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.
Once again, everything is tantalizingly close to (literally) blowing up
Todd: Supposedly there are 24 episodes of The Americans left after "A Roy Rogers in Franconia." Supposedly.
I say this because by the end of the hour, Stan and the FBI know William's identity (thanks to Oleg's tip), and they're about to close in on everybody's favorite cranky spy. Meanwhile, William, let's remember, knows what Philip calls himself, and given Stan's suspicions of his neighbors from back in season one, it shouldn't be too tough to guide his suspicions back in that direction.
So the noose is tightening more precipitously than it ever has before, and in this instance, the KGB seemingly has no idea. They're sending William out for One Last Mission, without realizing that he's been completely compromised.
But that's not the most important thing about this episode. The most important thing about this episode is: Why is Paige wearing a shirt with a rainbow bowling ball comet on it?
Libby: The noose is even tighter than that. Philip is actually heading out to meet William at the end of the episode — making it the first time I’ve actually yelled at my television this season: Don’t walk out that door! Don’t keep that meeting! (I believe this is what is formally known in the business as "dramatic irony.")
I always thought Stan catching on to Philip and Elizabeth would happen near the end of the series, but especially given Stan’s emotional arc this season, I’m now expecting he’ll find out sooner than that, and we’ll get to see what Stan does with that information.
Of course, the last time I thought the FBI was inches away from the Jenningses, we got a seven-month time jump instead.
After Nina’s death, I thought I'd stop caring about the Rezidentura storyline. But Oleg and his relationship with Stan have become increasingly compelling to me: He’s the closest, via his father, to the actual power structure in the USSR, and he seems to be the character this season who’s increasingly doubting that the emperor has clothes.
If the bioweapons plot line seemed symbolically freighted in the first half of the season for the show’s very human stakes — a metaphor for all the ways secrecy and intimacy interconnect in destructive and explosive ways — it’s turned out to illuminate the global stakes as well. First William and now Oleg have suggested they don’t trust their government with this stuff, and not because of its intentions but because of its basic (lack of) competency.
I’ve doubted before whether Stan is as good at his job as he is devoted to it, but he made all the right moves with Oleg. It makes me wonder if even his move to end their relationship in episode 11 might have been not to avoid getting blood on his hands, but to shore up Oleg’s trust of him. If so, it paid off.
Caroline: I rarely know with Philip and Elizabeth whether they’re fully tricking someone or revealing a real side of themselves, but with Stan, I’ve never had a doubt that what you see is what you get. Yes, he’s done extensive undercover work, but there’s always been a heavy exhaustion when it comes to Stan. He’s tired of chasing spies, he’s tired of being behind, he’s tired of being impotent at home, he’s just plain tired.
That said, the FBI stepped it up this week after circling drains for months — or, as they discovered to their horror, years. Without knowing that it was going to come up again, I recently rewatched "Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?" — the Emmy-nominated episode in which Philip and Elizabeth placed the bug the FBI finally found in "A Roy Rogers in Franconia" — and it was such a gorgeous episode that there’s something even more satisfying about that storyline coming back in such a significant way.
And, hey, the FBI did its homework. This really is the biggest, most concrete lead Stan and company have had throughout this entire series. It’s just too bad Gaad isn’t here to see it.
But even while a part of me, like Libby, was wondering if Stan was playing Oleg by sending him away, I really think this incredible goldmine of a scoop was more due to Oleg’s choice than any victory on Stan’s part.
Todd: The great thing about the Oleg storyline is that you're not sure who holds the power, or who's playing whom, or what. In fact, the answer is probably just that both Oleg and Stan want to stop some sort of global biochemical war. Which is a good thing to try to do!
In that way, it reminds me of the weirdo Paige/Matthew plot line, in which it's not clear just what Paige's motivations with this boy are. Is she working him? Trying to manipulate him? Does she like him? All of the above?
The Americans' most rewarding stories are the ones where the characters have these incredibly intricate power differentials between them, which run in all sorts of directions.
Oleg and Stan are theoretically equals, and the playing field between them is "even," but both hold cards they can't show the other, and the choice of who plays which card, and when, is always on their minds.
Meanwhile, Matthew thinks he's enjoying an innocent teen flirtation, but really he's in a relationship fraught with, like, global political ramifications. It's kind of hilarious! A teen romance that really could mean the end of the world!
Caroline: I'm on board, as long as we can agree that Paige/Matthew’s 'ship name has to be "Spy Kids."
Paige developing her own spy techniques has only made her relationship with Elizabeth more fascinating
Libby: I’m not sure even Paige knows what her ultimate goal is in her interactions with Matthew, but I find this plot line weirdly compelling. First of all, we get Paige as a bit of a master manipulator, which isn’t necessarily a surprise but certainly isn’t something I would have seen coming a season or so ago.
Then there’s Elizabeth’s reaction to it. Remember when Elizabeth thought recruiting Paige to work for the Center was a great idea? Now she’s trying as hard as she can to keep Paige from turning a friend into an asset.
