For all its fascination with the Cold War, the spy game, and the cultural and political atmosphere of the 1980s, The Americans has always been a show about parenting — to the point where all those other elements exist mostly to turn up the gas. Still, despite the ruinous success of Project Paige this season, it’s been easy to lose sight of that parenting theme as Philip and Elizabeth’s deteriorating mission has taken center stage, with a particularly bracing emphasis on victims like the lab technician or the Russian “collaborator” from last week’s episode. But in the lead-up to next week’s season finale, “The World Council of Churches” slows down the action a little and considers the limits of what parents can do for their children.
The major reason, of course, is that Philip and Elizabeth have stopped merely fantasizing about ending their assignment and going home, but are actually serious about taking the steps necessary to get it done. And for now, anyway, Claudia doesn’t seem to indicate the Center would object to their retirement, despite the value it’s placing in the tantalizing prospect of second-generation, U.S.-born spies like Paige. When Claudia says, “I understand. I’ve found when officers start to think seriously about it, it’s time,” there’s no reason not to take her word for it. Perhaps she knows, more than they realize at the moment, how prohibitively difficult it will be for the Jennings family to relocate, especially now that the kids are nearly out of the house. Paige is talking about college, Henry wants to continue his education in a boarding school. In Russia, Claudia warns, it will take Philip and Elizabeth two or three years to readjust, but “longer for the children.”
The key scene in “The World Council of Churches” finds Philip and Elizabeth seeking advice from Pastor Tim, which is remarkable in itself, given that they once considered killing him. So what does it say that they turn to him now? For one, he’s the only person they can turn to for advice outside the Rezidentura and he obviously has some insight into Paige’s state of mind. But it’s more than that: They also seem to accept that his insights are credible, which means that they’ve stopped trying to explain away the diary pages in “Darkroom.” Though Pastor Tim is often cast as an earnest, gentle-hippie type — he and Ben Stobert would probably get along famously — his expression hardens during this conversation. For the first time, viewers may notice that the actor playing him, Kelly AuCoin, also stars as “Dollar” Bill Stern, a take-no-prisoners hedge-funder on Showtime’s Billions.
When asked about the decision to take the kids to Russia or continue their increasingly untenable mission in America, Tim is firm, honest, and wise: “I think you’ll have trouble either way. It’s hard to imagine all the problems that two American kids will have adjusting to life over there, but there’s a lot about life here that’s not so great. You can’t predict what a person’s life will be and you can’t deny them the challenges that will shape them.” That last sentence is key, along with the insight that in a few years, it won’t be their decision to make anymore. It’s at moments like these that The Americans hits on a universality about parenthood that’s separated from the everyday only by virtue of the Jennings’ line of work.
All parents have to figure out when and how much to loosen the reins on their children. This happens not only when high-school graduation looms, but throughout their childhood — whether the issue is taking a shower, crossing the street on their own, or staying home alone. As a parent, you can put up the guardrails and try to protect them, but they can’t be controlled or micromanaged forever. The Jennings are staring down a particularly dramatic choice that will affect the course of Paige and Henry’s lives immediately and profoundly, but parents have to make consequential choices all the time and they can’t always be certain they’re the right ones. At this point, both options may be ruinous. They can only hope, as all parents do, that they’ve given the children the tools and support they’ll need to cope with, in Tim’s words, “the challenges that will shape them.”
A parent’s responsibilities don’t end with graduation, either. These same sentiments are echoed in a conversation Oleg has with his father, Igor, who offers to use his position within the government to get his son out of trouble. Igor laments his powerlessness in helping his wife when she was in the camps, but now has the authority to help his family. “I’ll crush them for you,” he tells Oleg. “To keep you safe. Not just because you’re my son. But because you’re good.” But Igor doesn’t know what kind of trouble Oleg is in, so his offer is rebuffed. He wants a happy outcome for his son — just as Philip and Elizabeth want the best for their children — but there are limits to what he can accomplish. There’s nothing more painful for a parent than not being able to help their kids. There’s nothing more common, either.
Yet those instincts do come into play and parents do sometimes take action, even if it’s not advisable. In the stunning final stretch of the episode, when Tuan reveals his plan to manipulate Pasha into a suicide attempt, Philip and Elizabeth make a parenting decision that overrides their directives as spies. They may recognize the shrewdness of Tuan’s actions, but they can’t allow a child to die simply to advance the mission — which it surely would, Tuan argues, no matter what happens to Pasha.
Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, who scripted this episode and next week’s season finale, know Philip and Elizabeth so well that they draw a subtle distinction between them: Both urge Tuan to call Pasha and stop him from cutting his wrists, but when Pasha doesn’t answer, it’s Philip alone who takes the initiative to march down to the Morozov’s house to intervene, which is more reckless than Elizabeth will allow herself to be. In any case, they’ve gotten to a point where they cannot abide the collateral damage necessary to achieve a larger goal for their country. Their role as parents now takes clear precedence over their duty as patriots.
Hammers and Sickles
• Incredible pre-credit scene with Paige tossing her cross necklace in the garbage, only to have her mother fish it out and clasp it back around her neck. Paige’s faith has defined her so strongly throughout the show’s run that her rejection of it is startling. That she still has a part to play — a lie to carry, just like her parents — deepens the shock.
• As Philip and Elizabeth risk exposure in attempting to rescue Pasha, so do Stan and Dennis in the surprise visit from Sofia’s squeeze, a famous Soviet hockey player whose loyalties are uncertain to say the least. “You’re my only American friends and I wanted to share this happiness with you,” says Sofia to the agents, poignantly. In this arena, trust and naïveté are a dangerous combination.
• Elizabeth’s philosophy of marriage in action: “I don’t cry. I don’t beg. I tell him how it’s going to be.”
• Oleg may not be free (or alive) much longer, but his investigation of corruption within the food industry has left him so disillusioned that it’s going to be hard for him to carry on anyway. Only functionaries will serve any jail time. Their bosses will continue propping up the same system. They will, in Oleg’s words, “take the bread people are supposed to eat and make a fortune on it.”
• Something to bookmark for later: Philip’s Russian son has met his uncle. Surely a family reunion is in order at some point.