Every week, some of Vox’s writers gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, news editor Libby Nelson, and culture writer Caroline Framke offer their takes on “The Great Patriotic War,” the fifth episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!
Todd VanDerWerff: In some ways, the most important character on The Americans is Paige Jennings. Born of Soviet spy parents, but an American citizen, she straddles every single demarcating line at or near the show’s center. And in “The Great Patriotic War” — the title refers to World War II and everything the Soviets endured therein — so much of what happens hinges on her, whether she knows it or not.
The extra-long (but extra-good) episode is obsessed with parents and children. From the young son of “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” to Philip’s surrogate daughter Kimmy (whom he plots to kidnap, then sleeps with, then warns in a fashion that all but outs him as a spy to her) to Paige herself, this is an episode about the ways generational trauma filters down to our children, almost without our being able to help it. Elizabeth reminisces about how, during the war, the Soviets had to eat rats to survive, then kills a kid’s parents, all the better to send him into the massive American foster care system. Her trauma has become his trauma, and on and on.
This makes the episode’s centerpiece scene — in which Philip invites Paige to spar with him, then shows her how easily he could choke her to death — the sort of subversive moment this show does so well. Truth be told, it made me want to throw up, due to its insistence on going scorched earth on a relationship that might have shifted to the back burner in this season but had always been a fundamentally solid one. Instead, Philip, powerless, feeling like he has no say over his daughter’s future, takes what little power he has left, in a way that leaves both of them feeling awful.
It is perhaps worth looking at this scene and noticing the ways several of the shots mirror Elizabeth’s rape from the series’ pilot — something she suffered at a similar age to Paige. Here, again, we have the young woman feeling like she might be in control of her destiny, and the older man who is meant to protect her (in this case, Paige’s literal father), who violates that protection swiftly and brutally. Philip doesn’t sexually assault his daughter, and it’s under the guise of a “fair fight,” but the mirroring of the earlier sequence by director Thomas Schlamme feels intentional to me: History repeats itself. Your parents will make sure of that.
Even though there’s no single sequence where a line is irreparably crossed in this episode (Elizabeth, after all, doesn’t kill the little boy), there are so many smaller lines tiptoed over, in hopes nobody will notice. Philip telling Kimmy to stay out of communist countries, say, or Elizabeth having to kill the Teacup duo after he spots her — or even Tatiana encouraging the chief of the Rezidentura to send back a message claiming Oleg is disloyal.
We are the sum total of all the lines we cross, sure. But we’re also the total of the lines others cross for us, rarely after asking, and it’s hard not to visit that pain upon the world.
Did any of you conclude that episode by thinking, “Brilliant. Now I have to go throw up”?
Yeah, let’s talk about that Paige-Philip sparring match
Libby Nelson: The fight between Philip and Paige immediately makes the list of The Americans’ most indelible scenes, one that will stick with me for years. Nearly all of the most memorable moments, to me, feature violent death — the dismemberment of Annalise; Elizabeth choking Lucia, the young spy she was training in season two; the dream sequence that preceded Nina’s execution — or great empathy and tenderness: Martha seeing “Clark” without his disguise for the first time; Philip and Elizabeth’s secret wedding.
The fight between Philip and Paige somehow contains both. It was brutal and hard to watch. But while you can argue against Philip’s techniques, the necessity of a wake-up call seemed clear. “The Great Patriotic War” hammered home that Paige is out of her depth and that Elizabeth is too blinkered or simply too busy to see it.
I think you’re right, Todd, that Paige is the fulcrum at the heart of The Americans. But — to horribly mangle a physics metaphor — what drives her? Elizabeth sees herself as a soldier in another great patriotic war (one racking up a serious body count). Philip has clearly decided that there are some things no cause is worth.
Paige, meanwhile, is an upper-middle-class American kid who remains, despite learning the traumatizing truth about her parents, very sheltered. Her most stunning display of naiveté wasn’t letting her friends leave her behind while a strange guy bought her a drink, or the crowd-pleasing (at least for this crowd) but unwise choice to go beyond self-defense and annihilate a creep who was trying to stop her from leaving. It was her astonished, half-laughing reaction to the revelation that Claudia had once been so hungry that she traded sex for food.
