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The Americans season 5, episode 9: “IHOP” confronts the ghosts of spy missions past

The tension rises to a breaking point — but is that just because Philip and Elizabeth are so paranoid?

The Americans
Henry has some big news.
FX

Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor Jen Trolio, and deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski talk about IHOP,” the ninth episode of season five.

Todd VanDerWerff: There’s perhaps nothing more “The Americans season five” than having all the Tuan buildup result in him traveling to Pennsylvania to contact his old foster family from Seattle about one of his old foster siblings, who’s really sick. Granted, I suspect there’s another shoe to drop here, but the message is still a potent one: Philip and Elizabeth are in so deep that they’ve lost the plot entirely.

In that sense, The Americans season five is an extended look into how doing this job has completely and utterly changed the way the Jenningses view the world, has perhaps even broken their viewpoint. They’re shattered now, and it’s impossible to put the pieces back together. Only Martha, who’s lost everything and can’t even talk to her parents, sees things for how they really are, and we don’t get a big speech from her confirming as much. She just says she knows everything, and Gabriel knows enough to leave.

“IHOP” probably isn’t going to quiet this season’s skeptics, but I thought it was the strongest episode of The Americans in a while, maybe of the whole season. That buzzy, dread-filled vibe the past few episodes built up threatens to explode throughout the hour but always calms down again at the last moment. Were you two similarly affected?

Greet some old friends, if their Russian is good enough

Jen Trolio: I was truly on edge when Philip and Elizabeth pounced on Tuan at home and stuck a gun in his face immediately upon his return from Pennsylvania. For that reason, I think that even with another shoe still dangling on the Tuan front, I absolutely found the cycle of dread-filled buildup and last-minute diffusion effective in terms of illustrating how Philip and Elizabeth’s worldview has changed.

As a result, I think even though Martha and Gabriel’s discussion happened prior to the Jenningses’ confrontation with Tuan, the weight of Martha’s pragmatism and her sad, angry acceptance of her situation resonates for me a lot more strongly after the fact that it did in the moment.

While I was actually watching, I found myself being kind of hard on the scene: Where is the show really going with this, beyond giving us some more screen time with a fan-favorite character? I basically felt bad for Martha and her sad baked potato and onions, was more impressed by her Russian than Gabriel was, and then otherwise felt kind of similarly annoyed by his presence. (I also think she should have just finished her food in front of him. You were too polite, Martha!)

Genevieve Koski: I think you were indeed being a little hard on that scene, Jen, which felt to me like a much-needed resolution for Martha, as well as Gabriel.

Now that both of them are in the USSR and not actively involved with Directorate S, this is probably the last we’ll see of them; allowing Martha to say her piece to Gabriel, the man who helped doom her to a lifetime of sad baked potato breaks, feels like a much better resolution for the character than that tiny glimpse we got a few episodes back, and puts a nice button on Gabriel’s guilt over all he’s done throughout the years. If the show trots out either or both of them again after this, though, you’re free to get annoyed.

Honestly, though, “IHOP” was lousy with blast-from-the-past moments, starting with the pre-credits scene with Kimmy. (Happy birthday, Kimmy!) In addition to reminding us that Philip is still running the Kimmy mission — just how often is he switching out those tapes? — the episode also resurrects the ghost of Frank Gaad via his widow, Linh.

Linh tells Stan, in so many words, exactly what he doesn’t want to hear: that Gaad would want Stan to use his Oleg connection for revenge over what happened in Bangkok. And Oleg himself invokes Nina’s ghost in his discussion with the agents who search his apartment, reminding us that both he and Stan still have lingering anger over her sad fate.

Taken together, all of these scenes serve as a trenchant reminder: Just because someone is out of sight on The Americans doesn’t mean they’re out of the characters’ minds, or that they won’t have an effect on this series’ endgame.

The past is catching up with everyone

The Americans
Philip and Elizabeth have one of their patented late-night chats.
FX

Jen: You’re completely right about Gabriel and Martha, Genevieve: While watching the episode, I missed the forest for the trees, so to speak, but I get it now and fully agree with you on the scene being a good resolution for both characters.

As for Kimmy, my mind was pretty blown by her sudden reappearance. I’d completely forgotten about her, as I assume many Americans fans have. Even though we’ve been seeing all season how Philip and Elizabeth are stretched extremely thin, I never really considered the potential pile-up of ongoing spy commitments that we haven’t “checked in” on in a while.

Indeed, I think I was more surprised to see Kimmy than I was to see Martha in the grocery store a few weeks ago; we all expected Martha to return at some point, but Kimmy had dropped off my radar of “storylines The Americans will almost surely bring back sooner or later.”

On one hand, her reappearance is a little messy, given how much Elizabeth and Philip have spent catching each other up recently on the details of one mission or another; apparently he just never happened to mention a tape-switching expedition to Kimmy’s until now? But I can ultimately get past that, because I’m definitely impressed by the way the bug in Kimmy’s dad’s briefcase has opened up another fissure in Philip and Elizabeth’s commitment to their cause.

They now know that a group of Mujahideen in Afghanistan died from “hemorrhagic fever”; consequently, they’ve been forced to consider that the virus they got from William and sent back to the motherland was about much more than the Russians protecting themselves after a nuclear attack. Elizabeth weakly posits that “we don’t know if it’s the same virus,” but she and Philip both know Philip’s right when he observes that if it wasn’t, it’d be “one hell of a coincidence.”

