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, associate editor Libby Nelson, and staff writer Caroline Framke are here to talk about “The World Council of Churches,” the penultimate episode of season five.
Todd VanDerWerff: “The World Council of Churches” features one of the few scenes from this season that truly filled me with the sort of existential dread that The Americans so often manages as a matter of course.
As the episode ends, Tuan tells his “parents” that he figured out a solution to the Pascha problem — just tell the kid to slit his wrists, so his parents will think that living in the States is so unbearable they'll have no choice but to take him back to the USSR.
Philip and Elizabeth, realizing just how ridiculous this plan is and how many ways it could go horribly, horribly wrong, spring into action — and may inadvertently trip the surveillance surrounding Pascha’s family. See you next week!
There’s been a definite urgency to the last handful of episodes that this season’s midsection lacked in places (for as much as I liked that midsection), and “World Council” kicks that up even further. Pastor Tim gets that job offer (for the titular organization)! Tuan launches his stupid, stupid plan! Philip and Elizabeth start to think more seriously about going home, about being done!
And, I have to admit, it’s that last one that has me most intrigued. After so many years living in the US, can Philip and Elizabeth simply stop being the titular Americans? Can they really expect to reintegrate into their old lives smoothly? As with all things on this show, I’m guessing it’s a bit more complicated than they’d like it to be.
Caroline Framke: Not only do Philip and Elizabeth realize that Tuan’s plan is a dumb plan, but they walk into this moment after a whole episode of grappling with what it means for them to be good parents. Does it mean going back to Moscow, where they wouldn’t have to lie every day but would have to rip their kids away from everything they’ve ever known? Does being a good spy “parent” to Tuan mean instilling the same ruthlessness in him that made them so good at what they do? Does Henry have a girlfriend?! (Meanwhile, poor Mischa is meeting Philip’s brother halfway across the world — a moment that could undoubtedly send Philip into a tailspin if he only knew about it.)
The Americans has always been fascinated with the idea that the Jennings family is fiercely loyal to each other, even as they make huge decisions behind each other’s back in the name of What’s Best. And since the beginning of the series, we’ve watched as Philip and Elizabeth are pushed to their brinks over and over again — which, very often, comes down to the question of their kids’ safety.
I’ll never forget the moment in the season two premiere, for example, when they found their dead friends and daughter bloodied and glassy-eyed in that hotel room. They know the risk is there; they’ve seen the devastating possibilities with their own eyes. But I can’t imagine Philip tearing away from Tuan with such naked venom and storming out into the open suburbs to halt a plan in its tracks, consequences be damned, before this exhausted season finally pushed him there.
Libby Nelson: And it isn’t just Philip who runs to stop him, but Elizabeth too. There’s an echo of an earlier Elizabeth in Tuan’s strident arguments in favor of his (stupid, dangerous) plan, and for a moment I thought Elizabeth — who has always been less prone to moral scruples than Philip — would join in. But while Elizabeth is more ideologically rigid than he is, that’s no longer a source of overt conflict between them. The Jenningses might not have lost their allegiance to the Soviet Union, and maybe they never will. Yet their allegiance not just to their children, but to each other, is clearly superseding it, just as Paige, in this episode, definitively chooses her family and her family business over Pastor Tim and the church.
But speaking of family, loyalty, and allegiance to the Soviet Union, let’s talk about Oleg. This season has really delved into the failures of the Soviet Union, especially its failure to live up to its own ideals — the ideals Elizabeth, in particular, still believes she’s fighting for. While Paige is reading Karl Marx, Oleg is realizing he lives in a profoundly unjust and unequal society. That alone, as his father suggested, could be enough to put him in danger. But it’s not just that — the slow, painstaking investigation into Oleg’s background is finally circling his decision to tell Stan Beeman about the biological warfare mission.
People have been killed for much less. “The World Council of Churches” suggests that when all is said and done and we’re looking back on six seasons of this tremendous show, it’s possible that he was the hero all along.
Philip and Elizabeth are our protagonists. They’ve grown and changed and are immensely compelling characters. But they have done, and continue to do, horrible things. Particularly since the death of his brother in Afghanistan, Oleg has only tried to do right — for Nina, for the potential victims of biological warfare, for his country that is failing to live up to its promises. I greatly fear he’s too good for this world.
Caroline: You and Oleg’s father, both!
For as much as I was frustrated with the saggier midsection of this season (ugh, what a phrase, I am sorry but also not taking it back!), it was always fascinating to watch Oleg and Stan unknowingly mirror each other’s actions from across the world. Both put themselves in compromising situations for what they firmly believe is the greater good — and it was telling that this increasingly didn’t mean “for good of country,” as both started to question the orders they’d always blindly followed. (Also, not for nothing, Noah Emmerich and Costa Ronin have been so, so good at playing the flickering raw emotions of men who have to suppress their feelings for a living.)
But Stan’s story has since veered elsewhere as he and Dennis pursued a questionable new source (c’mon lady, don’t bring your sudden fiancé to the safe house!). Oleg’s, meanwhile, has increasingly become about him trying to keep his head not just above water, but level enough to throw off suspicion that he’s drowning at all. In “The World Council of Churches,” Oleg finally seems to accept that he might just be screwed, especially after hearing the harrowing truth about what his country has done to people who can’t defend themselves, people who were just trying to help, people he loves.
Oleg’s storyline has been so focused on the idea of tearing down the ideals he once had of his country this season that it’s impossible not to think about whether the same would happen for Philip and Elizabeth if they did move their family to Moscow. I can’t imagine they would be thrilled with what they would find, especially after questioning so much of what Moscow has had them do throughout this entire fifth season.
Todd: What's interesting is that I think this season is sort of arguing that Philip and Elizabeth might be okay in Moscow, even if they moved exactly when the Soviet Union completely fell apart.
