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The Americans threatens its most important character: Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage

Plus: Who’s going to die this season? We make our early predictions.

Elizabeth gets in grave danger during a seemingly routine mission.
Eric Liebowitz/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, deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski, and culture writer Caroline Framke offer their takes on “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup,” the fourth episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!

Todd VanDerWerff: The pivotal scene in “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” is the one, late in the episode, when Elizabeth convinces Erica Haskard to go with her husband to the World Series party. Erica, deathly ill, doesn’t think anybody wants to be around her in the state she’s in. Her husband, Glenn, thinks it might be good for her to get out of the house. So does her “nurse,” who has instantly seized upon the opportunity as a way to further spy on the summit.

What’s devilish about this scene is the way it crystallizes both what Elizabeth and Erica were talking about earlier — how Erica wishes, on her deathbed, that she had spent more time with Glenn — and Elizabeth’s need to scuttle the summit. “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” (in which, I should say, Mr. and Mrs. Teacup don’t appear) examines, in nearly every scene, the divide between political selves and personal selves.

It made me think quite a bit about the show’s title, actually. The opening scene, between a mustachioed Philip and Oleg, hinges on how Oleg’s greatest realization from working all those years in the US was that Americans aren’t horrible monsters but, instead, people who could be understood, with whom peace could be made.

“The Americans” theoretically refers to Philip and Elizabeth themselves — two people who made themselves the most American in order to blend in — but it also refers to all of us, living our lives, within a country that represents us in ways we both like and don’t like.

The central political conflict of this final season is still between the pro-Gorbachev forces (represented, however unwittingly, by Philip) and those who want him pushed out (represented by Elizabeth). But in “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup,” the show reminds us that it’s always been about something more than any one political conflict but, instead, about the ways the things that are centrally and essentially human about all of us tend to be obscured by the endless drum beat of nationalism.

Communism might be crumbling in the Soviet Union, but capitalism isn’t a bulletproof solution either, as Philip has found. I think it’s telling that the scene between Elizabeth and Erica is preceded immediately by the scene in which Philip complains to Stan about how he doesn’t understand the capitalist need to keep growing. Why not just stay at a level you’re happy with?

“The Americans” means our heroes, sure, but it also means a boogeyman you cook up in your own head, one that doesn’t really exist. We’re all just trying to get through the day, to find that happy plateau and then live there. Pity so few of us find it.

But here’s my big question: Why is this episode called “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup”? Also: How are they going to save the travel agency?!

Let’s answer the really important question: How will Philip save the travel agency? (And, okay, his soul.)

He should just wear his “visiting Kimmy” look all the time.
FX

Caroline Framke: I know you’re into the travel agency drama for the pep talks and line dancing breaks, Todd, but man, trust The Americans to bring an extra level of poignancy to the death of the travel agency business and shut my skeptical mouth!

This episode is such a sad one for Philip, who started off this season as the buoyant counterpart to Elizabeth’s slow but steady deflation and has now joined her in the despondent muck. He feels like a bystander to Paige’s life now that she’s joined Elizabeth in the field he left behind; he can’t pay Henry’s tuition; his business is suddenly hanging on by a thread.

And as underlined by that stark flashback at the end, Philip’s angst surrounding his money troubles is rooted in a very real fear. He knows what it’s like to be truly, horrifically hungry, to be in poverty so bleak that there appears to be no way out. As he feels his family sinking around him, his depleted funds are another reminder that he may not be able to keep them afloat. Philip might not like or understand capitalism, but he definitely likes and understands the comfortable life it offers.

So in that respect, it’s unsurprising that Philip wades deeper back into spying this week, making a pit stop at Kimmy’s and having a frank conversation with Oleg about how neither of them is particularly into the blanket demonizing of America that comrades like Elizabeth and Claudia are prone to leaning on. He feels helpless in just about every other area of his life, so if he can actually do something that matters (as Arkady insists to Oleg’s father it does), he’ll do it.

But if I had to pick one emotion that defines this episode, it would be frustration. Philip can’t make the numbers add up like they need to; Elizabeth takes huge risks with that nearly disastrous break-in and field trip to the World Series party and still comes up empty. Both find their best efforts lacking, coming up short at every turn. Even Stan has reached the end of his rope with the aforementioned Teacups, whom he’s (understandably) sick of “babysitting.”

