Every week, some of Vox’s writers gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski, senior reporter Dara Lind, and staff writer Caroline Framke take on "Dyatkovo," the 11th episode of season five.
Caroline Framke: Now this is the episode I’ve been waiting for all season.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still frustrated at how slow and seemingly scattered The Americans’ plot developments have been lately, a fact I think was exacerbated by the fact that seasons three and four were full of such propulsive energy. But season five has come into much clearer focus with “Dyatkovo,” a much tauter hour (literally, running at 42 minutes versus the usual 47ish). The episode doesn’t exactly reveal why Elizabeth and Philip have been pulled in so many directions of late, but I understood the decision much more by its awful end.
This week, the two are tasked with a straightforward mission: determine whether a certain Russian woman living in Massachusetts is a traitor who committed war crimes, and if so, take her out. But the way it all unfolds is a horrific slow crash. “Natalie” (Irina Dubova) does turn out to be the traitor they’re looking for, but as she explains through anguished tears to the American husband who thinks she’s “wonderful,” she only shot and killed Soviet prisoners after soldiers killed her family, liquored her up, and forced a gun into her hands.
The moments that bookend “Dyatkovo” are telling: The hour begins with Claudia confirming that the KGB took the devastating virus Philip and Elizabeth secured last season and didn’t come up with a cure for it, but weaponized it. It ends with the Jenningses staring down a devastated woman admitting to her crimes, but muddying the simple explanation the Centre gave them for why she must answer for them with her life.
The truth has always been a twisted knot of contradictions on The Americans. But this season, more than any other, has meticulously laid the groundwork for Philip and Elizabeth, as well as Oleg, to face the fact that they might not always be on the right side of history after all.
But there’s so much else to get into with “Dyatkovo” — I didn’t even mention the glorious return of mail robot yet! What did you both think of this episode and what it might be setting up for the final two installments of the season?
Genevieve Koski: “Muddying” is putting it mildly in terms of how Natalie’s confession squares with the Centre’s line on her supposed war crimes. Even after watching the scene several times, I’m not 100 percent certain what exactly Natalie is confessing to having done under duress. She was clearly kept prisoner; Claudia’s information about her being treated for VD after having sex with Nazis suggests she was being kept more or less as a sex slave; and her tearful confession doesn’t make it entirely clear whether she was the one pulling the trigger on prisoners, or being physically compelled to pull the trigger, or simply being forced to stand by as an unwilling accomplice/witness.
Any of those explanations is perfectly plausible — and horrifying — but regardless of what actually happened, her anguish comes through loud and clear, and sets the stage for Elizabeth’s startling, episode-ending proclamation: “I want to get out of here. … Let’s go home.”
Now, we’ll get to what it means to “go home” in a bit, but I want to highlight what a devastating pairing of scenes this is. Philip and Elizabeth are being manipulated into killing someone who (very) arguably doesn’t deserve it, someone who was forced into committing war crimes as a matter of self-preservation — which is not unlike what the Jenningses are being forced to do here. They are well aware that the Centre is giving them an order based on incomplete, inaccurate information, but what can they do other than carry it out?
At this point, I don’t think it’s out of line to characterize Philip and Elizabeth as prisoners of a sort — what would happen to them if they refused orders? Nothing good, and they know it, which explains Elizabeth’s willingness to accept the Centre’s dubious reasoning, seemingly despite her better judgment. Philip has a history of indulging his own doubts (which he is very much doing here), but Elizabeth won’t allow herself that luxury, right up through the moment she murders two people, something her husband couldn’t bring himself to do.
But then: “I want to get out of here.” Yes, Elizabeth carried out her orders, but it seems her resolve has finally broken. Natalie’s tale helped her realize what the Centre has made of her, and what effect that has had, and will continue to have, on her family, in particular the man she loves. Ironically, Natalie may have ended up saving a war prisoner in enabling Elizabeth’s revelation — provided “getting out of here” is something the Jenningses can even do at this point. And given what season five has been showing us over in the motherland, I’m betting the final two episodes are going to dig deep into what it would mean for the Jennings family to return “home” in 1984.
Dara Lind: Oh, wow, Genevieve. I didn’t see it that way at all.
As much as doubt has become a part of Elizabeth’s nature and started to compete with Philip’s this season, and as close as they’ve grown, The Americans has never let us forget that Elizabeth still thinks she’s stronger than he is — and hasn’t forgiven him for it. When Deirdre dumped him, Elizabeth blamed Philip for going to EST and (essentially) being too in touch with his feelings. And when she realized, in “Dyatkovo,” that Philip wasn’t going to pull the trigger, I thought I saw in her face not just panic and resolve but a little disgust.
So when she said, “Let’s go home,” I immediately wondered if she was, somehow, testing Philip — seeing if he still harbored the defection fantasy he voiced to her way back in the series pilot, forcing him to choose between homelands.
Caroline: I’m with Dara on this one. Elizabeth was definitely thrown when Natalie told the whole truth — which only vaguely resembled the justification Claudia had offered — but she was horrified when Philip suggested that they should maybe go easy on her, whether she committed those crimes or not. Elizabeth sees the world in black and white, good and bad. She might be sick of America, sick of what the Centre’s asking her and Philip to do, but she’s still nowhere near defection. I don’t, for instance, think she cares nearly as much as Philip that their country weaponized a virus, because she has faith that they would only do such a thing for a good reason — faith Philip has never wholly had.
