Let’s just get it out here, finally: The travel agency was never a good cover for Philip and Elizabeth. It has had a few practical advantages, like the two of them working together and sharing an office where they could discreetly collaborate on their main business. There’s been a symbolic advantage, too, in the act of helping others escape to brighter destinations while remaining grounded by a life of unending danger, moral compromise, and existential despair. But the fundamental truth is that there’s no reason for a travel agent to leave on any emergency call, let alone one in the middle of the night, and there’s certainly no reason for two agents to fly to Houston on Thanksgiving to appease a client. Hearing Philip come up with excuses for Elizabeth’s absence — and, later, his own — sounds nearly as absurd as something you’d hear on a sitcom. It doesn’t pass the smell test.
And yet we accept the premise that we’re given. It’s easy to say that the travel agency ruse is a loser, because we’ve known all along that Philip and Elizabeth are Russian spies masquerading as ordinary American suburbanites. For Paige and Henry, such work emergencies are never anything they would question, because it’s been the background noise of their entire childhood. Ditto the strange fact that they have no relatives outside an aunt on their mother’s side that Henry has never visited. When Paige was finally brought into the fold, she had her “of course” moment when the eccentricities of the Jennings household finally made sense to her. But even when questioned by good ‘ole “Uncle Stan” in the car, Henry doesn’t seem at all stuck on answers he’s giving about the business or the family he never had.
Stan has less of an excuse, given the skepticism that’s supposed to come with his job, to the point where it could keep him from getting close to someone. But there’s no reason, as a counterintelligence agent, to believe that Russian spies are operating right under your nose. In “Harvest,” Stan confesses to Philip that he always wondered what work could keep the Jennings coming and going at all hours of the night, but he says it out of compassion rather than suspicion. His friend seems like he’s in terrible shape, perhaps for some extracurricular activity he feels uncomfortable disclosing, and Stan wants to help him out. Philip’s biggest mistake in that moment is limiting his exposure: Had he told Stan his marriage was in trouble, instead of just his business, then maybe his story would have seemed convincing. But since Henry knows about his dad’s crisis at work, Philip’s heart-to-heart starts to seem phony to Stan — and that thread, once pulled, finally undoes a very old sweater. Maybe.
Stan comes within one tug of the circuit breaker panel to discovering the great, embarrassing secret that’s been hidden in plain sight for so long, but it seems equally likely that the unraveling to come could happen without his intervention at all. There’s an air of finality to the job in Chicago, which adds to the long list of recent, deadly failures that has accumulated all season long. “Harvest” stages the extraction of the Russian agent with an attention to detail that could be described as “Rififi”-esque, given how carefully the show lays out the mechanics of an operation that always had little chance to succeed. Much like the jewel heist in Jules Dassin’s film, the audience understands a chunk of the plan going in, so the inevitable missteps and deviations are suspenseful because they upend our expectations.
The botched mission in Chicago concludes with a reworking of the memorably gruesome suitcase sequence from season three, when Philip and Elizabeth folded (and snapped) a dead body into a suitcase in order to pack it away for disposal. But those were happier days! In the parking garage in “Harvest,” after having just lost Marilyn and their target in a messy shootout with the FBI, Philip and Elizabeth again engage in the noiseless ritual of mutilating a body. To prevent the FBI from identifying Marilyn, Philip uses the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency ax and lops off her hands and head. In this circumstance, Philip’s sarcastic retort to Paige in “The Great Patriotic War” comes back to the surface: “There are no pads in the real world.” That this situation isn’t uniquely horrific to Philip doesn’t lessen its impact on him. He’s only in Chicago because of his devotion to Elizabeth as a husband and life partner. The work itself has corroded his soul.
The one-last-job feel of the operation leaves the Jennings’s marriage in an interesting spot. After lashing out at him for refusing to follow through on the Kimmy job and just generally “not giving a shit,” Elizabeth regards Philip with newfound affection and concern, knowing that love alone is his only motivation for helping her. She’s so haunted by the look on his face in the garage that she visits him at the agency, but he isn’t emotionally accessible to her. In the final scene, he revisits the memory of their wedding — their authentic wedding, not the one arranged by the government — but it’s like a drowning man clinging to a buoy as the tide pulls him from below. How long can he continue holding on?
Hammers and sickles
• Elizabeth’s last scene with Paige is motivated by her feelings of guilt over Philip and the toll his lifetime commitment to espionage has taken on him. But what’s even more striking and heartbreaking about the scene is Paige’s loneliness and need for purpose. Paige is vulnerable to the second-generation project because, in her words, she “wants to make a difference,” but she’s really a conformist at heart, trading Pastor Tim’s religious propaganda for the Communist propaganda her mother is foisting on her. She means well, but she’s easily exploited — which, ultimately, may be the profile necessary for anyone willing to do this type of work.
• Looks like we’re dealing with a classic example of Chekhov’s cyanide pill. Now that Philip is aware of the contents of Elizabeth’s necklace, he seems to be contemplating some way to prevent her from killing herself, even in the event that she’s arrested. That long glance at Harvest’s identical necklace seemed to suggest a switcheroo, but that necklace, along with Marilyn’s identifying features, are now at the bottom of the Chicago River.
• Harvest’s last words to Philip are a warning, of sorts, about how his own children might assess him down the line. What will Henry think of him? What will Paige? Will he be the man who sacrificed everything for them or the son of a bitch who they hope will die the miserable death he deserves?
• Through her art instruction, Erica is teaching Elizabeth to achieve a level of self-awareness and self-reflection that she has, by her nature and occupation, previously denied herself. It’s her EST.
• Our eclectic song choice of the week is Patti Smith’s “Broken Flag,” which plays over the post-job montage where Elizabeth tosses the duffel bag. The last lines of the song: “In the sky a broken flag, children wave and raise their arms / We’ll be gone but they’ll go on and on and on and on and on.”