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, deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski, and culture writer Caroline Framke offer their takes on “Urban Transport Planning,” the third episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!
Oleg and Stan hash out their differences — and the one big thing they have in common — in the episode’s titular scene
Todd VanDerWerff: There are certain things a TV show can only do in its final season, when the audience knows the end is on its way. In the days before endings long planned in advance, I could always tell when a show’s writers and actors were thinking about hanging it up based on when they would start paying out long-teased answers and resolutions to conflicts that had been bubbling from the very beginning. A final season implies finality, and these story developments followed through.
That’s how I feel about much of “Urban Transport Planning,” which continues the hectic pace of The Americans’ final season but also slows down a bit to look back at everywhere the show has been before, particularly in the scene that gives the episode its name.
Oleg, see, is in the states on the pretense of attending a class in the titular subject, but Stan suspects something more is up. So he goes to see his old colleague, the man with whom he helped ease tensions both directly and indirectly. (Remember how Stan protected Oleg from being recruited by US intelligence in season five, without the two men sharing the screen? Remember how season five was a bunch of interesting ideas executed oddly?) Stan wants to feel out Oleg, wants to know why he’s really in DC. But Oleg will only admit to the class.
And then the two men talk about Nina, and an immense sadness suffuses everything that’s happening.
It’s inherent to the spy drama that there will be a high body count. It’s also inherent to spy dramas heavily influenced by the more realistic, grounded spy fiction of John le Carré (as The Americans is on some level) that said high body count will be contrasted with the stated missions of the spies, as they wonder just what it’s all for, why they’ve done such terrible things. And so it goes with Nina, a woman both men loved, who was both punished for her sins and eventually executed for refusing to sin further. At least, that’s how she saw it.
Beneath everything else Stan and Oleg feel for each other, beneath the respect and maybe even the would-be friendship, there is this dual connection through a character who hasn’t featured on the show in 25 episodes, who was killed quickly and summarily, as if crossing a number off a ledger. But she was someone who mattered to these two guys, and that sets the stakes for this season in some ways: No matter what happens, we know who cared about all these people, and that will make it all the worse when bad things happen.
Leave it to me to spend all this time talking about just one scene in an episode crammed full of good ones (including some terrific Philip/Elizabeth scenes), but that’s where my heart was after “Urban Transport Planning.” What about all of you?
Genevieve Koski: In the 24 hours or so since I watched this episode, the image that keeps popping into my mind is Elizabeth’s face as she yells at Paige for abandoning her post and wandering into the meet gone wrong with Rennhull.
It reminded me a little of that scene from Fellowship of the Ring where Galadriel is briefly possessed by desire for the one ring and changes into a demonic version of herself: Every line and shadow on Elizabeth’s face deepens, her eyes seem to recede to little black pinpoints, her lips curling into a snarl as she shouts, “You stick to the plan!” at her horror-stricken daughter, as her slightly less obviously horror-stricken husband (who moments earlier assured Paige that Elizabeth would understand) looks on with dismay.
I talked a little in last week’s discussion about the chasm that’s opening up between Philip and Elizabeth as parents, which this scene underlines not just in how differently the two of them treat Paige, but also in the brief intrusion from Henry via phone.
Here’s Henry, just wanting to celebrate his big hockey victory with Philip — who looks like he’d much rather deal with that than what’s awaiting him in the living room — and here’s Paige, looking for and being denied comfort from an enraged Elizabeth, who is obviously projecting some of her own guilt over how things fell apart onto her unsuspecting daughter.
Elizabeth more or less cops to this in a later scene with Paige, but her passion in the moment, especially compared to Philip’s more removed attempts at comfort, reflects her anxiety over how things are progressing “back home” and what it could mean for her and Directorate S.