Todd: Something I've been wondering a lot lately is whether some of the discontent with this season of The Americans stems not from its actual content — which is generally good, if slow — but from our knowledge that every little piece moved into place is building toward "the endgame," whatever that may be. We're so focused on how the series might conclude that we've lost sight of everything else.

For instance, I spent so much of “IHOP” convinced that some shoe was about to drop that I didn't really think about how the episode focused on all of the lives Philip and Elizabeth have ruined simply by virtue of their line of work until it was over.

They've destroyed their daughter. They've destroyed Philip’s (other) wife. They've destroyed an otherwise agreeable kid like Tuan. And they've destroyed themselves. There might be nothing left for them at the end of this road.

Yet at the same time, Stan and Oleg's cross-cultural bromance — now being carried out even though neither man has talked to the other in ages — is starting to see cracks here and there. Both of their superiors are attempting to get them to use the other against his homeland, even though Stan and Oleg know how unlikely that is. (Even though Oleg is still mad about Nina’s death, it's hard to imagine him flipping.) Unexpectedly, Oleg has become one of The Americans’ most compelling characters, and even if I'm not sure just what his plot line has to do with everything else, cutting away to him is more than holding its own.

All of which brings me back to our least likely storyline: Tall Henry Is a Math Whiz. Now, our boy wants to head to a special school in New Hampshire, which Philip is adamantly against, perhaps because he knows he needs to keep his kids close, lest his whole world crumble. Elizabeth, intriguingly, seems more open to the idea. What make you of this? And do Philip and Elizabeth have anything to fear from '80s background checks?

When did Henry become the most carefree Jennings?

Genevieve: I’m continually delighted by Henry’s storyline this season, which seems like a purposeful nose thumbing at the critiques The Americans gets over how it handles the youngest member of the Jennings family. What better development for a character whose most notable quality is his continual absence than a sudden desire to become more absent?

It’s delightfully cheeky — but it also serves as an interesting contrast with Paige’s emotional and mental (and, perhaps, educational) trajectory, which has trended downward as she’s been drawn deeper into her parents’ world.

Meanwhile, as Henry has further disengaged from the family dynamic, to the point where he now wants to straight-up leave the house, he’s thrived. This has certainly not gone unnoticed by Philip and Elizabeth, who’ve noted in surprise, and perhaps slight dismay, that Henry turned out to be “the good one.”

The Americans
Watch out for that Henry Jennings. He’s going places.
FX

This Henry-Paige contrast has to be influencing Philip and Elizabeth’s different reactions to their son’s request to attend boarding school, though Elizabeth in particular is inscrutable as ever. She seems generally pleased with Paige’s progress, such as it is — I love this season’s commitment to their fight training — but she’s also increasingly aware of the burden she and Philip have placed on their daughter, which was highlighted in her revelation to Paige last week about her rape experience.

Perhaps she senses, even if subconsciously, that Henry’s desire to chart his own course could be his salvation. Philip, meanwhile, seems to be acting out of his usual protective instinct, appalled at the idea of willingly letting his child out from under his immediate protection. But what if letting Henry escape his parents’ orbit is the best protection he could have?

Jen: I also think it’s kind of fascinating how, of all the things for Henry to suddenly show an interest in and really badger his parents about, asking to go to a fancy New England boarding school boldly underscores the constant push-pull that we’ve always seen on The Americans between Philip and Elizabeth hating everything the United States stands for while also enjoying so many of its creature comforts. Henry has always embodied the fact that they have “real” American kids, much more so than Paige, and now he wants to leave home for what they were very quick to call a “fancy orphanage” and a “country club.”

It’s easy to picture Henry in khakis and a navy blazer, goofing around with his classmates, and then in turn, it’s easy to picture how infuriating of an image that could be to his parents, and to Elizabeth specifically. The idea of a full-time boarding school is so much more intense in terms of an immersive American experience than wanting to drive a cool American sports car or occasionally indulging in McDonald’s or Bennigan’s.

So I think it nicely adds a new layer to one of The Americans’ core tensions, by bringing to a head this long-simmering conflict that Philip and Elizabeth have long been dealing with. That it does so with a fancy prep school that might turn one of their kids into exactly the kind of capitalist they hate the most seems to be a sort of ante-upping test that will force them to scrutinize even more whether they can stay committed to this ideology they’ve been serving for so long.

Todd: That sort of casual capitalist life that Henry seems destined for is definitely horrifying for Philip and Elizabeth, but it also turns Henry into a weird mirror of Oleg, who was raised by relatively affluent parents in another society filled with layers of injustice. Everywhere you turn, the wheels or power are greased unevenly.

Oleg's story, as I mentioned above, has become far more compelling than I ever would have expected, precisely because he's starting to confront not just the relative privilege he comes from and the ways his father has insulated him, but also the incredible task of trying to root out corruption at the source, something that results in Dmitri (his source who’s been stewing in a holding sale) muttering a "God forgive me" when he finally gives up a name to our man in the USSR.

Is this the sort of thing that Henry could see? It's remarkably hard to open your eyes to the ways you've been protected from the sorts of destitution others think of as a matter of course. We can imagine a Henry who eventually realizes this just as easily as we can imagine a Henry who ignores it completely.

But Oleg's process serves as a mirror for almost everybody because it's about waking up to the things going on in your name, being done by your country and, by proxy, by you. That's certainly a story that applies to the USSR in the 1980s, but it's one that applies to any country in any time. We're all party to something terrible. What are we gonna do about it?

The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can keep up with our coverage of this season here.

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