The fifth season has so successfully portrayed their bond as stronger than anything else, as completely unshakable, that I'm no longer worried at all that, say, Philip will decide to defect and their marriage will fall apart (an obvious place to believe the show was going in season one). If that were to happen, I think Elizabeth would simply say, “We'll handle this.”
This has made the show kind of? sort of? about the power of love, weirdly, and the more I think about that as a unifying theme for the series, the more it makes sense. Oleg and Stan are both heavily motivated by their concerns for Nina (and, in the former’s case, an eventual desire to grieve for her), and, of course, Philip and Elizabeth use sex and love as a method of control, from Martha to their many, many, many assignations of the week.
Perhaps that makes the Pastor Tim focus this week all the more telling. He stands in for a religion that most Americans could identify as “I guess loving your fellow human is a good idea, right?” But he also seems to realize that for the world to truly become a place that reflects that love would require a complete teardown. He’s hopeful but not naive, and Philip and Elizabeth never killed him because of how much they love their daughter, no matter how much they tell themselves otherwise. And now he's going to South America.
Love is not an area the dramas of the post-Sopranos era have felt all that comfortable going. (Mad Men, arguably, got there as well, but love was always a bit secondary there.) And even in The Americans, all of that connection is muted and chilly, and you have to be willing to get your hands cold digging for it. But it’s there, and it’s stronger than anything on earth.
Libby: I was drawn into The Americans initially because it was a story about relationships, not a story about spying. While I have my complaints about season five, it’s succeeded so well at making me believe in the Jennings marriage, and the Jennings family, that I suspect my frustrations from a few weeks ago are going to fade. Particularly because The Americans succeeds at giving us anticlimax when we’re expecting a climax, I’ve found myself wondering, too, if maybe they’ll just go back and it’ll all be okay, and we’ll see them, at the end, watching the fall of the Berlin Wall from Moscow. (Where I get stuck is figuring out where Henry fits in that scenario.)
If The Americans is making a case for love, it’s also a case for love as a habit, a series of actions, rather than an emotional commitment. Over and over, we’ve seen that however artificial a connection might initially be, in the end, if you pretend long enough that you care about something, it might turn out that you really do. Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage was initially fake, but it eventually turned out to be real; so did Philip’s friendship with Stan and, in a way, Clark’s marriage to Martha, and Stan’s relationship with Nina. The operation with Pascha’s family has been nothing but an annoyance and a burden for the Jenningses, and yet they put themselves at risk to save Pascha’s life. Love isn’t ideological. You are what you repeatedly do.
Speaking of things that we’re repeatedly doing: What is up with Stan’s new informant? It sure seems like it’s going nowhere, and in a very confusing fashion.
Caroline: An excellent question that I wish I had an answer to. I’m now mostly wondering if she's here to show us Stan’s increasingly “off” instincts — which, now that I think of it, would tie in pretty well with whatever the hell’s going on with Renée.
Todd: It is hard to see how whatever’s up with Stan isn’t setup for season six, but at the same time, it's hard to imagine season six devoting a lot of time to … whatever this plot line is.
I could maybe theorize about how Hockey Fiancée is part of a double ploy against Stan by the Soviets, which also involves Renée. (And now I’m chuckling about the thought of Stan also having to go to the USSR at the end of the show — and moving in right across the hall from Philip and Elizabeth.) But it all feels so very tangential to the rest of the action — and that’s saying something for Stan’s story this season, which is basically the definition of tangential.
But maybe it’s supposed to be sort of comical. A sudden engagement leads to Hockey Fiancée becoming part of the team, in a sort of “first time as tragedy, second time as farce” echo of Philip and Elizabeth's wedding from a few weeks ago. And it’s definitely another example of the season’s focus on romantic bonds as the only thing holding these people together.
Which brings me to the two players who definitely feel like free agents: Paige, who is drawing herself into her parents’ world but still has theoretical options; and Renée, who is probably a spy but might just be a nice lady who had the misfortune of becoming a character on The Americans.
Paige, especially, is only growing more vital the deeper we get. What do we think about her final decision regarding the matter of Pastor Tim?
Libby: Maybe Paige is becoming more vital because, for the first time since she learned her parents’ secret, she’s finally got some agency.
That said, I think she’s being a little hard on Pastor Tim, don’t you? What seemed to eventually turn her against him — and Christianity in general — is the vast gap between what he said to her and what he wrote in his diary. It’s understandable that Paige has very strong feelings about being lied to, and that given what an emotional burden Pastor Tim has become, she’d simply want him out of her life. But I’m not sure what he said to her was really dishonest. Sometimes private venting and public graciousness can coexist, and both can be true. Given what we’ve seen of Paige, it seems like the pastor was telling the truth both times: She is screwed up, and what her parents did to her is terrible, but she’s also a good person and a strong one.
Caroline: Pastor Tim might be right about Paige struggling more with the news than her parents (Elizabeth in particular) might be willing to admit. But I just keep thinking about that moment in “Darkroom” when she made her parents physically stare at both Pastor Tim’s worries about her and his accusations against them. Paige is struggling, but it’s the kind of struggle she can’t talk about it, can’t truly share with anyone without wading through layers of second-guessing and doublespeak.
If you need a handy summation of Paige’s mindset — not to mention this season in general — you don’t need to look further than the sequence in this episode of Paige stringing up the garage’s practice punching bag and swinging at it with a steady, grim drumbeat of determination. Paige doesn’t want to ignore her problems; she wants to beat them down. She might want to throw her cross in the garbage, but her dedication to righteousness isn’t going anywhere.
The season finale of The Americans season five airs Tuesday, May 30, at 10 pm on FX.