Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX Networks.
“You don’t think I’m a human being?”
Elizabeth’s tone is understandably incredulous. Her husband has just told her that he’s spent the last couple of months pumping her for information about her activities, and passing it along to someone “from back home.” The radiation censors, the death of Lyle Rennhull, the Russian negotiators, the botched Chicago mission — everything. But it’s his condescension that rankles her as much as his betrayal: Not only is he actively working to undermine her operation, he has the gall to suggest that she’s an automaton, thoughtlessly executing orders that should stir her conscience. Her humanity accounts for her willingness to sacrifice her body and soul — and the bodies and souls of others, too — to pursue her ideals. “We believed in something so big,” he reminds her. She would say the same thing, only without the past tense.
Or would she?
The Americans has been building to this episode the entire season. Back in the first episode, when Elizabeth was getting her marching orders (and a cyanide pill) from a Strategic Rocket Forces general in Mexico, Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” flooded the soundtrack, its chorus a reminder of her role as a foot soldier on the front lines of the Cold War. In that recap, I wrote about the controversial experiment referenced in Gabriel’s song and what it implied about the human impulse to follow orders. From there, we’ve witnessed Elizabeth follow orders all season long, leading to at least a dozen deaths related to the radiation sensors (Rennhull, the guards at the storage break-in, the security guy she interviews in the hotel, operative on both sides in Chicago, et al.) and the stabbing of Mr. and Mrs. Teacup with their young son in the next room. (And that’s to say nothing of an incidental murder to protect Paige.)
With the series coming to a close, The Americans uses “The Summit” to step back and assess the person Elizabeth has become. All season long, the show has examined her in the harshest possible light, as she continues to labor on the wrong side of history. Having Philip retire from the job has put them in sharp, dramatic contrast, essentially denying her cover for whatever horrific acts she’s had to take in the field. We know that anti-Gorbachev forces within the KGB and the military are working to subvert his agenda. We know that Gorbachev will succeed in achieving an arms deal with America and easing the longstanding tensions between the two countries. And so we know that any harm Elizabeth causes will be for naught — and that her entire adult life, by implication, will have been in service of not just a losing cause, but the wrong cause.
Elizabeth’s awakening in “The Summit” has been a long time coming, and it’s only Philip who could have made it possible. Going to Chicago gave him the currency to question her humanity without getting questioned in turn about his devotion. (“I would do anything for you,” he says. “I did. I just did.”) But for Elizabeth to pause for self-reflection has long been a dangerous prospect: So long as she believes in the larger mission of the party — the one to which she and Philip committed in idealistic terms — the burden of what she’s done is bearable. Full-on regret presents a tougher road back, because she’ll have to take responsibility for what she’s done.
Most of “The Summit” strands her in a fascinating middle ground between duty and disillusionment. She’s both the Angel of Death and the Angel of Mercy. The key sequence of the episode has her taking care of Erica for one last time. These types of assignments have always had a powerful effect on Philip and Elizabeth, but Erica’s toughness in the face of agonizing pain spoke to Elizabeth, as did her paintings, which tapped into some inexpressible feeling in her soul. (The fact that she was forced to stay in the room is crucial. It’s easier to dismiss art as frivolous when you’re not confronted by it.) When Glenn fails horrifically in assisting her suicide, it’s Elizabeth who’s uniquely suited to get the job done. She knows how ugly it can be to kill another person. Even in this case, when the spirit is willing, the body puts up one hell of a fight.
At the same time, Elizabeth is still capable of compartmentalizing. She’s done a kindness for Glenn and Erica, but she craftily hustles Glenn upstairs so she can photograph the documents in his briefcase and salvage what she can of a busted assignment. Erica was unique in that she’s the one person Elizabeth has killed who wanted to die, and she’s simultaneously cold-blooded and compassionate enough to offer that service and move forward. It’s her gift. So long as she can justify the violence she perpetuates, she can continue to absolve herself. Now that the time has come for her to reflect on the rightness of what she’s done, she’s going to have a harder time forgiving her own sins.
In the meantime, she grasps at redemption where she can find it. When she successfully honeytraps Jackson into bugging a meeting at the State Department and he finds out about it, Elizabeth allows that loose end to go untied. She doesn’t even get a solid promise from him to keep his mouth shut. Frightened as he is in the moment, Jackson has the courage to deny her phony rationalization and even suggest that the police might have a different idea about business-as-usual in the political consulting world. (“Tell me you understand.” “I don’t understand.”) Her decision to let him go is uncharacteristically reckless, but a sign that her conscience is finally listing from the bodies she’s piled onto it. And this is before she knows the full truth about The Center’s traitorous plot against Gorbachev and her unwitting role in stopping Fyodor Nesterenko, a Gorbachev emissary, from good-faith negotiations.
These revelations come late in the series run — and, likely, late in the Jennings’ double life as we know it — but that only maximizes the impact of an episode like “The Summit.” As strong-willed and powerful as Elizabeth is, it’s hard not to think of her like an enlisted soldier shipped off to fight in an unjust war and coming back disillusioned. She and Philip sacrificed themselves for a government that perverted their ideals and exploited their commitment. Now they’re on the other end of it, stateless and stranded, exiles in suburbia.
• Chekhov’s cyanide pill remains intact. It seemed like Erica would have been the obvious beneficiary, especially given how rough the strangulation-by-paintbrush option turned out to be. But it’s being saved for a special occasion, apparently.
• Chekhov’s live-in girlfriend hasn’t gone off yet, either: Renee secures a job interview at the FBI. “They’ll want to know if you’re a loyal American and can keep secrets,” Stan advises her. She’s got the job half in the bag at least.
• Great little scene with Elizabeth quietly determining whether to keep a painting that means so much to her or destroy a piece of incriminating evidence. She ultimately opts for the practical option, but the flames eerily complement the portrait’s ghostly quality.
• Elizabeth’s Mrs. Robinson routine on Jackson is so elegantly scripted on her part, from the casual “oops” of the underwear on the couch to a conversational path that leads right to the bed. His big play is to bring her a copy of The Big Heat on VHS. The kid never stood a chance.
• When Claudia justifies her manipulation of Elizabeth by saying, “I’ve been protecting you,” it echoes Elizabeth’s own manipulation of Paige, who she in turn has “protected” from the truth. The trouble is, whenever a lie is exposed, that protection looks a lot like betrayal.