Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski, and staff writer Caroline Framke talk about “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” the fourth episode of season five.
Caroline Framke: In an episode that features Philip and Elizabeth launching new honeypot operations, Paige flexing her spy muscles in Pastor Tim’s house (welcome back, Pastor Tim!), Stan essentially blackmailing the FBI, and Mischa making it to New York(!), there was one simple thing I couldn’t stop thinking about.
In “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” food was everywhere and nowhere, desperately desired and carelessly wasted. When Henry gets annoyed with his parents, he tosses his untouched toast into the garbage. A sad shot of peeling cans in the Soviet Union cuts to Elizabeth luring in her mark at a Kansas health food store, spilling carob all over the floor. As Alexei bitterly complains that his family doesn’t appreciate the bounty they have in America, Philip’s lip curls just enough to let us know he’s thinking about the crisis back home, and the role his drinking buddy might be playing in it.
I’m glad The Americans is tackling the food crisis of this era in Soviet history. Throughout this episode, I just kept thinking of my grandmother’s cousin, who was the head of obstetrics at a Soviet hospital. When she was finally able to visit us in New Jersey in the early ’90s, a trip to the grocery store ended with her hyperventilating and fainting at the sight of the shelves full of food. Even she, a woman in a highly privileged position, had no access to food — let alone what we strolled by on a daily basis without a second thought.
The prospect of starvation is a suffocating, personal plight. So while The Americans has sometimes grown more abstract in terms of its bigger picture, seeing these horrors on a more intimate level is crucial to conveying the scope of the crisis Philip and Elizabeth are tackling.
It’s also definitely not a coincidence that the prospect of starving civilians is dovetailing now with some of the most verbalized moral quandaries we’ve maybe ever seen on The Americans. Stan and Oleg are especially blatant in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”; both men are trying to do what Oleg calls “the decent thing,” only to be told that “the decent thing is what’s best for our country,” no ifs, ands, or buts.
But there’s a lot happening in this episode. Outside of flinching when Henry’s jam toast hit the garbage, what struck you two the most while watching?
Genevieve: I’ll throw in a couple more subtle nods to this episode’s thematic fixation on our food and where it comes from: Mischa is smuggled out of the country inside an empty refrigerator, and when Elizabeth returns home from her first trip to Kansas, she joins Philip on the couch in front of a nature documentary showing footage of bees pollinating plants and making honey.
That second image in particular functions as a bit of a dual metaphor, as our intrepid spies have been busy little bees of late, to the point where they’re feeling stretched so thin that they try to beg off their Kansas honeypot mission (holy crap, there’s a THIRD nod to the bees) when Gabriel presents it to them. But is that really the impetus behind Philip and Elizabeth’s timid suggestion that traveling to and from Kansas on a regular basis might be too much on top of all their other spy duties, not to mention their domestic obligations? The Americans has previously touched on the idea that the Jenningses have too many balls in the air — that was a major component of Philip’s storyline last season — but this hesitation feels more born of Philip and Elizabeth’s strengthened connection, and a reluctance to introduce a new complicating factor into their marriage.
Think about it: With Martha out of their lives and Elizabeth’s Don mission wrapped, this is the first time in a while that the couple hasn’t been working a source, ahem, romantically. And, yeah, they’re professionals who can rub their thumbs and forefingers together if things get too heavy, but there’s no way having a pretend romantic relationship on the side doesn’t take some sort of toll on a marriage, particularly if one of the romancers actually kinda likes the mark in question.
Todd VanDerWerff: PASTOR TIMMMMMMMMM!
Okay, maybe Pastor Tim doesn't deserve the full Martha treatment, but I was weirdly glad to see him, handing off his note-covered copy of Karl Marx's Capital with a shrug about how Marx might have been wrong about religion but he got a lot of things right about class and poverty.