And then we get the ongoing contrast between Matthew and Henry’s respective cluelessness and Paige, who figured out something was up ages ago and is now in deeply over her head.
It’s funny, but when I think about it seriously, I’m not surprised that she’s clued into family dynamics in a way that neither of the boys are; you’re allowed to have a certain level of obliviousness as a teen boy that anyone who grew up as a girl can’t imagine.
One thing that makes Philip such an excellent spy is how attuned he is to others’ emotions, and one of the intriguing things about Stan is how he can combine great international intelligence instincts (see: Oleg) with very little emotional intelligence whatsoever (see: his marriage).
Caroline: Every single one of Paige’s conversations with Elizabeth has been fascinating, but the ones throughout this episode were especially so. And I have to say, Paige’s reaction surprised me a little. Yeah, she was freaked out by seeing Elizabeth instinctively kill a guy, but she also parlayed that knowledge into better understanding what her parents actually do.
Even if she didn’t fully realize what she was doing — though at this point, I think it’s becoming a little condescending to say so — Paige handled that situation masterfully. The Center would be lucky to have her.
Paige and Elizabeth's relationship rings so intensely true to me. They’re so different on the surface but so alike in temperament that they can’t help but bond, even when neither of them wants to acknowledge that similarity in the other. For as wild as their lives are, theirs is one of the best depictions of a tense but ultimately loving mother/daughter relationship I’ve seen on television pretty much ever.
And Paige called out Elizabeth for exactly the right thing: talking around the truth. Elizabeth was doing her best spy damage control, and it was still no match for Paige’s stubbornness. If nothing else, surely Elizabeth can find something to admire in that.
Libby: I agree that Paige is absolutely, consciously working Matthew, though I suspect she’s also just interested in him; I think she’s also seeking some feeling of control over the situation, and developing an asset of her own is a way to go about that.
Maybe Elizabeth can see herself in Paige — stubborn, uncompromising, a true believer, albeit in a different belief system — and that’s what’s making her uncomfortable. It’s one thing to think of your daughter in the abstract as a resource for the motherland, and another to confront the messy reality of her following in your footsteps and taking up your line of work, even if only a G-rated version.
Caroline: There’s no good option here, no matter how vehemently Philip insists that Paige never has to worry about developing assets on her parents' behalf. (Though I agree with him that Pastor Tim/Alice is a totally different situation because, you know, they know.)
Whatever happens here, Paige either remains an asset, becomes a full-fledged agent, or, in the worst-case scenario, is shipped off to Russia to become someone else’s problem. Or dies. Who knows! I certainly don’t, and there’s only one episode in the season left to go.
Todd: Also, Gabriel had to sit down on the stairs, and that was rough. (No, seriously, it was rough.)
Libby: That seemed like some pretty heavy foreshadowing. Maybe it was weighing on his shoulders.
Caroline: Gabriel is very good at his job, but with all the talk of endings and having enough, I suspect he’s not far from his own conclusive moment.
Let’s not forget that conversation he had with Claudia, where he was more honest than we’d ever seen him, and it was all to say that his agents are children and he’s sick to death of placating them.
And lest we all forget: This season of The Americans is playing with not just fire but bioweapons
Todd: I want to pivot off Gabriel's crushing sorrow to talk a little bit about the season's central idea: connections and the lack thereof. Biological weapons, as we've explored, exploit our connections; that's why people like William or Gabriel, who are functionally connectionless, are ideal candidates to be dealing with them. But every glimpse we get of their lives seems so utterly devoid of anything but loneliness.
Libby: Longing for a connection, in contrast, is as dangerous as being a brilliant Russian scientist with no resources. Philip and Elizabeth benefit from their own connections, but even more at reading others’ loneliness. It’s what drew Martha into her marriage with Clark, and it’s what helped lure William into his One Final Mission that seems poised to go disastrously wrong.
Todd: I don't think The Americans is going in for that old Hollywood chestnut of, "Your work might seem more pressing, but it's your family that needs you most," but it's in that ballpark. This is not a series that goes in for showy direction, but shortly before Oleg is about to go and make his deal with Stan, there's a quick wide shot of him standing in front of a mural of Lenin, with the Glorious Leader facing one way and Oleg another. It foreshadows what he does, but it also suggests something at the show's core: Connections are more important than causes, and the worst thing you could do is exploit them.
Just look at how quickly the show shrugged off global thermonuclear war! Biological warfare is The Americans' kryptonite, because biological warfare is the only thing that could eat away at that which makes Philip and Elizabeth stronger: each other.
It's a nifty trick the show has pulled this late in its run. After all those seasons where it seemed like our super spies were less super because of the genuine love they'd found for each other, we're now in a place where the thing that might keep them safe and happy is just that.
Allegiance to a country just leaves you sad and alone. Allegiance to a friend, or a lover, or a family member ... that gives you a fighting chance. And that might be worth remembering as the series heads toward what looks like its endgame.