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.
A scattered episode; a thrilling ending
Todd VanDerWerff: What matters, Pastor Tim tells Elizabeth, isn't religion or God or prayer or going to church. What matters is how we treat other people.
That's as true whether you're an atheist, like Elizabeth, or a Christian, like Tim. We can all think of non-theists who are great people and religious people who are awful, and vice versa. Morality isn't bound to any one code. It's a continuum, and we're all on it, making it up as we go along.
Tim makes this declaration toward the end of "Dinner for Seven," a slightly somber, slightly scattered chapter in The Americans' great fourth season, setting up the scene that immediately follows.
Paige and Elizabeth walk back to their car, talking about how to best manage the Tim and Alice situation, when they're accosted by two men who mean them harm. Elizabeth turns the fight back on them, badly injuring — and probably killing — one of them. Instead of staying to help, she has to run. Of course she does. And now, Paige knows that being a spy isn't as passive or peaceful as her parents have made it out to be.
Okay, maybe Paige doesn't know, but she knows, you know? All of the things she's been telling herself about how her parents don't hurt anybody are out there in the open. Even if Elizabeth points out that what happened was justifiable self-defense, Paige still knows her mother can kill a man like you or I could snap our fingers. And that's a huge thing for Paige to confront.
The rest of "Dinner for Seven" was a curious mix of closing off storylines in beautiful fashion (like the end of the Young Hee arc, possibly for now) and opening up new ones that didn't seem to go much of anywhere. As much as I liked the idea of that dinner party, I'm not sure what it added, beyond awkwardness.
I don't want to call the episode a disappointment — it wasn't — but it did feel like a throat-clear before the push of the season's final two hours.
Caroline Framke: "Dinner for Seven" wasn’t as cohesive as some of this season's other episodes, likely because it’s definitely a necessity episode. By that I mean it ties up loose ends, caps off stray plots, and then finally disrupts the tentative status quo with that game-changing ending.
I do agree that the dinner scene with the Jennings, Tim and Alice, and poor, lost Stan almost felt more like a nod to how so many storylines have overlapped this season than a vital plot point. If anything, it just proved that Stan is wildly behind, and needs to get his shit together, fast.
But if you look back, every season of The Americans has featured a late-season episode that acts as the catalyst for the inevitably much more intense final stretch. In season three, it was the episode where Philip and Elizabeth revealed their double life to Paige; in season four, Elizabeth goes one step further and reveals her second-nature ability to kill.
It’s even more devastating that Paige not only sees Elizabeth snap into action with her own eyes, but that what brings it about is so random. Elizabeth, as we’ve seen several times over the years, always errs on the side of caution, which very often results in someone dying — even if they didn’t especially have to.
Cutting off a potential fire by snuffing it out completely is the safer option, but also a horrifying one for Paige to have to grapple with. Maybe she bought the "we’re trying to make the world a better place" line before, but I have a feeling this encounter will leave her second guessing.
This is The Americans going for something other than nail-biting drama
Libby Nelson: I get the feeling I liked "Dinner for Seven" the most of any of the three of us. The plot wasn’t entirely cohesive, but the different strands were striking enough to make up for it.
I’d worried that with the loss of Nina and Martha and Gaad, The Americans was quickly running through characters I care about viscerally. Yet I just felt so awful for Young Hee’s poor husband, Don — who will carry a lot of guilt around for the rest of his life about something he never even did, for a mission that we’re not sure even succeeded.
As for the dinner party, I sometimes just enjoy it when The Americans plays in a key other than nail-biting drama and makes me laugh while covering my eyes in horror. If nothing else, the scene served as a reminder that although the threat from Pastor Tim and Alice might be a little less acute than in the recent past, introducing the two outside characters who know Philip and Elizabeth’s secret to the character who could immediately act on it still scales up the menace.
One of the most interesting moments of the episode arrived when Paige started reeling off the intel she’d picked up from Matthew Beeman. She’s inherited her mother’s skill of channeling her real feelings into a cover story, and of getting people to open up.
Given that, I’m not yet sure how she’s going to react to her mother knifing someone in front of her in self-defense.
Caroline: Oh, Elizabeth for sure is going to play up the self-defense angle. I’m not confident it will convince Paige she didn’t overreact, but that’s Elizabeth’s safest play: "I know how to defend myself in case someone attacks me."
However, now that we've seen Paige learn how to effectively spy, I'm thinking the end of this season will have her taking matters into her own hands, or at least investigating her parents beyond their word. She’s too smart not to see the cracks in their story at this point.
There is definitely something interesting in how "Dinner for Seven" ends on Paige learning that her mother is capable of murder while Elizabeth grapples with the significance of "killing off" Patty, her alter ego who became such fast friends with Young Hee. Paige has no idea of just how far her parents go to do their jobs. Murder is almost just the tip of the iceberg.