I wouldn't say Pastor Tim is one of my favorite characters or anything, but I like the way his mere existence constantly confounds both The Americans' characters and the show’s own setup (by design). This is a show about how often we let ideology trump humanity, and it's subtly making that point again via the food shortages storyline: Does it matter how the food shortages happened when the immediate problem is that a lot of people aren't getting enough to eat? Shouldn't our common humanity suggest that the most important thing is banding together to find a solution?
That's the point of view Pastor Tim represents, more or less. He's the best kind of Christian, one who makes the world a better place by trying to find ways to help his fellow humans. He didn't even write in his diary what he knows of the Jenningses' big secret, so far as Paige could tell. And yet here's Elizabeth suggesting that maybe Pastor Tim could be flipped, could become an asset. It's an interesting idea, don't you think?
"What's the Matter with Kansas?" is a deceptively simple episode that reveals layers of complexity in its last act. There's little of the "WE'RE NEARING THE END!" table setting that defined the season's first couple of hours (though Stan's callback to shooting the KGB agent in season one was a reminder of just how much history The Americans has built up since then), nor a set piece as memorable as the visit to the lab in "The Midges." But there was that lovely and lonely little scene at the end, Philip and Elizabeth in bed, with her reasserting her deep love for him by pointing out that she believes her new mark is trying actively to destroy the Soviet Union, and Philip by implication is not — just as he's beginning to have his doubts.
But what I really want to know is what's up with Renée, Stan's new girlfriend. My bet? Mossad.
Genevieve: We’ll get back to Renée — or will we?? — but I don’t want to move on from that final scene just yet. Philip and Elizabeth discussing her second trip to Kansas to go hiking with her bird-watching, gorp-making mark Ben was my favorite moment of this episode, and so much more emotionally and thematically loaded than it appears on the surface.
Ben seems like a pretty good dude, and Elizabeth as Brenda (wearing what may be her VERY BEST disguise ever) seems genuinely into him — which is heavily contrasted by Philip’s wet squib of an advance on his mark, Deirdre. Philip seems to sense this as they talk, perhaps because he recognizes some of his old feelings for Martha in Elizabeth — “You like him,” he says knowingly, perhaps a little sadly.
But then here comes Elizabeth with the twist: “I have to sit there with him while he makes his jokes — the guy’s laughing while he’s trying to starve an entire country.” Turns out Elizabeth despises Ben because of what he represents, a revelation that gives Philip, and perhaps us, pause. It was so easy to believe Elizabeth might be letting herself fall a bit for Ben; that would certainly be in keeping with the type of complications The Americans likes to throw at its central couple. But even if that might be the case, Elizabeth is so reliably staunch in her beliefs that that line will never blur for her the way it blurred for Philip with Martha.
Caroline: I loved that final moment so much. Something that “What’s the Matter with Kansas” does really well is keep Elizabeth’s time in Kansas completely separate from her time back home in Virginia — a deliberate choice on her part. That way, neither we nor Philip know how she truly feels about it, and it’s easy to get sucked into the casual romance of a tall lumberjack bringing Elizabeth on a scenic hike that ends with making out by firelight.
But as Elizabeth reminds Philip, she’s doing this mission both because she believes in it and because she’s furious. She only just recently narrowed her eyes at that squirrelly lab technician and sneered that he “should’ve asked” what he was creating wheat-destroying bugs for, before shoving him into Philip’s murderous arms. So, yeah, she likes spending time with Ben fine enough. But that’s not going to change how she feels about what he’s doing, not now, not ever.
Philip, meanwhile … woof. I cringed for him when he asked his mark to take out her headphones and make time for him while she’s exercising — never do this, men! — and even more at his clumsy attempts to make small talk. Part of me dearly hopes he’s barking up a lesbian tree (that has to have happened at least once in his decades of spying, right?), but my guess is that his heart just isn’t in this one.
Just so I don’t write 1,500 words about Elizabeth’s acid-wash jeans, though, I’m gonna pivot this discussion in Stan and Oleg’s direction. Their storylines have continued to intertwine in unusual ways, even though they’re thousands of miles apart. Their mind melding would be kind of sweet if the subject matter weren’t so awful. How did the ongoing FBI/Kremlin business strike you, Todd?