Elizabeth’s trajectory makes clear that a life of clandestine secrets and lies can destroy even true believers who were conditioned to kill. What does Paige think she’s doing there in the first place?
Caroline Framke: Interestingly enough, I seem to have had a totally different read on the Philip-Paige scene than either of you. (Not that it wasn’t horrifying, because watching his stung disbelief metastasize into disdain was definitely chilling.)
To me, it felt like Philip was letting Paige know exactly what kind of training he — and by proxy, Elizabeth — got, and therefore, the kinds of things they have always been prepared to do. In that terrible minute where he had her in a headlock, he was making it clear that not only could he do this, but it was far from his first time.
In that moment, I remembered him trying to guide Paige toward the truth of what happened in the park with the general — and the kind of blood Elizabeth has on her hands. Ever since that disastrous night, Philip has clearly been itching to tell Paige the ugly truth of the job, hoping it might disgust her as it finally did him. As he told Elizabeth, it’s not that he thought Paige couldn’t be a spy, but that she shouldn’t, because it’s a job that will grind whatever morals she’s got into dust. (That scene in which Philip confronts Elizabeth is very good, not least because Schlamme opts for more of a handheld tracking shot approach following them storming off, which is unusual enough for The Americans that it felt exactly as jarring as it should’ve.)
What Philip didn’t count on is that Paige might, as she told him, truly be more aligned with Elizabeth’s way of seeing things than he thought. She’s the one who cocked a wary eyebrow when Elizabeth told her they don’t use sex to get information, before going rogue to pull off her own honeypot scheme. And while she’s shaken after sparring with her dad, she’s certainly not put off the job forever. It doesn’t hurt that when she goes to see Elizabeth and Claudia after, they’re waiting for her with a shot of olive oil to pregame a drinking lesson.
But here, as Libby said, is where Paige’s naiveté — or at least inability to grasp the gravity of the stakes around her — truly reveals itself. The thing is, for as smart as Paige is, I’m not sure she quite appreciates why Claudia and Elizabeth are so devoted to their cause. (At the very least, Holly Taylor sure played the moment after Claudia tells her how many Russians died in World War II as more of a “yikes” shrug than a real moment of truth.)
And as much fun as I’m having watching Paige blossom into a tiny powerhouse, I’m with her parents in being concerned that she’s currently seeing espionage as a thrilling kind of game. She didn’t grow up fueled by desperation and patriotic outrage; she grew up in an America that loves itself a black-and-white, good-versus-bad story. Now she gets to be the good guy, and she’s going in with (figurative) guns a-blazin’. But as Elizabeth tries to tell her when Paige comes clean about the bar fight, her inattention to subtlety won’t fly for long.
For as frustrated as Elizabeth is with her, though, Philip has now realized that he’s pretty much lost any ounce of control over what Paige will or won’t do anymore. I was unsurprised — and relieved — that this revelation led him to cut ties with Kimmy and warn her away from Elizabeth’s (frankly ridiculous) kidnapping plan. It’ll probably make his life a whole lot more complicated, but as he told Kimmy, he’s trying his best.
Todd: I think the “Philip fights Paige” scene can sustain all of our readings, precisely because it’s one of the richest in the show’s history. And it weirdly dovetails with something else I keep thinking about. One thing I’m constantly struck by this season is how knowing the history of this moment is helping us understand the characters, just a little bit.
We know, for instance, that the START treaty is going to happen, which lets us know that Elizabeth, Claudia, and Paige must fail, or lose their nerve, or something like that. What’s more, tying these big, historical events to our fictional characters allows us to observe a secret history of the world we already know — what if Gorbachev’s enemies failed to bring him down because of Oleg, or Philip telling Kimmy to stay in Greece, or any of a number of other options?
