Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings.
There are so many beautiful scenes in “Lotus 1-2-3,” as emotionally devastating an episode as The Americans has ever produced, that it can be easy to overlook the one that accounts for all the others. Gabriel and Claudia, the Jennings’ two KGB handlers, are sitting in a car, deciding what to do about Philip’s son, Mischa, traveling all the way from Russia to see his long-lost father. It’s not an easy conversation for them to have, particularly Gabriel, who cares more about Philip and Elizabeth than Claudia does. Claudia thinks the boy is unstable — though her reasoning about him “speaking out against the war” doesn’t pass the smell test — and she declares, rather ominously, that Philip is “shaky.” Bottom line: It’s too risky for father and son to be together.
All season long, Mischa has been inching his way toward Philip like Scatman Crothers responding to a psychic distress call in The Shining. And because Mischa appearing on the Jennings’ doorstep would be catastrophic for the mission — to say nothing of the family itself — we might have expected him to meet a similar fate. Perhaps something more subtle than an ax in the back, but no less resolute. What happens instead is less dramatic and more crushing: Gabriel simply forbids Mischa from seeing his father, and that’s the end of that. And Mischa reacts with the innocence and the neediness of a child, his limited English producing clipped phrases like, “I want to see father” and, “But I come for him,” and “Forget father?” This isn’t the outspoken, enemy-of-the-state type that Claudia so disingenuously warned against. This is a kid who risked everything to be with his dad.
Philip does not know any of this is happening. Perhaps he’ll never know. And that’s why the scene with Gabriel and Claudia is the one that ties the episode together: The Jennings have no control over their fate. Decisions are being made on high, by “the Center,” that officials believe to be beneficial to Soviet interests with respect to the United States. Those decisions are made without regard — or at least without priority — to its agents’ dignity or honor or satisfaction with their work, and they’re sometimes spectacularly wrong, as they were with the supposed American initiative to devastate wheat harvests nationwide. Because the Jennings have to draw on so much creativity and improvisation and independent intelligence to carry out a given assignment, we sometimes forget that they’re as captive as any foot soldier on the front lines. Ultimately, there’s no appreciable difference between Philip and Elizabeth and the food supplier’s son, who’s currently serving in Afghanistan. In both cases, they serve at the whims of officials who often prove unworthy of them.
For the Jennings, the mission came along right when they needed a reason to recommit to their work. But what had started as an affirmation of Soviet values in the face of American tyranny — one so purely noble in theory that the Jennings could make Paige aware of it — wound up turning into the worst-case scenario. Those pests savaging crops in labs from downstate Illinois to Oklahoma City to Topeka were not set to be unleashed on a nation already devastated by mass starvation, but part of an effort to end world hunger — a dream so exalted that it surfaces whenever people fantasize about a genie granting them three wishes. Now they’ve killed an innocent man, on top of giving their bodies over to two more strangers, and all they expect to get from the Center is a resounding “Whoops!” at best, and no promise that it will never happen again.
Throughout the show’s run, Matthew Rhys has been the face of a deteriorating venture, perpetually clouded with self-doubt and guilt over the sins he’s committed for his country. Between his scene with Paige at the dinner table and his two scenes with Elizabeth at the end of the episode, Rhys has enough for an Emmy reel, but he’s not given to actorly histrionics. When Elizabeth comes back from Topeka to tell Philip they “got it wrong,” Rhys’s eyes fill with tears without quite spilling over; along with sadness and defeat, there’s a certain numbness, too, that holds his emotions in check. He takes a couple of small steps back, mumbles something incoherent about Tuan, and leaves the house.
News from Topeka arrives right after Philip’s dinner with Paige, who confesses a dissatisfaction with Matthew that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the psychological burdens that have been placed on her. “I’m already so screwed up,” she says. “Maybe I’m just meant to be alone.” As Paige has been brought into the fold, we’ve seen some of her mother’s strength and shrewdness in the field; her instinct to flip through Pastor Tim’s diary to get a read on him last week is not unlike Elizabeth’s instinct to scan Ben Stobert’s room while he’s going down on her. But in this scene, she’s very much her father’s daughter, and Philip can see plainly the qualities she’s inherited from him. It’s a waking nightmare for him, underlined later at an EST meeting where a lecturer talks about “old habits and belief systems standing in the way of loving children.” And those are only the children he knows about, mind.
At the same time, Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage has never been closer. He’s happy to see her when she comes home. And she’s more understanding of his misgivings about the work than she has been in the past, when they frustrated her. When she offers to take a larger share of the responsibility in the future, he rebuffs her in a way that’s simultaneously despairing and reassuring: “No, no. It’s us, Elizabeth. It’s us.” Theirs is a true partnership, transcendent of their official duties yet anchored by them all the same. It’s hard to imagine them moving forward from here. But they must.
Hammers and sickles:
• After a bout of sex so rote and joyless that Philip drifts to memories of his father and moldy potatoes, the pillow talk between him and Deirdre is hilariously unromantic. “Are you good?” “Great.” “Do you want to hear about Lotus 1-2-3?” “Sure.” “I can show you some printouts.”
• Poor Henry. Ignored all series long, and now that he does something great, the best he can do is a bullet point in this recap. His parents’ surprise over his math performance annoys him, and it should. Philip and Elizabeth are distracted in the best of times, but whenever they pay any attention to their children, they’re usually huddling with Paige. To them, he’s not around, even when he is around.
• Given all the information they’ve provided to the Center about Stan, Philip and Elizabeth come to suspect his new girlfriend, Renee, might be installed by the Russians to spy on him. It’s a plausible theory, supported by the parallels between Renee and Elizabeth asking their respective (or would-be, in Renee’s case) targets about their jobs after sleeping with them first. On the other hand, that’s a perfectly normal thing to do.
• It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life. If you live in 1984 and turn down the chance to see Romancing the Stone, you have questionable judgment.