Libby: I found what Elizabeth and Philip did to Don almost unbearable to watch — more disturbing than the two bare-handed murders we've witnessed. The only analogue I could think of was the death of the old woman in the warehouse where Mail Robot was repaired. And then a reference to her turned up in this episode, via Aderholt flagging her death as unusual!
Caroline: The way season four keeps bringing in threads I thought were surely left behind in previous seasons is so smart.
It not only reminds us that everything has consequences, but it makes the "walls closing in" sentiment so much more urgent. How many bodies can possibly pile up before someone finds Philip and Elizabeth at the bottom of them all?
In that vein, one thing I especially appreciated about "Dinner for Seven" was the way it reminded us that Stan’s had a rough go of it this season, too. Bodies and mysteries are piling up all around him, and for a great detective, his inability to solve them is becoming more frustrating than he can bear.
Noah Emmerich is so consistently good in what’s often a lower-key role that I sometimes forget just how good he is. But in that scene with Oleg (Costa Ronin, also excellent as always), Emmerich laid Stan’s exhaustion bare. It was like his very face was too tired to keep up.
As Stan talked to Oleg about why he didn’t want to keep meeting and exploiting him anymore, he was steadily wilting — a fact that didn’t escape Oleg.
How The Americans predicts late-'80s global geopolitics
Todd: One of the things that's been so interesting about this season is the way it's portraying the gradual softening between the US and USSR in the '80s, which eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The characters are all slowly realizing how much they've lost, how much more they stand to lose, and how much more they have in common than they don't. Now that Paige's safety and the wholeness of her family is on the line, even Elizabeth seems to be longing for something more stable than she's had.
That's probably the right move for a story that will be hard-pressed to end in anything but tragedy. The characters might wish for a different life, but there's so much water under the bridge.
Caroline: That could be why Stan’s "[the Soviets] are animals" line was a little confusing to me in the context of this episode.
On the one hand, yes, of course Stan is furious about Gaad’s nonsensical death. On the other, he immediately goes straight to Oleg and essentially tells him he cares too much to try to bring him in, as he’s supposed to do.
But maybe that was the point. Stan can hate the Soviet Union for all the damage it’s caused his country and his co-workers, but he can’t turn off his feelings completely. It’s one of The Americans' greatest truths and tragedies that everyone is coming to learn it’s a lot easier to hate an entire country in the abstract than a single person you’ve come to know and care for.
Todd: The Soviets are monsters in aggregate, just as the Americans are monsters in aggregate. But on an individual level, most of them are fine. Stan has great relationships with many of them!
There's something in this episode about how turning people into a collective makes it that much harder to do good, but I'm not sure it's as fully expressed as it could have been.
Caroline: As interesting as it was to watch them play off each other, Elizabeth and Pastor Tim had one too many scenes to that effect.
Libby: Stan doesn't have a lot of friends, and he’s lost two — Gaad and Amador — directly to the Soviets. Plus Martha’s defection, plus the end of his marriage (which I’m pretty sure he attributes to stress over the Soviets, even if that’s not the full story). … Honestly, the man is a model of restraint.
Except, of course, for that one time he blew off the back of Vlad’s head. When he cut off contact with Oleg because he didn’t want anyone else’s death on his hands, I wonder just how literal his fears were. Guilt — over the deaths you cause directly, or the ones you cause inadvertently, or the ones you just make up, like "Patty’s" — turned up over and over again this week.
It also feels like the characters' lives are growing more interwoven. Philip reports a stray remark from Stan that could have led to Gaad’s death. Paige finds out about Martha, sort of, from Matthew Beeman. Stan meets Pastor Tim and Alice.
As Caroline said, the walls are closing in.
Todd: I remember what a hugely thrilling moment it was in the season two finale, when Philip found Arkady in public and offered a hushed threat through clenched teeth about what would happen if the Center tried to recruit Paige. The show's worlds had never collided like that before.
And now, it's happening with greater and greater speed, all of these little spheres crashing into each other.
It reminds me, in some ways, of the way that increased global interconnectedness has made us all more dependent on preserving some sort of stabilized world order. If things go wrong halfway around the world, they'll surely be going wrong here before too long, just because of how we've structured our global systems.
The Americans encapsulates this idea in microcosm. Elizabeth tells Paige that the most important thing to her is keeping their family together — and Paige almost believes it — and then the "something wrong" is right there, to disrupt everything, and disintegrate the world out from under them.
The Americans just got a two-season renewal (yay), so the story obviously has somewhere to go from here. But I'm terrified to think of where that somewhere might be.
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