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 Alissa Wilkinson talk about “The Committee on Human Rights,” the seventh episode of season five.
Caroline Framke: Halfway through watching “The Committee on Human Rights,” I realized I was annoyed.
Throughout its run, The Americans has always had its characters stop to debrief each other on the particulars of one mission or another, or even just a slightly strange interaction that could, with a stroke of bad luck, mean disaster. And maybe season five isn’t worse than any other on this front, but I sure have felt the drag of these scenes more than ever. Getting renewed for two seasons at once might have made The Americans feel like it could afford to take its sweet time, even this deep into the season. And there were plenty of moments where “The Committee on Human Rights” seemed especially slow.
Not a whole lot actually happens in the episode (directed by none other than Matthew Rhys), unless you count Paige finally breaking up with Matthew Beeman. But there were thankfully still a few key scenes that made me second-guess where we actually are at this point in The Americans.
There were the times when both Philip and Elizabeth realized neither of them had gotten an accurate read on their respective honeytrap marks in their ongoing wheat investigation. There was Stan having his closest shave yet with getting fired. There was Gabriel insisting he knows nothing about Stan’s new girlfriend Renée being a Russian spy (but she’s been featured so frequently in otherwise innocuous scenes that there has to be another shoe to drop, right?).
And as for Gabriel himself, he left me with more questions than answers on his way out of the country. For example: Why did he tell Elizabeth that Paige would be fine, before turning around and telling Philip the exact opposite?
What did you both think about this episode, which felt pretty quiet to me, all things considered?
Genevieve Koski: Ooh, I disagree pretty strongly with you there, Caroline. True, there wasn’t a lot of suspense or action in “The Committee on Human Rights,” but the episode’s endless discussions were packed with thematic import and consequence, particularly those involving Paige.
What’s been so interesting to me about Philip and Elizabeth’s conversations with their daughter has been how they reveal the Jennings parents’ mounting awareness of the extent to which they’ve misled her. Paige has seemingly transferred much of her church-bred idealism to her parents’ work, expressing more and more interest in what they’re doing and chagrin that America is engaged in such an evil plot. Of course, we, along with Philip and Elizabeth, now know that no such plot exists, and that Directorate S’s revised mission to steal Ben’s superwheat is actually the more nefarious mission.
It’s also become increasingly evident — through looks, not words, as is this show’s wont — that Philip in particular is uncomfortable with the honeypot element of their mission, something Paige really can’t know about for a variety of reasons. Paige has fully bought into the version of the truth that her parents have sold her, and welded her own budding ideology onto it. And that’s thrown into sharp focus — for Philip and Elizabeth, and us — how divorced from an ideology Directorate S’s work has become.
This season has spent a fair amount of energy poking holes in the idea that the Soviet Union is something worth defending at all costs, and “The Committee on Human Rights” goes all in on that idea, through both Oleg’s investigation into his mother’s imprisonment in the 1950s and Gabriel’s final goodbyes to Philip and Elizabeth, wherein he openly mourns the things he’s done in his country’s name. “It adds up,” he tells Elizabeth, and the moral burden he’s accumulated is evident in his face.
And then come his parting words to Philip, accompanied by a pointed musical sting: “You were right about Paige. She should be left out of all of this.” It’s an understated moment, but it was quite a gut punch for me.
It’s so hard for Elizabeth and Philip to say goodbye to Gabriel — but for very different reasons
Alissa Wilkinson: I felt like Philip's face right before the credits rolled — along with knowing Rhys directed this episode — was where “The Committee on Human Rights” really landed its sucker punch. Philip is loyal to his homeland, but it's always felt as if that loyalty was propped up by people around him, like Elizabeth and, clearly, Gabriel. That moment falls somewhere between an admission of truth and a betrayal, and I didn't see it coming. That Gabriel says it and then just walks out of Philip's life isn't just the country betraying him, but something very deep and personal for Philip. I wonder if we'll find this moment to be a catalyst moving toward The Americans’ last big act.
I've been continually surprised by the sly way this season has been inverting, blurring, and repositioning lines that have always felt relatively set (between Soviets and Americans, usually). I laughed aloud early on when Pastor Tim handed Marx to Paige, but of course! Much of Marx's ideology is actually in line with Tim's, and Paige's, progressive Christianity. The fact that the book keeps surfacing (and that Elizabeth seems surprised when she spots it) is a reminder that politics, religion, and ideology have always mixed uncomfortably and strangely in America.
But as you point out, Genevieve, it’s been illuminating to see how, in introducing the family business to their American-reared, socially conscious daughter (who still wears her cross around her neck but is starting to reconsider, I think), Elizabeth and Philip have grown more uncomfortable with their own work. It's one thing to think you can transgress on behalf of your cause, a greater good. It's another thing to realize you wouldn't tell your own daughter what you'd been up to, and then feel the need to lie about it.
And frankly, this season's honeypot plots are far from The Americans’ most squeamish uses of the tactic. I mean, Philip seduced Kimberly, a teenager, and there's always poor Martha. In comparison, Ben and Deirdre are pretty vanilla. Nobody's really getting hurt. The fact that Philip and Elizabeth both feel so uncomfortable (and seem to both be off their game) is a subtle but clear indication of character development, on both of their parts.