That’s what makes this final season so fascinating. We know just enough to feel the dread of where this has to be going, while knowing so little that the show can still outguess us. The Americans has always been, first and foremost, a beautifully constructed show, and this final season is driving that home with each and every new episode.
Plus, finally, Stan gets back in the action! The deaths of Sofia and Gennadi seem as if they’ve spurred something in him that might lead him toward finally zeroing in on his neighbors. (If nothing else, the scene where Elizabeth passes right by the FBI agent assigned to watch over Gennadi is the fewest degrees of separation she’s had from him out in the field in quite some time.) The longer the show runs, the more it has to work to keep Stan from seeming like a chump — something that will be doubly true if Renee turns out to be a spy, which the show really needs to declare one way or the other soon — a problem it’s mostly solved by keeping Stan sidelined. But it’ll be good to have him back near the series’ center, at long last.
Are either of you fascinated by the way this season is playing with history? It almost feels like a Charles McCarry novel.
What’s it gonna take to get Stan a plot of his very own?
Libby Nelson: By mixing up the usual alliances among protagonists, making the central conflict not between Russians and Americans but between the hardliners who want the summit to fail and those who want it to succeed, this season has lengthened the horizon for dramatic irony to the post-1991 world.
In the short term, Elizabeth will lose. The 1987 summit will succeed. The US and USSR will agree on the first-ever reduction of their nuclear arsenals. Reagan and Gorbachev will engage in high-profile bonhomie; the Russian leader will even ditch his motorcade to spontaneously mingle in downtown DC. The Stan-Oleg model of international relations — mutual respect and shared interests overcoming a lot of complicated history — will carry the day. The Doomsday Clock, which measures how close humanity is to destroying itself, will even move its hands back.
But in the long term, Philip won’t exactly win either. There will be a McDonald’s in Moscow, but the sudden transition to capitalism will replace apparatchiks with oligarchs and leave ordinary Russians adrift in a country they no longer recognize. The New York Times article on Gorbachev’s spontaneous 1987 meet-and-greet in DC concludes with (really) a quote from one Donald J. Trump about the ultimate promise of Russian capitalism: a Trump hotel in Moscow.
Jokes about The Americans’ sudden timeliness have always struck me as cheap: It’s so much more than a show about meddling Russians that happens to air at a time when the biggest story is Russian meddling. But this season is richer for gesturing at the future after 1991. For the first time, I’m very glad I’m watching it in 2018.
Anyway … Stan! He sure could use some plot!
Caroline: Poor Stan. I really thought that this final season would have more for him to do. I’m sure he has a role to play going forward, but as it stands now, he’s just been a cog in other people’s more fascinating story machines, whether it’s the ill-fated Teacups, Oleg’s “one last ride” mission, or Elizabeth’s missions bringing her ever closer to the brink of discovery. Now he’s offering Renee a spot in the bureau just because she asked nicely? Stan. Buddy. Come on.
It’s also not super flattering to him that he didn’t notice he was getting tailed. Obviously the Soviets are good at what they do, but Stan is supposed to be too, and he just keeps getting outplayed. That the Teacups ended up dead in their own safe house is an embarrassing failure.
It’s also a particularly harrowing series of scenes in a show that specializes in them. In particular, it was awful to watch Elizabeth realize at two separate stages that she might have to inflict more damage than she was already prepared to do. First, she hears Sofia, and knows that if she kills Gennadi as planned, she’ll have to kill his wife too. Second, she cranes her neck over Sofia’s bloodied body to see their son Ilya transfixed by a TV, takes a deep breath, and slowly tiptoes away.
That moment is especially horrifying not just because she’s killed a tiny boy’s parents but because I knew that her sneaking away wasn’t just so she wouldn’t get seen. She was sneaking away because if Ilya saw her, she’d have to kill him too. We’re a long way from that awful season two scene in which Philip and Elizabeth discover a fellow Directorate S couple murdered in their hotel room with their daughter — another episode directed by Schlamme— but I thought of it here all the same. So much collateral damage, so many people in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as both of you noted (with historical footnotes and everything!), there is a very good chance that the ends won’t justify the means.