After last week’s white-knuckler, tonight’s episode of The Americans was always going to be a pause for breath, a morning-after reckoning after major events and a gearing-up for the stretch run of the series. But setting the hour over Thanksgiving gives it just the right perspective on everything: on the state of the Jenningses’ marriage and their splintered family dynamic, on the conflicting loyalties that gnaw at Philip’s conscience, and on America itself approaching the end of the Cold War and what is presumed about its chief adversary. Heading into the last four episodes, the show needed this clarifying moment before the gears of the plot take over again and the ultimate fates of these characters are determined.
Philip and Elizabeth’s complicated partnership is always front and center on the show, but “Rififi” presents a good opportunity to check in on Stan, whose time in counterintelligence has been defined by tragedies and mishaps, even before you consider the most tragic blunder over six seasons has yet to reveal itself. His Thanksgiving toast is Stan in a nutshell: earnest, principled, oblivious. “You know, not everybody around the world wants us to be able to live in peace and freedom,” he says. “But aren’t those the things the pilgrims came here for in the first place?” Scanning the table — the cutaways are absolutely priceless — half the guests are legitimately concurring with Stan’s sentiments (Dennis Aderholt, his wife, Henry) and the others either have worked for the Russians (Philip), are currently working for the Russians (Paige), or will almost certainly be revealed to have been working for the Russians (Renee). There are wolves in the henhouse.
Is it enough to say that Stan is simply bad at his job? Perhaps, but if his failures alone are a measure of his performance, then we’d also have to say that Philip and Elizabeth are bad at their jobs, given the wreckage they’ve left in their wake. From the show’s perspective, the Cold War has been played more or less to a stalemate, a behind-the-scenes tussle with lots of hidden casualties on both sides. But Stan has been guilty of thinking too simply and trusting too easily. There’s some of George W. Bush’s “They hate our freedoms” nonsense embedded in Stan’s Thanksgiving speech, added to the conviction that the Reagan administration “[knows] the only way to get peace is to stand firm against those who wish us harm.” And when he and Dennis are on the job, tracking a Russian spy in Chicago, they don’t seem to grasp the philosophical conflict that’s dividing the Russians in the lead-up to the summit. There are a lot of Olegs out there, risking their necks to make the summit a success, but all they see is subterfuge. (“They want to look peaceful,” says Dennis, “But they’re really just trying to screw us.”)
While it’s tempting to laugh at the irony of Stan’s Thanksgiving address, it’s hard not to feel devastations past and future. His job wiped out his first marriage. His former lover, Nina, is dead. His best friend is a Russian spy who’s lived under his nose for years. His current lover is probably a spy, and he’s helping her get a job at the FBI. The only possible silver lining for Stan would be to make these discoveries about Renee and the Jennings family on his own, but that won’t relieve the betrayal of those closest to him or the feelings of crushing inadequacy that he missed the signs for so long. He once talked to Henry about how being in the FBI meant never trusting anyone, but he plainly hasn’t lived by those words. He’s a good guy. He’s opened up his heart and home, just as anyone would to stave off loneliness. His decency is irrepressible. And tragic.
Meanwhile, Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage has hit bottom, which also has the clarifying effect of showing us how legitimate their marriage is. On the “for better or for worse” spectrum, having your wife accuse you of wanting to sleep with a college student because you’re not getting any action at home maxes out the for-worse-o-meter. Philip recognizes that Elizabeth honey-trapped him into doing this one last, awful thing for her, but his refusal to follow through on the plan to lure Kimmy to Bulgaria strikes Elizabeth as a selfish and hypocritical act. Philip expresses his disgust over Sofia and Gennadi’s 7-year-old son finding their bloodied bodies, but it’s not as if he hasn’t been part of such gruesome operations before. To Elizabeth, he’s chosen an arbitrary spot to draw the line.
But “Rififi” does an excellent job in pinpointing where they’re ultimately divided. Philip continues to oppose Elizabeth ideologically and goes one major step further by invading their secret spaces and sending Oleg a coded message about what he’s learned. At the same time, he’s committed to the marriage. Despite Philip and Elizabeth’s agreement, it’s become painfully obvious that the mission and the marriage cannot be separated, that one is a looming threat to the other. But Philip’s read on Elizabeth’s assignment in Chicago is that his wife fears she will not survive it, which calls on a deeper loyalty for him. He doesn’t want Elizabeth or “Harvest” to succeed in undermining the summit. He does, however, want their marriage to have a future. For now, he’ll live (or die) with the contradictions.
Hammers and Sickles
• Henry’s return home underlines the sad distance between him and his mother, which has now been secretly codified, like a custody hearing that neither Jennings child knows about. When Elizabeth offers him a cigarette on the back porch, Henry is shocked by her casual disregard for his health. (“Are you trying to give me cancer?”) And there’s something so poignant and awful about how Elizabeth’s merely calling Henry to make chit-chat signals to Philip how much she fears for her life.
• “No one in Marietta, Georgia, is going to Rififi.” I had to laugh at this line from Jackson Barber, Elizabeth’s possible source in Sam Nunn’s office, because I was a cinephile from Marietta, Georgia, in 1987, and I’d have definitely gone to Rififi at the High Museum if I’d had the chance. (One of my formative moviegoing experiences was seeing Federico Fellini’s Amarcord at the High, in fact.) In any case, Jackson is correct that Rififi is the greatest heist film of all time — from the greatest year ever for film, in my view — and I now have a personal stake in his continuing to live, despite his pretentious inclination to call Three Men and a Cradle by its French title, which no one did at the time. (Cousin, Cousine, on the other hand …)
• After it seemed like Sofia and Gennadi died without ever giving the FBI a scrap of useful information, it’s cheering to discover that one of Gennadi’s diplomatic pouches contained a circuit board for the radiation sensors that the Russians covet so strongly. If it leads back to the people responsible for killing them, then that’ll be some sliver of justice.
• Philip may be cranking up the country station, but his disillusionment with American capitalism is growing. Between the dual humiliation of Henry angling for tuition money and his having to lay off three staffers from the travel agency, Philip is starting to see himself as a failure — and, in turn, see the system as an empty promise. This leaves him in a neither-here-nor-there situation that’s not unlike his partnership with Elizabeth.
• The eclectic music choices continue with the Tears for Fears deep cut “Ideas for Opiates” playing over a montage of Philip rifling through Elizabeth’s things. The word opiates evokes the famous declaration from the Communist Manifesto that religion is “the opiate of the masses,” and the lyrics seem to call out ideology as “lies spread on lies.”