Something’s gotta give, but damned if I know what. Paige, probably?

Genevieve Koski: I don’t know. If anything, Paige seems to be more gung-ho about the spy game right now than even her mother is fully comfortable with. Elizabeth urging Paige to keep her relationships and “work” separate was misleading and hypocritical on her part, sure, but it also underlined the fact that Directorate S’s plan for Paige — to eventually infiltrate the State Department as an employee — is very different from the plan it had for her parents.

Considering Elizabeth’s pronounced emotional deterioration this season, it makes absolute sense that she’d want to steer her daughter away from the precise path she’s taken, preferring instead to train Paige in the ways of “home” via movie watching and cooking. But it seems like Paige might be subconsciously drawn to that path nonetheless, if that lingering shot of her eyeing her date’s ID badge means what I think it means.

No, if I had to put money on where this season’s breaking point happens, it would be, as befits this series, within the Jennings marriage. It’s arguably already happened now that Philip has informed on Elizabeth to Oleg, telling him about her mission to get the radiation sensor — but what’s interesting about that moment is that it happens after Oleg lays out the specifics of the political divisions between Directorate S and the Centre for Philip, who flat-out admits he has no idea what’s going on in the USSR. You can see the guilt Philip is wrestling with as he assures Oleg (and himself) of Elizabeth’s loyalty, something Oleg astutely points out can be “used.”

There’s a stated recognition here of the fact that allegiance to a cause is one thing, but allegiance to the individuals who claim to embody and promote that cause is quite another. Philip is primed to accept that in a way I don’t think Elizabeth is just yet — look at how readily she accepts Claudia’s interpretation of the danger a defected Mr. and Mrs. Teacup pose and the implication that they are now therefore expendable. I think Philip is recognizing how dangerous Elizabeth’s loyalty can be when put toward certain ends, a realization that undermines whatever loyalty to their marriage remains between them.

I say “whatever remains” because of that awkward scene between Philip and Elizabeth together in bed, a place we haven’t seen them in for a while. Aside from making explicit the parental divide I’ve been yammering about the last couple of weeks — “He’s your department,” Elizabeth says of Henry — it also sets up, then pointedly deflects, the suggestion of tenderness and understanding between husband and wife, with Philip attempting to reach out to Elizabeth and her literally giving him the cold shoulder.

The close-up of Philip’s face that closes that scene feels like a moment of resolution and recognition that they are no longer a unit but two individuals increasingly working at cross-purposes, in both the political and personal realms.

What do you think, am I giving up on the Jennings marriage too soon? Is there a glimmer of hope left I’m not seeing?

Can Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage be saved? Plus: our first predictions for which characters will survive the season.

Presumably, Erica Haskard isn’t long for this world.
FX

Todd: Can this marriage be saved? Maybe. What I’m really wondering about is if that strained kiss toward the end of the episode was the first time the two have kissed all season. This is a show that took great delight in the physical chemistry between its two leads, and now, without their work or their kids tying them together, they’re like premature ghosts, haunting their big American house.

Seriously, take a look at that shot of Philip and Elizabeth eying each other across their big, empty kitchen, as framed by director Roxann Dawson. We’ve seen these two in that kitchen together so many times, but Dawson pulls back and surrounds the light of the space with a ring of darkness that makes them feel further away and more isolated from each other (and, honestly, from us) than they ever have before. The season is doing such exquisite work with the deterioration of this relationship that I sometimes forget we never actually saw the three years of slowly fraying bonds between the two.

It’s also a very deliberate choice on the part of the writers to focus so tightly on the marriage, to the degree that almost everything else that happens in the series at this point seems to only matter insofar as it can somehow come to bear on the Jennings marriage. Mr. and Mrs. Teacup are now a problem for Elizabeth to deal with, even as Stan is the closest thing Philip has to a sympathetic ear, and you can just about feel Oleg being plucked out of the show by a giant claw and delivered elsewhere now that he’s no longer able to meet with Philip in person.