In a later scene between her and Philip, he challenges her assumption that everyone back in the Soviet Union feels the same as she does about Gorbachev and Pizza Huts in Moscow, and her angry reaction to the suggestion that things may be “opening up,” as Philip puts it, is laced with obvious fear that such progress undermines — maybe even renders moot — all the body- and soul-crushing work she’s done for the past 20 years. She’s not ready to admit it yet — she may never be ready — but it’s apparent to Philip, and to us, that Elizabeth is clinging with all her might to something that may have already slipped through her fingers.
Keri Russell is on fire in this episode
Caroline Framke: First of all, bless you, Genevieve, for bringing a long-overdue Lord of the Rings reference to our Americans recaps.
Second of all, bless you, Americans, for giving Keri Russell one hell of a showcase in this final season to remind everyone just how good she is. Elizabeth has had her explosive moments before — never forget the Forehead Vein — but Russell is a doing an expert job at showing exactly how much Elizabeth is wearing herself to the bone for this summit as she erupts with more and more frequency.
Her pervasive fatigue also makes the moments when she tries to break through it feel that much more significant. Her quiet contentment at getting to cook an old favorite dish with Claudia and Paige and her breaking a rule to bring Philip a taste of home show just how much Elizabeth values and is trying to remember where she came from.
So when Philip suggests that maybe she doesn’t know what their “home” is like after 20 years away, it’s unsurprising that it stings Elizabeth so hard. If she doesn’t know what the Soviet Union is actually like, if she doesn’t have a sense of what “home” even means anymore, what is she even fighting for? As Philip well knows, the times when Elizabeth can’t stop herself from lashing out are clear signs that she’s feeling especially stressed and vulnerable — and given the hints Oleg gave him about what she’s possibly working on these days, that worries him to death.
Speaking of: Did anyone else pump a fist when the episode ended with Philip and his blond mustache joining Oleg on a spy walk™? Because I am psyched. I know Philip is invested in his travel agency, but I sure am not, so I’m excited that he’s now decided staying out of the game is riskier than getting back in it.
That shot of Philip staring at a sleeping Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys at his weary frowniest) made it clear that the strain of going back to spying on her is preemptively wearing him down, but it’s also clear that he feels he has no choice.
There are several points in this episode that could have sparked that realization, but for my money, it was the moment when Paige asked if she could stay the night and Elizabeth snarled that it was “a work night” at the same time that Philip went for a comforting, “Of course you can.” He was always terrified of what getting into spying could do to Paige, and watching Elizabeth just about kill herself for the job while treating their daughter like a co-worker feels like a last-straw moment if there ever was one.
Todd: You’re not heavily invested in the financial struggles of the travel agency? What? I’m hoping the show just wraps up the spy stuff early, and the entire back half of the season is Philip and Elizabeth coming up with ever-crazier financial schemes to save the beloved travel agency. A bake sale! A car wash! Entering a battle of the bands! Is there anything The Americans won’t do to save the travel agency?!
(Seriously, though, I have enjoyed Philip going full Wolf of Wall Street capitalist motivational speaker at work, and I would take more scenes like that in the future.)
I definitely have felt a draw to the story of Philip and Elizabeth struggling to remember this place they haven’t lived in ages, a place they obviously have nostalgia-coated, hazy ideas about anyway. The Americans gets talked about a lot as a show that’s relevant to our ongoing Russia storyline (though our writers are a lot less subtle than the crew at The Americans), but as a Midwestern transplant living in sunny California, I’ve always connected to it on the level of a story about finding a home, about building a place you can call your own, even as you’re miles and miles away from the place you grew up in.
And this idea is deeply tied in to the season’s central conflict. Philip and Elizabeth are fighting for the future of a place neither of them knows anymore, and where he thinks it needs to change, based on everything that’s happened since he left, she thinks it’s probably just fine the way it is, based on those nostalgic memories.
The truth probably lies in the middle, as it always does. The Soviet Union was choking on corruption at this point, and its people were in dire straits. But it also wasn’t as though everything Elizabeth remembered about it was dead and buried. The home she loves is still there, and it’s not hard to tap into why she might be so worried about change sweeping across it.
