Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski and staff writers Caroline Framke and Dara Lind take on “Crossbreed,” the sixth episode of season five.
Caroline Framke: The Americans has never let anyone run too far from their past without letting that past catch up to them eventually. Even if they think they’ve buried that shit deep, it always finds a way to bubble up, to catch them off guard.
Elizabeth might roll her eyes at the psychiatrist telling her that barreling through pain isn’t actually dealing with it, but just the sight of a Mary Kay rep is enough to make her face crumble at the memory of Young Hee, the friend she wronged so personally for a mission. And Philip, who’s been far more obviously haunted by his trauma in a way that even the Centre can’t ignore, now finds himself flashing back to the father he only barely knew.
I’ll be honest: I was getting pretty tired of every other scene on The Americans being Philip and Elizabeth turning on a tap and debriefing each other on something we’d literally just seen one of them do. So in that respect, “Crossbreed” was a welcome relief. It’s a pretty sedate hour, all things considered, but it’s intimate and revealing in a way I’ve been waiting for all season. From Elizabeth trying to find Young Hee to Gabriel telling Philip the truth about his father, everyone’s attempts to reconcile with their past failed big time. (The one telling exception here could be Oleg, who finally confronted his copy of the tape of him talking to Stan by burning it — to the tune of Peter Gabriel, no less.)
On a somewhat related note, can we also talk about how sad Gabriel is to leave? Because he’s probably still not as sad as I am to watch him go, which frankly kind of surprised me.
Genevieve Koski: Not going to lie, seeing Young Hee and family in flashback was only slightly less exciting to me than seeing Martha in that grocery store. I think the Young Hee/Don storyline last season was one of Elizabeth’s strongest, because it brought out her humanity and allowed her to connect with another person — if only temporarily — something we rarely get to see from the more stoic and resolute Jennings. I’m getting a similar vibe from Elizabeth’s relationship with Ben, which is a lot less fraught now that she knows he’s not trying to starve a country (and that he’s a really good tai chi instructor).
Of course, she is trying to steal his super-wheat, a pivot I found kind of hilarious in the moment when she and Gabriel immediately transitioned from lamenting that unlucky lab worker’s fate to plotting their new offense. It’s tempting to believe that Elizabeth might actually be developing an emotional connection to Ben — could this finally be the time she puts herself before her job and lets herself really connect to another human outside her family?
Probably not, but “Crossbreed” sure made me wish it were so. The episode did some very deft maneuvering around the professional/personal divide, most notably in the case of Gabriel’s departure — which, I agree, Caroline, hit me harder than I was expecting. What really sticks with me is that scene where he and Paige finally meet. Frank Langella sells the hell out of that moment with a single look that encapsulates the protective, paternal relationship he has with his charges … a relationship they’ll no longer be able to rely on.
“Crossbreed” makes no bones about the fact that Philip in particular is on thin ice with the Centre, and will always be on thin ice. Given the direction of this season so far, it seems Gabriel’s departure signals that perhaps the biggest threat to the Jenningses at this point isn’t external — Stan and the FBI are nowhere near them at this point — but rather internal.
Are we seeing the implosion of Directorate S? Or just the Jenningses?
Dara Lind: “You’ve done too much. You’ve seen too much.”
That line, spoken with infinite sadness by Gabriel as he tries to gently break the news to Elizabeth that she and Philip might never be allowed to go home themselves — or, at least, not in the way they’ve always imagined — was one of the most startling and scariest of the series, to my mind. Combined with Claudia’s hints last episode about problems with Philip’s “file,” it made me think, like Genevieve, that Directorate S itself might be the biggest threat to the Jenningses.
And I wonder if Gabriel’s sadness isn’t, in part, because he knows that. He has gone years without lying to his charges, or at least admitting to himself that he’s lying to them — he knows they are more volatile with other minders, and he seems to know they’ve already crossed some point of no return.
The Centre threatening to eat its own doesn’t necessarily mean it’s imploding. It is simply the way of the system. Past seasons of The Americans haven’t exactly been shy about showing us the brutality of the Soviet regime, but it feels like season five is getting a little bolder in indicting the Soviet Union as a whole for a pervasive and arbitrary cruelty. Philip and Elizabeth have managed to slough off Alexei’s incessant complaints about their country's human rights abuses, but it turns out in “Crossbreed” that Philip is all too aware of what the Soviet Union could do.
His revulsion when Gabriel tells him his father’s true profession, and the obvious inadequacy with which Gabriel tries to claim it was a different time — the constant revolutionary promise that today’s necessary brutality will magically go away tomorrow — was perhaps more surprising than it should be, given what we know of Philip’s politics and his ambivalence toward the job. But we also know that Philip has forgotten more than we can possibly know, of his own past and of everything he and Elizabeth have done in the years before we met them.
