clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Americans season 4, episode 8: this is one of the best TV episodes of the year

New, 9 comments

A terrific hour brings every storyline to a head, then blows up the show.

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 tremendous episode in a tremendous season

The Americans
Paige goes mini-golfing. It's fraught with tension.
FX

Todd VanDerWerff: "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears" is one of the best episodes The Americans has ever produced.

When we look back on this show in the decades to come, thinking about its finest hours, I can't help but imagine that we'll revisit many moments from this episode, from that nearly wordless, heart-rending prologue to that scene where Philip and Elizabeth argue about est but aren't really arguing about est; from the look of relief on Matthew Rhys's face when Gabriel grants Philip and Elizabeth a reprieve to the graceful transition from now to "7 months later," which overcame the potential hackiness of a time jump.

Mostly, though, I think we'll recall how keyed-in Rhys and Keri Russell — who have been moving on parallel tracks all season and haven't really interacted until now — were during this episode, which amounts to one long fight between them. It nods toward "Whitecaps," one of the best Sopranos episodes ever, but it adds its own Americans-ish twist. This is a fight Philip and Elizabeth needed to have; it's the fight they've always been having.

If I believed the Emmys ever paid attention to The Americans, "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears" would win multiple awards. Even Rhys's direction was beautifully understated, and that opening prologue allowed the show to indulge in the sorts of wide shots it rarely uses. For a little bit, the world of The Americans opened up, and it only felt more confining.

I could gush. I will gush. But what did the two of you think?

Libby Nelson: Todd, you’ve watched far, far more TV than I have, so I’m wondering: Is The Americans really on a historically unrivaled hot streak of episodes right now, or does it just feel that way in the moment? I can’t think of a serious wrong note or a clunker plot line since the final episodes of the second season.

But if I had a single critique of season three, it’s that it felt a bit too well-oiled; I didn’t believe the most dire threats were real because making good on them would require too much of a structural shakeup.

That’s one reason that season four, and particularly this episode, has been so exciting: This season has subverted our expectations over and over.

Martha, against all my predictions, seems to be en route to the Soviet Union alive and well, (where I desperately hope we haven’t seen the last of her; if Nina’s story continued once she got back to Russia, why couldn’t Martha’s?). And after eight episodes spread over about 10 incredibly tense days that had me convinced Stan was minutes away from closing in on his neighbors, we got that jarring seven-month time jump.

Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship has been endlessly fascinating and compelling to me since the pilot, so of course this episode, which finally solidified a bunch of subtext as text, was riveting.

We’ve talked about the season one echoes we’re starting to hear, and so naturally the memory of the long-dead Gregory was going to come back; the past is never totally in the past in a relationship, and it’s never in the past on The Americans, either. But I wonder where the story is headed now that so many relationships on the show — Clark and Martha, Nina and Stan — have been pared away.

A TV show can only have a season like this once it's laid the groundwork

The Americans
Philip checks the blood on Elizabeth's neck. Aw.
FX

Caroline Framke: This season of The Americans has brought my heart into my throat more than ever before. It seems significant that it’s also the season with the fewest spy missions have unfolded onscreen. Everything is personal, intimate, costly in a way that wreaks mental havoc on everyone involved.

This is exactly the kind of season a TV show can do once it’s laid serious groundwork, stacking and restacking storylines and characters and tension like blocks in a Jenga tower; at some point the tower is still standing, but you know it can’t hold out for long.

It’s not like we couldn’t have seen at least some of this coming; The Americans has laid clues since the very beginning that Philip constantly questions his line of work, that he respects the hell out of Elizabeth while simultaneously fearing her strict ideology. We’ve seen Elizabeth swallow her feelings and forge ahead, because she has to, because that's what she's done since she was a girl, taking care of her dying mother.

Narratively speaking, "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears" is brilliant in the way it essentially turns Martha’s absence into another character, lurking in the corner of every conversation. She’s there as Philip sleepwalks through his life, as Elizabeth struggles to support him and keep herself together, as Stan grapples with the reality that he gotten so close to the truth, again, and failed, again.

Like Todd, I was also struck by Rhys’s direction. My favorite subtleties were probably the slow push in on Elizabeth at est, in and then the slow zoom out on Elizabeth after Philip and Gabriel leave the safe house. In those moments, Rhys manages to make everything feel intimate and distant, all at once.

Todd: That opening sequence was beautifully filmed, too, with lots of shots emphasizing tiny pinpricks of light amid the enormous dark. It was all completely logical — it felt, to me, like leaving for the airport at 4 am — but it also emphasized how swallowed up Philip feels inside.

But I'd also stump for the "everybody watches David Copperfield" sequence. I sometimes think about TV shows in terms of which images I'll remember most, and I think I could make a strong case for that wide shot of the whole Jennings family watching TV, Paige looking devastated, Elizabeth putting on a happy face, Philip looking like he's about to cry, and Henry (poor Henry!) just loving every minute of it.

Caroline: That was actually the one scene that felt too cheesy for me. I think it devoted too much time to watching the actual television; it's a little on-the-nose for a show that usually prefers to drop a prescient piece of information and keep moving.

Then again, I loved the scene at est where a guy yells about "loving your own prison" in Elizabeth’s general direction, so maybe I’m just splitting hairs, here.

Libby: I’m really torn on that scene! It felt a little too on-the-nose for me too — mitigated somewhat by the fact that the David Copperfield special itself went there in terms of the metaphor of disappearing liberty — but I think I’m coming around on it because it has some thematic resonances with the rest of The Americans' story, particularly as it pertains to Paige and Martha. Something can seem real and solid, then suddenly vanish out from under you.

