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, culture editor Jen Trolio, and associate editor Libby Nelson talk about “Lotus 1-2-3,” the fifth episode of season five.
Philip Jennings isn’t holding together all that well
Todd VanDerWerff: Ever since its second season — when the series went from a very good show to one with a claim to all-time status — The Americans has been interested in the psychic wear and tear that comes from all the death Philip and Elizabeth deal out. The two aren't natural killing machines, though Elizabeth comes close at times. And Philip, in particular, seems increasingly gutted by every murder he's party to.
That makes the final moments of "Lotus 1-2-3" feel like some sort of bridge has been crossed. Having learned that the experiments with the midges back in episode three were being used to create pest-resistant strains of wheat (hello, GMOs), Philip realizes the death of the lab worker was entirely and utterly pointless. He already knew the guy had no idea what evils he was privy to. Now he knows the guy wasn't privy to evils at all. He was just unlucky.
What I'm less convinced by is that this is the moment where everything comes apart for Philip. In some ways, season five has been a conscious circle back to the conflicts of season one, especially when it comes to Philip's questioning of his allegiances. And the series has done a solid job of rooting his recurring suspicion of the USSR in the food shortages rippling across the country.
But at the same time, I find myself looking at story events and wondering if they're happening organically, or because the show has to end soonish. This, of course, is one of those chicken-and-egg problems we get into as series head toward their planned endings. I buy Philip falling apart, finally, over all of that death. I'm just not sure I buy his line in the sand being this death simply because the show tells me it is.
Then again, "Lotus" is otherwise an excellent entry in a season that continues to keep lots and lots of plates spinning without sending them hurtling into each other. Mischa meets Gabriel, in one of the season's better scenes, and I finally realized Philip's target in Topeka is Clea Lewis from Ellen. What sudden realizations did you two have from this episode?
Jen Trolio: Ahh, Todd, you’re right! I knew Deirdre looked familiar! She may not be the most dynamic personality, but I'm definitely intrigued by her and her apparent obsession with Lotus 1-2-3, the computer program she was crowing about to Undercover Philip. (I had to look it up, but it’s basically spreadsheet software.)
Obviously we didn’t see Lotus in action, but I’m interested in how Deirdre’s praise of its time-saving capabilities and her comment that “you people have to get computerized” is further signaling the end, both of The Americans and of Philip and Elizabeth’s line of work as they’ve always known it.
Another realization: The Americans knew we’d be quick to speculate on whether Stan’s new gal is a spy, and prepared accordingly, having Philip and Elizabeth discuss that very possibility.
After that “good joke” Stan made to his boss and her pillow talk about how she understands the work stress he must be under, even if she can’t know the details, I’m both expecting some big revelations to emerge from their upcoming fly-fishing weekend and feeling like the show must have something trickier up its sleeve.
Also, let’s briefly talk about Henry! Philip and Elizabeth were floored by a realization of their own: Their son is a secret math whiz. What do you think The Americans has planned for him going forward? Surely this week’s Henry scenes were intended to do more than remind us that Paige has a brother — what might season five have in store for Philip’s two sons?
Todd: Jen, that you didn’t know what Lotus was makes me feel old. And I’m not that old.
Henry Jennings: secret math genius. Sure!
Libby Nelson: Of all the places I thought Henry’s storyline was going to end up, “secret math genius” was not on my list at all. Which, I guess, was the point — we don’t know much about him, and neither do Philip and Elizabeth.
I did notice that Keidrich Sellati, who plays Henry and has grown so fast that he looks like he’s aged a couple of years between individual episodes, has been styled to look a lot like Philip’s other son Mischa. Maybe it’s just a family resemblance; maybe we’re about to see some parallels, at least emotionally, between their storylines.
As for Philip, Todd, I’m with you. My longstanding theory for what would break Philip was that the KGB had killed Martha rather than spirited her away to Russia, and he’d learn that fact at a psychologically infelicitous time. Obviously that’s not how this turned out.
Maybe as this crisis plays out, I’ll understand why this innocent guy at the wrong place in the wrong time — and not the FBI computer geek he framed for Martha’s sake, or the airport worker he killed on a bus, or the busboy he shot in the restaurant way back in season two, or, um, how many innocent people has Philip killed? — was the last straw.
Or something else might be causing Philip’s crisis of conscience: Paige’s heartbreaking declaration that maybe, because she’s so screwed up, she’s just meant to be alone. I’m less invested in her relationship with Matthew Beeman — spy conflict aside, she just doesn’t seem that into him — than I’d like to be, but that was a hell of an emotional payoff. It just about broke me, and it appears to have done the same to Philip.
On the subject of happier Beeman romances: Were Stan and his lady friend under surveillance as they left their dinner date? I’m so accustomed to seeing Philip with a new face every so often that I spent the whole time squinting at the screen trying to figure out if the driver of the car was him. And speaking of fathers and sons: How about Oleg’s father casting the Moscow version of The Bachelor?
Todd: That was Philip tailing Renee, but who was that woman either helping Philip or tailing him? Elizabeth? Because we saw her calling Philip on the phone earlier from Topeka, then cut from the surveillance to Elizabeth back in Topeka. This show is usually good about showing us when either Jennings gets back from a mission in the field to greet the other, so the editing here confused the hell out of me. Maybe Elizabeth flew back for one night only to tail Renee? It was kind of a weird moment in a show that usually avoids this sort of confusion (or the quality of our online screeners is worse than what viewers will see on TV, prompting our bafflement).
