tim. She trusted her mother to play it straight with her. It was never going to happen.

There’s so much to be said about how Elizabeth has handled her relationship with Paige, because her lies and omissions have been rooted in such a devastating tangle of motives: to continue to sell Paige a propagandist’s spin on Russia, to protect her from the most dangerous aspects of the work, and to manage her own image in her daughter’s eyes. The best-case scenario, in Elizabeth’s eyes, was to limit Paige’s exposure in the field and shuffle her off to a desk job in the State Department, where she could quietly infiltrate the government without getting her hands dirty. But Paige kept witnessing things she didn’t want her to witness and kept asking her questions that she didn’t want to answer. All season long, Paige has been wondering if her mom has offered her body to sources and Elizabeth has repeatedly shut her down, because she (rightly) believed she wouldn’t understand.

Elizabeth’s response to Paige is extraordinarily powerful, both in the writing and in Keri Russell’s righteous fury. Russell is never better than when she’s angry — it was almost a disappointment that her confrontation with Claudia is so muted, given their history together — and those two veins that pop up on her forehead are like Cronenbergian exclamation marks, a physical expression of psychic distress. “I wasn’t brought up like you were,” she says. “I had to fight. Always. For everything. People were killed. They died all around me. If I had to give everything so that my country would survive, so it would never happen again, I would do it gladly. We were proud to do whatever we could.”

Sex was never something that she was privileged enough to feel precious about, and Philip understood that. Philip understands everything in a way that Paige never could, which is why it’s so fitting for “Jennings, Elizabeth” to end where it does, with the two of them immediately shutting down the life they’d built for themselves in America. The finality of it is breathtaking: When Philip went off to meet with Father Andre, he surely didn’t know that he would never see the inside of their home again. When Elizabeth stuffs a prepacked duffel bag with license plates, passports, cash, and other weapons, she’s gone in 60 seconds. Poof. There is no Elizabeth Jennings anymore.

This penultimate episode moves so many pieces around the table for next week’s finale, but Fields and Weisberg are conscious of paying off longstanding themes as they go. The Americans is still a show about marriage. It’s still a show about parenthood. It’s still a show about cultures in conflict. And it’s still a show about political service and the bruised idealism of those who commit themselves to it. The only difference now is that it’s ending and it feels like we’re careening toward a brick wall.

Hammers and sickles

• Wonderful stuff between Oleg and Stan. The show has been subtle this year in revealing the limitations of the FBI’s thinking on its adversaries. There’s this massive internal struggle between hard-liners on one side and pro-Gorbachev reformers on the other, but Stan still sees it as simply as his Thanksgiving speech: The Soviet Union wishes to see America harm and it’s his job to help put a stop to it. That gives him integrity as a law-enforcement officer, but it takes someone he respects, like Oleg, to set him straight.

• “Do you think it doesn’t matter who our leader is?” I’m just going to leave that question here.

• Pastor Tim is back! There was a time when Philip and Elizabeth were so worried he’d rat them out that they pondered killing him. It turns out there was never any reason for concern.

• That assassin that Elizabeth shoots to protect Nesterenko is Tatiana, who was last seen threatening Oleg in the fifth episode. I had to watch the scene a couple of times to confirm, so ICYMI.

• “I was hoping to make it home for dinner, but things are very topsy turvy at the office.” So perfect that the code for a DEFCON 1 emergency is the blandest, most banal spouse-speak imaginable.

The Americans Recap: Topsy Turvy