I think the episode's relative quietness, though, is interesting, because The Americans is one of those shows where events from earlier episodes that didn't seem all that important at the time come back in a big way later on. I think “The Committee on Human Rights” just threw a bunch of Chekhov's guns onto a variety of mantels, and I'm curious about which one is going to go off first. What do you think?
Caroline: I think you both just blew my opening argument to pieces. Damn you, smart co-workers!
On second thought, I see your point, Alissa. Even when things seem fairly manageable on this show, there’s usually a moment when everything blows up in everyone’s faces — and that final moment with Philip sure felt like one of those. The difference between Gabriel’s relationship with Elizabeth and his relationship with Philip has maybe never been so stark as in his respective goodbyes to them. Elizabeth, Gabriel’s stalwart soldier, sat with him in the streaming daylight and held his hands in her own. Philip, Gabriel’s troubled prodigal proxy son, didn’t say goodbye so much as confront him, grimly staring him down in the shadows.
As far as strewing Chekhov’s guns goes, I have to think that Mischa will come back into the picture by the end of the season. It can’t be a coincidence that Gabriel finally met and evaluated Paige almost immediately after doing the same with Mischa. And if/when Mischa does return, it will be ... messy.
Another moment from that final scene that struck me particularly hard came when Philip used his remaining minute with Gabriel to ask point blank if Renée is “one of ours” — and Gabriel responded that Philip must be “losing [his] mind.” Gabriel doesn’t tend to speak like that, but his patience for Philip’s questions had clearly reached its limit. It also seems to me that Philip didn’t buy it — much like he’s not exactly buying that the Soviet Union has the moral high ground in this mission they’re pursuing.
What do you both think is up with Renée? And, uh, how much longer can Stan possibly keep his job in counterintelligence, given all the feathers he’s ruffled?
At this point, how long can Stan possibly stick it out in the FBI?
Genevieve: I admit, I’ve never really bought into the “Renée is a secret spy” theory, and I still think it’s a big red herring — but one this episode made an effort to dangle in front of our faces.
Gabriel’s response to Philip’s question was interesting on both a textual and technical level — by which I mean I suspect it was altered after the fact to keep us wondering. Notice that when Gabriel follows up his denial about Renée with, “It’s possible the Center didn’t tell me because they knew you’d ask this question,” the camera is on Philip, and the audio has a distinct ADR quality to it — that is, it sounds like it was recorded in and edited in later. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect this scene was originally written as a flat-out denial, with the equivocation added in afterward to keep us guessing about something I’m pretty certain is not worth guessing about.
Alissa: I almost feel like Renée is TOO obvious of a secret spy girlfriend by now. They've been signaling it so hard! But then I'm lost when I try to imagine what else she could be. A private investigator? CIA? A grifter? Or just ... maybe just Stan's girlfriend? I find her fascinating and I keep looking for clues, which I think may be The Americans' way of distracting me from what's obviously in front of my face.
There have been two other clear moments I can recall when Elizabeth and Philip suspected something that turned out to be totally wrong: once with the real reason the United States is developing grain, and way back in an early episode when there was an assassination attempt on President Reagan and they thought a coup was on. Both times I bought into it, and both times the show twisted me into coming back to my senses. I wonder if this is another similar moment.
Either way, I agree that Mischa is certainly coming back. That aborted journey is too much to throw away, especially coupled with Philip's persistent recurring memories of his father, a father who is always bringing him things in those memories.
Genevieve: Going back to the idea of Chekov’s guns, though, I do think we’re facing a big upheaval with Stan, though I don’t think it’ll come through Renée. He’s obviously on very thin ice at the FBI after his fun little blackmail adventure with the CIA, and his work with Agent Aderholt doesn’t seem to be progressing in a manner destined to save his ass.
I found that scene with Aderholt and Stan questioning a potential Soviet defector enlightening as far as Stan’s mindset goes; the whole time he was frankly telling their mark about the potential for danger if she works as an informant, I was seeing the word “Nina” flash over and over behind his eyes. If we’re looking at this whole season as a story about questioning loyalties, which I am, I can’t help but wonder if Stan’s time with the FBI is coming to an end — not by force but by choice. His growing disillusionment is clear, and he seems to have no real ideological stake left in counterintelligence work. He’s a man going through the motions — and maybe Renée is nothing more than someone who presents the possibility of a happy life outside the FBI (which, remember, was a huge contributing factor to his divorce).
Caroline: That makes sense to me. It’s easy to forget five seasons in that Stan was already exhausted with the FBI when The Americans debuted, after years of undercover work, and that all his time since has been spent struggling with the demands of his job and the possible damage it can do to the people he loves. This season, we’ve seen him prioritize a new relationship, take an interest in a good girl like Paige influencing his son, and joke ever more fondly with Henry as if the boy is part of his own family. I don’t think Stan can be in this for much longer, especially since he’s now taken a moral stand that was the counterintelligence equivalent of pulling the pin out of a grenade. It can’t be long before he drops it, whether on purpose or not.
Alissa: And that's interesting, because I think Paige, Philip, and even maybe rock-solid Elizabeth are moving ever so slowly in the same direction that Stan is with their own loyalties. Paige is going to feel betrayed by her parents. Philip already feels betrayed by his country, for sure. Even Elizabeth feels like her resolve is getting slightly shaky. It would be a fitting final act for The Americans if the Jennings family left the 1980s and ended up as disillusioned institution haters in the ’90s, wouldn't it?
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can keep up with our coverage of this season here.