Philip could never be trusted with the psychiatrist assignment. But I wonder if even Elizabeth is strong enough to do what she’s being asked — you’re right, Caroline, that the Young Hee callback certainly implies she isn’t. But the strangest thing about this season has been how different its protagonists’ arcs have been; for all the debriefing about logistics, they seem to be going through their respective crises alone. Maybe I’m misreading this, and we’re just seeing a couple who’ve known each other for so long that they don’t need words to communicate. But Elizabeth telling Gabriel that Philip is fine — and then asking him, “Are you?” — makes me wonder what’s going on in the Jenningses’ marriage after all.
Caroline: It definitely didn't escape my notice how this episode juxtaposed the sun-dappled scene of Elizabeth and Ben's postcoital tai chi with Elizabeth and Philip in bed hesitantly talking through serious trauma. (Not that the differences between their respective honeytraps haven't been stark from the get-go, like Elizabeth laughing her way through scenic hikes while Philip soullessly pumps away during bland sex with his Kansan mark.) Every scene Elizabeth has had with woke lumberjack Ben has been ripped straight out of a romance; it's hard not to wonder if “Brenda” might like this guy a little more than she lets on.
But you know what? I don't buy it. I think Elizabeth likes spending time with Ben far more than she was expecting, but at the end of the day, the only person she can actually be herself with is Philip. That's not a small thing for a spy bearing the years of her job with more and more weariness every day, as Gabriel rightly notices when she asks him if she's wrong to feel the strain of honeytrapping more these days.
Thinking about this episode and the Jenningses' marriage, I also can't stop thinking about Gabriel sadly reminiscing about the old days, when Philip's father was apparently guarding a penal camp. "He was nobody," Gabriel sighed. "We were all nobodies."
The Jenningses might be chameleons, but Philip and Elizabeth will never be nobodies to each other.
Meanwhile, on The Russians
Dara: Being asked to be a “nobody” in the name of the state is a pretty decent description of what Oleg is being asked to do right now. I admit I expected Oleg to be a better Soviet Food Cop — he’s mostly been reduced to passively observing while his partner plays both “bad cop” and “worse cop” — but it’s probably because his natural charm doesn’t work with people who have learned to be wary of interpersonal warmth. (This is the same problem Stan and his partner are having with their cold calls of Russians in the US, something “Crossbreed” spelled out explicitly.)
Oleg appears so lost in his homeland that I expected him to jump off that roof instead of burning the tape on it. He’s spent less time away from the USSR than the Jenningses have, but he’s still struggling to reintegrate. We haven’t yet seen anyone successfully come back. And it raises the question: What’s awaiting Gabriel now? If The Americans has tended to follow its characters back to the USSR, will we see a Gabriel in retirement, or will we see yet another man whose life has functionally ended?
Genevieve: Also returning to the USSR this episode: Mischa, whose mission to track down Philip has turned out to be something of a damp squib. But is the end of his quest really as unceremonious as we’re led to believe? Gabriel tells Claudia that Mischa was met at the airport and will get his old job back — and while we have no real reason to doubt Gabriel, especially after that oh-so-pointed visit to ol’ Honest Abe, the man meeting Mischa at the airport certainly didn’t appear to be welcoming him back with open arms. (Also curious: the long shot and lack of audible dialogue, subtitled or otherwise, during this brief meeting, which keeps things shrouded in mystery.)
It might be too alarmist to speculate that Mischa is headed for the sort of “exceptional punishment” Nina faced last season, but it would also be very odd for The Americans to devote so much energy to showing us Mischa’s journey without some payoff beyond his conversation with Gabriel. What do you both think — is this the last we’ll see of Philip’s lost son?
Dara: Probably not, but I wouldn't mind if Mischa's only function in the story were to remind us of just how much Gabriel has both thwarted and protected the Jenningses, and of all they might be vulnerable to now that he's gone.
Genevieve: I admit I hadn’t been thinking of Mischa’s storyline as being more about Gabriel than Philip, but I like that interpretation a lot, Dara — and not just because it provides an out for a pretty boring character without resorting to killing him. Mischa works a lot better when he’s underlining another character’s story than when he’s carrying his own.
Caroline: I feel the same way. Mischa's story never quite grabbed me like I think it should have, and having his ticking time bomb storyline fizzle out like it did was disappointing. But I still hope he shows up again, if only because that will prove my "the past never truly leaves you on The Americans" theory, and man do I love being proved right.
More seriously, I just feel bad for the kid. He risked everything he had to get to America, and was sent right back to where he came from for his trouble. His daring escape just ended up having the trajectory of a boomerang, and he may never truly understand why.
And while we're at it, Mischa also has no idea what kind of trouble he's gotten mixed up in — or perhaps more accurately, what kind of trouble he's been in ever since he was born. He was the first person I thought of when that final Peter Gabriel music cue of "Lay Your Hands on Me" started, with its (pretty on-the-nose) lyrics:
I'm living way beyond my ways and means
Living in the zone of the in-betweens
I can see the flashes on the frozen ocean
Static charge of the cold emotion
Watched on by the distant eyes
Watched on by the silent hidden spies...
Then again, that verse could apply to just about anyone on this show, couldn't it?
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can keep up with Vox’s coverage of season five here.