Remember that this episode opens with Philip — essentially a father of three sons between Henry, Tuan, and far-flung Mischa — grimly flashing back to how warm his father could be. Philip’s memories of his father are so incongruous with the reality of him being a prison guard that he has to believe there’s always room for people to contain multitudes. Elizabeth, in contrast, takes pride in being “strong enough” to understand that one traitorous decision, no matter the context, is enough to brand someone a traitor for life.
Dara: Philip understands that several decades in America can change a person fundamentally — that they can become the person their loved ones always thought they were. When Natalie tells her husband that she wanted to be the person he thought she was, and he replies, “I know who you are. You’re good,” it’s hard not to see the moment as a reminder that relationships can be stronger than the lies that build them, and that the person you were back in the Soviet Union isn’t the “real” you any more than any of the masks you wear in the US. If that makes Philip wary of killing a woman he believes has reformed, it also means he understands that he and Elizabeth can’t go home again — not just politically but psychologically. I’m not sure, even after all this, that I could say the same for Elizabeth.
Then again, this episode also made it clear that even returning to the Soviet Union doesn’t necessarily mean seeing the reality of what it takes to get by in the country. Oleg certainly got told this week, by both his partner and his prisoner, that he’s still living a privileged life, blind to the choices other people have to make to survive. What did you think about his plot?
Genevieve: I’m happy to agree to disagree re: Elizabeth, whom I’m still holding out hope for. I don’t think this series can end without a major ideological realignment of some sort from her, and I maintain that we’re seeing the seeds of that here.
Admittedly, that may be informed by my desire to see Elizabeth forced to confront those realities of modern Soviet life, which we’ve been seeing a lot of via Oleg. Oleg’s food-supply-and-bribery plot line has been perhaps the most slowly developed one in a generally slowly developing season, but the threads are finally starting to weave together into a depressing tapestry of institutionalized inequality and corruption. That scene with Oleg and his boss questioning Fomina, the secretary keeping a ledger of her boss’s wheelings and dealings, was mildly chilling in how it conveyed not just how deeply broken the country’s food system is but how apathetic most people have become about the need to manipulate that system. “This is how the whole country works. It’s how people get fed. It isn’t going to change,” Fomina icily tells the men.
The most striking part of this exchange is Fomina’s apparent lack of fear in the face of officials who could conceivably imprison her for 15 years — men who, as she points out, “don’t have to worry about these things,” men who can casually offer their bosses a trip through a fancy grocery store. But as we see in an earlier Oleg scene, this is still an environment where people can be sent to the mental ward for not knowing when to keep their mouths shut. So what exactly is Fomina doing here? Is she just shaming Oleg, or is there a power play at work I’m not getting?
Caroline: It's hard to say, but my instinct is that Fomina pretty much knows she's fucked no matter what, so why not be frank?
In that scene you just mentioned, Oleg listens to his colleagues talk about how they had to send a foolish man to the mental ward even after he proved useful, because "he should've known better than to open his mouth." And Oleg is still simmering in anger about the reversal in Nina's fate, still smarting from the revelation that his mother spent five years in a work camp for "sabotage." It almost doesn't matter what anyone did or didn't do; if a powerful person finds a reason to bring down a less powerful person, it's done.
Dara: Isn't it possible, too, that Fomina is simply too distraught to do anything but speak from the heart? It's miraculous, isn't it, that we automatically assume the distrust the Soviet Union forces on its citizens goes so deep that honesty has to have an angle?
The Americans has drawn plenty of parallels between the FBI and the Centre. But when Stan told Henry this week — after giving him a tour of plenty of operationally sensitive stuff around the office! — that he couldn't be emotionally honest with anyone because he had to see them as a potential spy, what I thought of wasn't Philip and Elizabeth. It was everyone we've seen in the Russian scenes this season, unable to go about their daily lives without a little healthy suspicion.
Genevieve: Yeah, but does the KGB have those cool new soap dispensers in the bathroom?
As you say, this show has not been subtle about drawing parallels between the FBI and the KGB, and while Stan’s message to Henry about not being able to trust anyone is the big emotional parallel, I did find myself chuckling at the fact that neither Stan nor Dennis has any clue how many people work at the FBI, but both sure do have opinions on the soap dispensers and mail robot. No matter where you work, it seems, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Dara: Personally, I'm horrified that as far as we know, the existence of the Vault is about to be revealed in a junior high newspaper. (This was a heckuva week for the show to present the FBI as careless about media leaks!)
Caroline: I think I was blinded to Henry’s journalistic missteps by Stan calling the mail robot “more trouble than it’s worth” with the kind of affection you reserve for an unruly dog. Missed you, mail robot!
There is a deep irony in Stan telling Henry how little he’s allowed to trust people, when he’s unwittingly trusted two KGB agents with so much over the years. But there’s also something deeply sad about him saying this to Henry. The youngest Jennings has no idea that his field trip to the FBI doubled as intel collection for his spy parents, and Stan has no idea what he did by trying to do something nice for “the greatest kid in the world” (don’t tell Matthew).
But that’s always the rub with The Americans, isn’t it? Every interaction contains layers upon layers of mistrust, deceit, irony, ignorance, pain. People like Philip, Elizabeth, Oleg, and Stan have been trained to read them, peel them apart, and find the truth therein — but even they can’t fill in all the blanks, whether they know it or not.