Todd: I was in favor of Stan's blackmail via threatening to take his story of killing a KGB agent to every newspaper in the country, even if his optimism in journalism seems a little naive to me at the moment.
But it's Oleg who currently seems nearer and dearer to The Americans' heart, with his mother's chilling insistence that he do whatever it takes to survive, and his slow realization of the levels of corruption within Soviet society that are choking the food supply. Oleg has often been the show's most pragmatic character. He subscribes to certain ideologies, of course, but he's also willing to bend if doing so helps him or one of his friends.
This is what makes it fascinating to have him be the one uncovering Soviet corruption — theoretically, he would understand, but his pragmatism means he can only see what's wrong with the system. It's at once a new layer to his character and something that fits completely with what we know about him. That's tough to do after five seasons.
If there's something I'm not quite sure of when it comes to season five, it's that The Americans is spinning far more plates than it usually does already. (Did we ever find out what was up with the meeting with Henry's teacher? Also, can we start calling him Tall Henry?) This show is great when it sets its plot lines on collision courses, and I'm thrilled that Mischa is already in New York (watching him traverse Europe could have been a snooze). But I'm also wondering how all these disparate pieces are going to start looking like a full picture.
(And, yes, Elizabeth's Topeka disguise is the best Elizabeth disguise there has ever been and ever will be.)
Genevieve: I’m holding out hope that Tall Henry’s appearances — and disappearances — so far this season will lead to something big involving the youngest Jennings. “What’s the Matter with Kansas” puts a lot of effort into making us wonder just what is up with Henry, from the mysterious meeting with the teacher to who he’s talking to on the phone all the time to why he can’t just buy his own damn Apple Jacks.
Given the kid’s recent growth spurt, the obvious answer is “puberty,” but I think there’s something more percolating. Paige has been such a huge concern for both her parents and the series’ writers for the past couple seasons, it would make sense that terminally overlooked Henry might be getting into something when his parents and sister are otherwise occupied.
As for how things may play out with Henry, I’ll just put this out there for us to mull: Mischa arrives at JFK Airport at the end of this episode, only a couple hundred miles away from his unsuspecting father and oblivious half-brother. It seems rather pointed that Philip’s two sons are both such mysteries to him at the moment, and it makes me wonder what might happen when one of those mysteries finally reveals himself.
Todd: Yet even as The Americans is keeping us wondering what's up with Henry and Mischa, it's doing wonders of displaying exactly what's happening with Paige, who is either a dangerously reckless loose cannon or some sort of spy savant who's inherited all her parents' skills. You can easily see her becoming someone who combines Elizabeth's ruthlessness with Philip's innate empathy, which could make for a very effective spy. Or you could see her exposing her parents through a stupid, rash choice.
This, of course, makes sense, because Paige is a teenager — she's still all potential, and some of that potential is good and some of it is bad. Her parents are obviously hoping the former will prevail. But I was fascinated, throughout the episode, by The Americans’ use of cross-cutting between completely different storylines to heighten the tension in both, and I think it's telling that we cut between Elizabeth making out with Ben and Paige finding Pastor Tim's diary. Both are making choices less with their heads than with their hearts (that heart always leading both homeward — whatever that means), and I've never felt more like Paige is Elizabeth's daughter. That's both kinda sweet and deeply horrifying.
Caroline: When Elizabeth told Philip about Paige’s snooping, I knew we wouldn’t get to the end of the scene without her admitting that Paige might’ve been onto something.
As reluctant as both Philip and Elizabeth have been to bring their daughter deeper into their world, Elizabeth has always regarded Paige with a slight, satisfied smile. She knows Paige is smart; she knows what her daughter could be capable of.
The question is, would finding out be the decent thing to do?
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can keep up with our coverage of this season here.