Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of The Americans. Read our complete coverage of the show here. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.
On an abrupt, pathetic goodbye
Todd VanDerWerff: Oh Gaad, poor Gaad. Russians pushed you through a window, and I'm feeling so sad.
No, but really, for as inevitable and tragic as Nina's death felt earlier in the season, Gaad's death in "Munchkins" feels very much avoidable and almost farcical. Obviously, watching everybody's favorite FBI boss begin to bleed out from his midsection wasn't fun, but the scene itself had a world-weary "Not this shit again!" vibe to it that I found darkly amusing until, well, he died.
And that feeling of "Not this shit again" permeated the episode, but with ominous undertones. Perhaps the finest example comes in a scene where Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige argue about Pastor Tim and whether the Soviets could have done something to him, debating how they're going to keep Alice in check, and throughout, you can hear Henry throwing a ball against the garage door — a loud, booming noise that gives the whole scene a sense of impending doom.
That's what makes Gaad's death such a great Rosetta stone for the episode as a whole: It happens almost entirely by dumb chance, just as Philip and Elizabeth are almost undone by Pastor Tim running out of gas in the middle of nowhere, Ethiopia.
So much of what happens on The Americans is predicated on plans running perfectly, but they so rarely do. That gives "Munchkins" a feeling of bleak comedy, right alongside its tragic undertones. Whatever fate awaits the Jenningses and company is inescapable now, even if it comes when they're least expecting it.
Caroline Framke: Gaad’s death is fascinating for its futility alone — even the Soviets sent to question him seem floored by how clumsy and pointless it was — but it’s also telling that it happened the second he thought he was in the clear. Gaad wasn’t just retired; he was on vacation in Thailand. He thought he'd gotten as far away as possible from the everyday drama of fighting the Cold War, but it still found him — and trying to get away once again only ends up killing him.
Also it’s pretty perfect that the KGB tracked down Gaad in a random Thai hotel room the same week we watched Philip and Elizabeth try to convince Paige that the KGB isn’t actually everywhere.
Libby Nelson: I was about to say that Gaad’s death is the most meaningless one we’ve seen, but of course that isn’t true — how many people have ended up dead just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time while Philip and Elizabeth were working? Still, it’s an ignominious end for a tremendous character. I have to assume that Gaad’s death is going to drive Stan to take some kind of drastic step, because why should he otherwise die just as his story seemed to have reached its end?
More than ever before, the walls are closing in on the Jenningses
Libby: As for the other twist of fate, I briefly thought that maybe Philip and Elizabeth had arranged some kind of convenient accident for Pastor Tim in Ethiopia (though it would have been foolish to leave Alice alive). Even when plans don’t work out perfectly, they usually work out well enough. "Munchkins" marks the first time The Americans has really driven home how little control Philip and Elizabeth now have over their own lives — a problem that isn’t unique to intelligence agents for either side but is particularly acute for them.
Speaking of which: I was astonished to see Kimmy again! I assumed that plot line had wrapped up a long time ago, off screen — but here she is, giving Philip a chance to wear my favorite of his disguises while sending him on a guilt trip about how hard it is to learn that your parents have been lying to you this whole time.
Todd: "Munchkins" is interesting, because while I'm not sure it 100 percent hangs together as an episode, every single scene is 100 percent extraordinary.
That scene with Kimmy alone is masterfully done in terms of how much of his own daughter Philip sees in Kimmy, which brings him to realize the burden he's placed on his kid. In terms of the plot, it probably doesn't need to be there, but in terms of just deepening the quagmire, boy, does it work.
And maybe quagmire is the right word for season four overall. The Americans is a lock to return for a fifth season (though it hasn't officially been renewed), but season four feels so inescapable. It's so difficult to imagine the kind of reset that inevitably has to happen at the start of season five.
I'm not saying I want The Americans to end (please no), but I am saying that for the first time, I understand why the show induces such anxiety in people that they can't even watch it. That's both compliment and curse.
Libby: Yes. I have been a die-hard Americans fan since the beginning, and I’ve found myself jumping at excuses to rewatch old episodes — even, sometimes, in place of finding out what happens next, because it feels like nothing that’s coming could possibly be good.
Against all odds — and her own judgment — Paige is turning out to be a pretty great spy
Caroline: I always have low-level anxiety watching The Americans, but it definitely spiked while Henry was throwing that tennis ball against the garage door. That’s exactly the kind of banal detail The Americans excels at making tense with subtext. But the reason “Munchkins” interests me is because it offers irrefutable proof that Paige really does take after her parents.