This sounds more critical than I intend it. The Americans has always been at its best when it eschews the big for the small. It’s about the grunt work that makes up espionage and a good marriage, about all the little steps that add up to the seemingly effortless result. Thus, telling a huge, sweeping story of geopolitics through the prism of one married couple is perhaps the ultimate expression of this idea.

And yet when Elizabeth was pinned down early in the hour, the police rushing toward her location, I was struck by the sense that if she were going to die, I would want her to die somewhere in the vicinity of her husband, instead of off on the job somewhere, in a cold basement.

If anything is going to save Philip and Elizabeth — beyond the fact that seemingly everything in their lives is telling them, “Y’know, maybe it’s time to check in on your family?” — it’s that they might have lost their passion for each other but they haven’t yet lost their tenderness. It’s frayed and scratched and cracked, but it’s not broken beyond repair.

That scene in bed near the episode’s end is one of two people who are tired of each other but not yet done with each other — and I still think if push comes to shove, they’ll choose each other over the cause. At least I hope so.

Caroline: That moment when Philip reaches out to rest his hand on Elizabeth’s arm with brief but visible hesitation is extraordinary (not least because it shows, once again, how much Matthew Rhys can do with so little). The disconnect between them is especially jarring given how we left them as such a united front at the end of season five. But three years into their new split arrangement, they barely have energy to stand on their own, let alone be there for the other to lean on.

Like Todd said, this episode makes it plain how much distance there is between the Jenningses by making it physical, looking at them from clear across a room or through an obscured window, their vision hazy and unsure. But Keri Russell and Rhys are so heartbreaking as they play Philip and Elizabeth at their most exhausted. When they’re in bed together, Philip is especially uncomfortable in his vulnerability, and so viscerally sad in his earnest desire to reach out and touch his wife instead of the chain-smoking stranger she’s become, that it literally made me flinch.

But if we’re taking bets on who might die this final season — which, let’s not, I’m incredibly competitive and don’t want to break out my own furious forehead vein — I’d say that either neither one dies or both of them do.

Either way, I also expect them to come back together. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have always been very explicit that this series is more about marriage than anything else, and this final season sure feels like a last gasp of turbulence before what I’d guess — or maybe more accurately, hope — will be some kind of mutually destructive, romantic-as-hell Thelma & Louise moment.

There is one person, however, who sure seems like a goner, and the only reason I’d disagree is the show is hinting at it very hard. So hey, Genevieve, how are you feeling about Oleg’s chances this season? And more broadly, about his part in the show at the moment, weighed down as he is by his pesky moral compass?

Welcome back, Kimmy!
FX

Genevieve: He’s also weighted down by that big, bushy beard, universal TV shorthand for “I’m going through something right now.”

There’s definitely a “one last job” vibe to Oleg’s storyline this season that feels like it’s telegraphing a tragic end, especially considering the way it’s roping his family into the game. His father is playing go-between for Oleg and Arkady, seemingly with scant knowledge about what his son is actually up to stateside.

It’s not entirely clear to me how the elder Burov’s views may or may not align with those of his son and Arkady, but given the betrayal Oleg and Igor felt over the government’s refusal to acknowledge Oleg’s brother’s sacrifice with a military burial, I’m guessing he may not be quite the obedient little government official he seems.

His father is also hiding from Oleg the full truth of how his wife and child are holding up in his absence, an obfuscation that seems to be priming the pump for a heartbreaking implosion of Oleg’s happy (I think? It’s honestly hard to tell with the Russian characters sometimes) family. That would certainly be in keeping with what The Americans has been up to so far this season, and you’re right, Caroline, that the show is not being particularly subtle about hinting at it.

But despite all that, I want Oleg to live, dammit! Not only is he perhaps the most compassionate character this show has left (outside of maybe Paige, whose compassion comes with a big dose of naiveté), but he feels like the best potential embodiment of future Russian-American relations, a sort of middle ground between Elizabeth’s desire to protect her country and the pull Philip feels toward American culture. Given the course of history and The Americans’ general purview, it’s probably wildly optimistic on my part to hope for a happy end for Oleg, but I still can’t help rooting for him.

It must be the beard.

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