A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I have hair like a Vidal Sassoon ad…
“You don’t think I’m a human being?” -Elizabeth
Elizabeth Jennings has always put the mission first. She cares about her kids to varying degrees (Paige more than Henry), but she only had them because the Centre told her to. She fell in love with Philip, but only after years of being together, and she fought the idea for as long as she could because it could — and did — compromise operations. Everyone she meets is a tool to further the cause. She may genuinely come to like a Young-Hee, but that doesn’t stop her from wrecking Young-Hee’s marriage. The old woman at the robot factory, the warehouse employee whose girlfriend happened to work in security, the poor guy who was just tuning up his car in his own garage — none of them deserved to be murdered by Elizabeth Jennings, but all were standing between her and completing a mission, so murdered they were.
But two seemingly contradictory things have been happening with Elizabeth in this final season. On the one hand, she’s more ruthless (and/or sloppier) than she ever was when she worked alongside Philip, to the point where it’s almost startling when an episode doesn’t end with her having killed someone during an operation gone wrong. But on the other, she’s such a raw, exposed nerve now that she’s more vulnerable to Philip and Erica Haskard’s separate attempts to reach past the automaton and remind her of her own humanity.
At the start of the episode — during the pause Elizabeth takes after Philip tells her what he’s been doing with Oleg, which seems to last for 11 weeks — the idea of the human overcoming her programming appears impossible. But by the end, somewhat amazingly — and conveyed beautifully through the way Keri Rusell modulates her performance — the human seems to be finally winning.
Glenn Haskard botches Erica’s euthanasia, and even though Elizabeth could possibly keep her alive and manipulate him into staying with the summit, she opts to play angel of mercy and put he skill for murdering people in undetectable ways to a more altruistic purpose.(*) The kiss she places on Erica’s forehead before jamming the paintbrush down her throat, and the protracted internal struggle she goes through before following protocol and burning Erica’s painting (which, if found in the garage, could link her to the Haskards), convey just how much this woman and her work — which Elizabeth didn’t initially understand, and practically looked on with contempt — has come to mean to her.
(*) Mercy is not always pretty, and while Erica’s dark sense of humor might have appreciated the idea of being asphyxiated with the object she used to create her art, in the moment she’s so far gone that all that remains are her body’s basic physical responses, and that body fights tooth and nail to save itself before Elizabeth can finish the job. It’s a kind thing Elizabeth is doing, but it’s among the most unpleasant deaths the show has ever depicted.
When Jackson finds the recording device she tricked him into placing in a room at State, he seems to be talking himself into a bullet. Instead, shaken by what Philip has told her and by the death of Erica, Elizabeth lets him live, even though he’s clearly going to tell someone about her. And when she listens to the recordings and realizes both that Nesterenko isn’t the traitor she’s been promised and that Gorbachev’s disarmament agenda is something she can support, the robot finally shuts down altogether, and the human opts to not only refuse to kill Nesterenko, but to tell Philip about the mission and then head out into the night to protect this stranger from whomever the Centre next assigns to his death.
It’s a remarkable transformation, and an example of the series’ patient-bordering-on-excruciating pacing paying off in spades. Yes, there have been moments this season when it seemed like showrunners Fields and Weisberg had lost track of how many episodes they had left and were dawdling the way they often do early in non-final seasons. But the time spent on the Haskards, on Elizabeth chain-smoking and slowly falling apart, on the gaping chasm between husband and wife, were all necessary to get her to this place where she would defy Claudia and the Centre — where she would finally, all these years later, choose to think for herself about what’s right and wrong, and what lines she simply won’t cross.
There’s now tension hanging over everything, with the FBI getting closer and closer to uncovering the illegals’ identities, and now our protagonists both turning against their masters. Aderholt has the FBI raiding garages (in an episode where Philip opts for a taste of home by renting the 1980 Russian film The Garage), so when Elizabeth takes her sweet time deciding whether to keep or burn the painting, it’s not just a great character moment, but a ticking time bomb.
It has taken Elizabeth forever, it seems, to get to this moment of full self-awareness. She has done utterly monstrous, unforgivable things before now, but the good thing about leaving the decision-making up to others was that she didn’t usually have to dwell on the ramifications of these terrible acts. Philip could never compartmentalize like that, which she used to take for weakness. But now she is finally starting to see the world the way he does, the way Erica did. It’s hard, and it’s painful, and it likely ends in either Chekhov’s Cyanide Pill or a jail cell for her. But it’s still better for her, better for the world, and much better for The Americans as we head into the home stretch.
Some other thoughts:
* Stan’s ongoing investigation into Philip and Elizabeth is a little more backburnered than feels ideal, given that he was breaking into their house last week. It’s interesting that he doesn’t recognize the more recent sketches of them from the Chicago mission, which look much more like them than the 1981 sketches, but Gregory’s former soldier Curtis does describe a beautiful woman with salon-quality hair who smokes like a chimney, and Stan did see Elizabeth’s sad flowerpot ashtray last time, so he’s getting closer, even if it feels agonizing.
* More observant than professional law-enforcement agent Stan Beeman: Stavos, who in his list of grievances to Philip admits that he knew something fishy was happening in the back office all these years, even if, “I never called the police, or said anything to anybody.” Stavos is just lucky he expressed this sentiment to sensitive retiree Philip, and not Elizabeth, who might not have been quite so merciful toward his cranky old self than she was with baby-faced Jackson.
* Also agonizing — and, given how little time is left, somewhat frustrating — was Renee preparing for her FBI interview with Stan noting that the most important questions are whether she can keep a secret, and if she’s a loyal American. That doesn’t feel at all like foreshadowing, does it, folks? The problem is, we’re so late in the story that the show is kind of damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t by now. If Renee is a spy, it’ll be introduced too late — and with too much else going on — to land properly. If she’s not, then it’s just distracting that they cast someone like Laurie Holden, and had Philip voice his own suspicions about Renee last season.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.