Even though she’s furious and terrified, Paige still manages to handle the (understandably) volatile Alice in a way that makes her feel cared for — which is exactly what Philip and Elizabeth do with their assets. Paige might have a completely different viewpoint from her parents, but she still has the skill set required to make people trust her, sometimes against their better instincts. She’s patient, intuitive, and calculating. When Paige told her parents that she made a decision to hold off on asking Alice about the tape the minute Pastor Tim was confirmed alive, the expression on Elizabeth’s face said it all: The girl knows what she’s doing.
Todd: A friend of mine has always said he wants to see the show about 30-something Paige, in the CIA, and I kind of agree with him now.
Libby: Paige might hate what she’s doing, but in many ways she’s a natural at it — remember the young woman Elizabeth was training (and eventually let die at Larrick’s hands) in season two? Paige is outshining her already, and she’s still a teenager. I don’t think Philip and Elizabeth are going to be able to turn Paige — and after all this, I’m not sure they’d even formally try — but the truth is that they sort of already have. She’s much more formidable than I’d expected.
Caroline: I think you just hit on the tragedy of Paige exactly, Libby. In trying to shield her from their jobs, and keeping everything as close to the status quo as possible, Philip and Elizabeth have done more to make her an agent than they ever intended.
And now that I’m thinking about it, it makes perfect sense that just as we’re seeing Philip and Elizabeth crumble more under the pressure of making all these personal betrayals in the name of their job, we’re also seeing Paige learn how to navigate manipulation.
Watching their daughter learn the ropes would be one thing, but Philip and Elizabeth are veteran agents. They know exactly what kind of devastating shit could be waiting for Paige down the line, and that scares the hell out of them — as well it should.
Todd: There's also the bomb sitting underneath all of this, just waiting to explode, which doesn't even involve Pastor Tim or Alice. Instead, it's the fact that Philip and Elizabeth have killed people — and regularly! Eventually Paige is going to figure that out, and I don't really know what happens then. She's so ... seasoned is the wrong word, but it's the one I want to use. It adds this nice element of unpredictability to everything.
Everyone's allowed to be vulnerable but Elizabeth Jennings
Todd: This episode ended on a moment of startling vulnerability from Elizabeth, as she admitted that she wanted to try something else, rather than lose Young Hee's friendship. Of course, Young Hee is almost certainly about to find out that Elizabeth "slept with" her husband, which can't end well.
Caroline: That was 15 whole seconds of silence. Keri Russell hasn’t had many flashy moments this season, but wow did that floor me.
Libby: Elizabeth has quietly expanded her emotional register quite a bit over the past two seasons, and that was a great moment to bring it all home. Although I do agree with Todd — the tragedy of it is that she’s almost certainly lost Young Hee’s friendship anyway. What was more startling than the fact that she didn’t want to do it, to me, was that she admitted it, rather than just figuring out another operation (and executing it on her own, if necessary) to achieve the same result.
Caroline: Elizabeth has been in a pressure cooker since she was a teenager, and she only ever lets out her anger, frustration, or sadness in spurts. But this moment really did strike me as something different.
Throughout “Munchkins,” Philip and Gabriel alike are trying to get her to admit that she doesn’t want to do this — whatever “this” is is still unclear — to Young Hee. But she refused to give in, because giving in would be admitting defeat.
The thing about Philip starting to crack is that the necessary flip side becomes Elizabeth keeping her shit together in order to keep him upright. As we saw right before the seven-month time jump in “The Magic of David Copperfield V,” Elizabeth breaking down at the same time as her husband equals disaster.
So for as much as we've talked about Philip’s mindset this season, we really haven’t acknowledged how Elizabeth has felt the need to double down on her own hard-line ideologies and ruthless methods just to balance him out. That's why when Gabriel finally gently asks her the question they’ve been dancing around, Elizabeth just can’t keep it up anymore. Even if the Young Hee storyline goes up in flames, Elizabeth's anguished silence was just breathtaking, and will resonate far beyond the parameters of this season.
Libby: That’s a really smart observation, Caroline — Elizabeth is so often perceived as the hard and uncompromising one, but I wonder how much of that is a response to Philip’s personality rather than a true difference between them. It’s the ideological equivalent of the (sadly pretty common) bad cop/good cop parenting dynamic they also typically present: Elizabeth as the Mean Mom, Philip as the Fun Dad. (I hope season five is about nothing but Paige's driving lessons.)
Caroline: When Gabriel told Elizabeth her feelings matter, I felt her derision before she even spoke. “They can’t,” she said, and then, more tellingly, “They shouldn’t.”
But the same Elizabeth who would kill Pastor Tim without a second thought is the same Elizabeth who doesn’t want to lose Young Hee as a friend, and as of the extraordinary end of “Munchkins,” she can no longer deny that as a fact.
Be sure to read our thoughts on last week's episode, and drop by the comments to discuss "Munchkins" in more detail.