That said, I loved the way this episode subtly played the Jennings kids off each other. Paige seems like she's circling the drain, the weight of her parents' secrets so heavy on her that she can't even make out with a boy without feeling like the fate of the world is at stake. Tall Henry, meanwhile, is largely ignored but seems to be thriving.
Paige even points this out herself. She thought that the way you got ahead was to study and work really hard, but Henry doesn't seem to have needed to do that. He's just a math whiz, out of nowhere. Now, this might be leading somewhere, but I sort of like the thought that it isn't. Henry is having this normal, if neglected, childhood in the background of all the other characters' lives, and when Philip and Elizabeth's secret is made known to him, it's going to tear him up even more than Paige (who already suspected her parents) was torn up by learning it.
Plenty of fans are grumbling about the way Henry's been shoehorned in this season, but to me, that's the point. This nice, normal teenage boy has suddenly become the stakes of the whole series. It neatly underlines this season's refocus on the idea of family as being central to whatever ideology you might subscribe to.
Of course, some families are more trouble than they're worth. I really wish Oleg's dad had referred to the three women at dinner as Bachelorettes one through three, then made Oleg ask them questions with plenty of potential for sexual innuendo–laden answers.
Libby: I’ll say this for how confusing that brief surveillance scene was: It contributed to the sense that there’s something not quite right about Renee, who seemed awfully curious about what, exactly, is stressing out Stan at the FBI.
Right now, though, I’m dying for a peek of where Elizabeth’s at, mentally. We know Philip is going through a crisis and that, as befits The Americans: A Grocery Store Supply Chain Drama, it’s expressing himself in food-centric flashbacks. All Elizabeth had this week was a disguise that would look just fine in 2017 Brooklyn and a very, ahem, generous sexual partner in Topeka Hiking Man.
(I just had the horrifying thought that if Topeka Hiking Man were closer to 16 than 30, Paige would forget about Matthew Beeman in 10 seconds flat. A Peace Corps–volunteering idealist who dreams about feeding the world? Elizabeth — an idealist herself — just can’t escape them.)
What’s up with Elizabeth?
Todd: Yes, after last season really dug into Elizabeth's state of mind, she's slightly opaque this season as we delve back into Philip's fraying psyche. There's nothing wrong with that, but it might be nice to see just how genuinely she takes Philip's heartbreaking, "It's us," at episode's end. (Naturally, we'll find that out next week, if we do.)
I also have an update on #ReneeGate, which is that the woman who's "working with" Philip is apparently tailing him, as he tails Renee. Her name is Marilyn, she's been in episodes before, and I still maintain this whole thing could have been handled with slightly more clarity.
I do want to get back to Mischa, because that scene really resonated with me (I think it was Frank Langella's best work since joining the show), but Jen, I'm sure you have thoughts.
Jen: Ah, yes, it’s coming back to me now … Marilyn was the woman we saw in “The Midges,” sitting in a car outside the lab when Philip and Elizabeth dragged out the dead lab worker’s body. I was kind of confused by the surveillance scene at the time, but it’s making more sense now.
Anyway, Mischa! Todd, I agree — Langella was great in this episode, not just in his scene with Mischa, but in his scene with Claudia where the two discussed the risks of Mischa potentially meeting Philip.
The fatherhood theme of “Lotus 1-2-3" really stood out to me in general. Of course, some of the episode’s musings on the topic were pretty overt, between Philip’s memories of his own father, the Mischa and Henry storylines, and even the stuff with Philip and Tuan, playing football outside (Philip’s celebratory fist pumps!) and then having a conversation over McDonald’s fries about how Philip is basically an absentee dad. But the way Gabriel considered what Philip might want while talking about him with Claudia artfully mirrored some of the conversations we’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth have about Paige, where he considers the more emotional side of the situation and she takes a chillier, work-and-ideology-always-come-first approach.
Whether or not Philip thinks of Gabriel as a father figure, Gabriel is serving as one on at least some level. And you could see the conflict on Gabriel’s face as he broke the news to Mischa that no, kid, you can’t meet your dad, it’s really not a good time. He obviously wants and needs to protect Philip, but he clearly felt for Mischa too.
Todd: I actually made that joke to my wife as Philip settled in for McDonald's dinner with Tuan: "Geez, I have 75 sons now." I didn't realize just how much that would pay off in the scene to follow.
The Americans has been so focused on Paige (for good reason) that Henry has, at times, fallen into the "Second Child in a Prestige Cable Drama Disappearance Syndrome" that's affected everyone from Bobby Draper to Homeland's Chris Brody.
But The Americans, true to form, is leaning into that. The relationship between father and son is one of the most potent in all of human art, and Philip, remembering his actual father, even as surrogate father Gabriel frets over him, seems unable to escape the ways he's let down both his actual son and his "for one mission only" son. He's an absentee dad two times over, without really meaning to be.
And that doesn't even get into the way that Mischa, whose quest by all rights should end on that freezing park bench (it won't, I imagine), comes seeking him, only to be rebuffed by Gabriel. Mischa, so open and hopeful, acts as a kind of mirror of the person we know Philip must have been before all this spycraft drove him even further into misery.
Gabriel and Claudia are right that introducing Philip to Mischa could cause either man to fall apart — much more dangerous in the former case — or at the very least put the FBI onto Philip's tail. But at the same time, seeing his long-lost son could be exactly what Philip needs. Parents look to their children to replace and better themselves all too often. But Philip could really use somebody who reminds him of the self he lost somewhere along the way.
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can keep up with our coverage of this season here.