Step back from the political arguments within the show, and its conflict between Philip and Elizabeth has always been the conflict between any two people who are split between wanting to put down roots in a new place (as Philip has always been more inclined to do) and wanting to stay true to their cultural heritage (as Elizabeth has always hoped to do). Add in their kids — who have only ever known this new home — and things get even more complicated.
It’s a story of immigrants to the US, to be sure, but it’s also a story of anybody who moves very far away and sometimes misses the way things were. But change is inevitable, and fighting it tends to end up destroying you. Elizabeth is on a dangerous track, even if she seems to be the only one thinking ahead.
Just what’s up with Stan’s storyline this season? Or Renee, for that matter?
Genevieve: Maybe thinking too far ahead, at least when it comes to leftovers. Did anyone else cringe a little when Elizabeth dumped the zharkoye she brought home to Philip down the garbage disposal because “we can’t keep it around”?
I understand wanting to take every possible precaution against discovery, but zharkoye is literally just beef stew — as one of the summit attendees says in an earlier scene, “every dish in Russia starts with meat and potatoes” — more or less indistinguishable from pot roast to anyone who might be rummaging through the Jenningses’ fridge. (Even if they had instead made Elizabeth’s preferred dish, golubtsi, that’s also something that can masquerade as the cuisine of any number of countries.)
The fear that Stan might wander over and help himself to some and think “Wait a minute — is this zharkoye?” seems pretty overblown, as corroborated by the dismayed look on Philip’s face as he watches his wife unceremoniously toss the food down the sink.
Then again, that could also have been a power play on Elizabeth’s part, a symbolic chastising of Philip for filling up on Kung Pao chicken and lo mein (both, it should be noted, notoriously Westernized interpretations of Chinese cuisine). He receives the dish with nostalgic fondness, even forces down a couple of bites, but this is an all-or-nothing proposition for Elizabeth: You enjoy this symbol of our home and our past, in its entirety, right now, or you lose it.
Given the resentfulness she’s exhibited toward any small attempt by Philip to insinuate himself back into the spy life via Paige, it’s not hard to read a certain “and you call yourself a Russian” scorn into this small domestic moment.
And speaking of fraught domestic moments, what are we to make of that scene of Renee talking to Stan about her job prospects at the FBI? We all regarded Renee with instant skepticism when she wandered onto the scene last season, certain that she was part of some sort of nefarious scheme, but she’s insinuated herself so deeply into Stan’s life at this point that I admit I’d forgotten to be suspicious of her.
This sudden desire of hers to become a late-in-life FBI agent brought that suspicion roaring back, though I admit to being at a complete loss as to what sort of long con this might suggest. Is it possible she’s being sincere here?
Caroline: If she is, then she’s right to be concerned that she doesn’t know Stan very well at all, because he would never allow nepotism to get her into the FBI. And if she’s a spy, she’s not as subtle as she might think. What a weird request! That scene — and, to be honest, just about everything surrounding Mr. and Mrs. Teacup — felt a little bizarre to me, and were forceful reminders that Stan has felt a little unmoored from the main action for a while now.
I have to imagine there’s some kind of serious payoff coming with Renee and the Teacups, because why else would the show devote this much time and energy to Stan just kind of circling these stagnant storylines?
Then again, if Stan meeting up with Oleg again right before Oleg meets up with Philip is portending some kind of team-up between this trio of conflicted men who have always floated in one moral gray area or another, I’ll happily rescind all complaints. Philip and Stan have always genuinely gotten along, and I have a feeling Philip and Oleg will make a better team than probably either of them are hoping.
Maybe that would be too neat a solution. But hey, even just a season ago, I never would’ve guessed that we’d get multiple scenes of Elizabeth, Claudia, and Paige chatting over stew and television. As the clock keeps ticking down toward this potentially catastrophic summit, there’s no saying the lines between enemies and friends won’t keep getting redrawn in ways that may seem unthinkable — until they’re not.