The story shifts its focus back to Paige

The Americans
Gabriel and Claudia have a long-needed chat.
FX

Caroline: At the very least, this gives me a solid segue to Paige, whose story mostly takes place off screen but is still really important to the episode.

All season, we’ve been witnessing how hard it is for Philip and Elizabeth to maintain their relationships with their "agents" — or "assets," or whatever you want to call. The challenge is to keep those relationships at a level where they don’t get sucked into actually caring about the other person. In "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears," Philip says goodbye to Martha, and Elizabeth kills Lisa rather than try to figure out a different solution. She also mentions Gregory’s name for the first time since he died in season one. The episode serves as the final admission from all involved parties that Philip and Elizabeth are caving under the pressure.

In the middle of all this, Paige is learning how to keep valuable people close, even when you don’t want to. It’s a horrific transition, made even worse by Paige’s resigned acceptance that hey, this is just her life now.

Holly Taylor makes a brilliant choice in that final post-time-jump sequence; her weary, deadpan delivery of Paige’s tortured answers relays everything we need to understand about what her life has been like for the past seven months, even though we won’t ever get to see.

Libby: I’ve assumed the conflict of whether Philip and Elizabeth were going to recruit Paige would come around again eventually. Now I realize it’s almost a moot point: She might not be doing anything to advance the cause beyond trying to limit the damage she caused by telling Pastor Tim her parents' secret, but in doing so, she’s become an agent herself, with assets of her own she has to learn to manage.

That scene between Elizabeth and Paige was great, by the way, in part because it illustrated that being a spy sometimes just means dialing the contradictions and complexity of adulthood up to 11. I’ll admit I nodded when Elizabeth told Paige it was what she did, not how she felt, that mattered.

Todd: First of all, I can't believe either of you would find that scene with David Copperfield "cheesy." It is ​iconic​ is what it is. ​Iconic​.

I mean, yes, it is the opposite of subtle. But I think The Americans occasionally earns a little non-subtlety, and I liked how something Copperfield meant as a cheesy political statement was explicitly recodified as one about personal freedom.

Whether you're capitalist or communist, American or Soviet, your own freedom can be infringed upon by multiple parties — including yourself. We sometimes make ourselves less free by fetishizing our own freedom, for instance.

And there's something brittle about Paige now. ​Could​ Philip and Elizabeth bring her in to the Center? Quite possibly. But I think we're seeing why her long-ago analogue — that kid who snapped and killed his family — eventually did just what he did. This is far too much emotional stress to place on a teenager, even one as nominally put together and self-assured as Paige.

And one subtle thing that final scene does is contrast Stan and Paige's reactions to the new status quo. As Gaad gets ready to leave (the show forever?!) and Stan mulls this idea of recruiting Oleg (something I've been waiting for for ages), we also observe Paige, the least "free" of any of these characters, working Pastor Tim and Alice. The show is doing something by paralleling her with Stan, but I hesitate to define it just yet.

Caroline: There’s something in the fact that both Stan and Paige are carrying enormous burdens, and don't have a whole lot of outlets for releasing that stress. Stan definitely has an upper hand, here; he has Gaad, and has been an FBI agent for a long time. But Paige has ​no one​ except her parents to talk to — which, as we saw when Elizabeth finally just let her have it, isn’t ideal.

Elizabeth and Philip have each other. Philip has est, and Elizabeth is treating Young Hee as a real friend — which I’m sure won’t end well, but for now, is helping her get some space from her job. Paige literally only has this secret. I’d bet this season doesn’t end well for her.

Libby: Philip and Elizabeth have now both killed someone in the spur of the moment essentially with their bare hands, and yet what I’m hung up on right now is the emotional toll of their job on the people they leave alive.

The dead rat in the bottle last week feels like it’s a metaphor for everyone on The Americans right now: They’re all some degree of trapped, from Gabriel and Claudia on down, but Paige and Martha’s situations feel particularly poignant because they're both totally isolated and have largely been deprived of agency.

Paige has nowhere to turn for support, and no good options to get herself out of the situation she’s in. It’s heartbreaking, and even though I’ve never found Paige to be the show's most interesting character, I’m very worried about her.

Speaking of people I’m very worried about: The return — and death — of Lisa doesn’t seem to presage anything good for Young Hee. That situation has been a very slow-burn, but at some point it’s going to have to ignite, right?

Caroline: I would think so, especially since we were treated to that adorable scene of Young Hee and Elizabeth sneaking back into movies (The Outsiders!) in the same episode that we saw Elizabeth viciously kill another one of her agents.

As an immediate juxtaposition, it offers a pretty bleak outlook. Even as Elizabeth ensures Young Hee that mixing business with pleasure is okay sometimes, she’s doing the same thing, and in a way, that will likely have far worse consequences than recruiting someone to Mary Kay.

Todd: If I had one complaint about this episode, it was Claudia; it feels as if she's being shoehorned into episodes now, just to remind us she exists. I loved this character in season one, but the show has grown past her now, especially if Margo Martindale can't be a more regular presence on the show.

Caroline: I loved that scene, but again, it happened because things have gotten so bad that even ​Gabriel​ needs a release. Claudia’s about the only person who could’ve been the sounding board for his particular frustration.

Todd: That's maybe the real lesson of this episode. You can take a break. You can hop across time (through a well-placed edit). But you can never entirely escape your worst problems, because they're often a product of your own making. No matter how far you run, you can never get away from yourself.

Programming note: Comments are open below! I (Todd) will be dropping in throughout the day to chat about this episode with you. Please join our fun!

Read our thoughts on last week's episode.