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In “Tchaikovsky,” The Americans turns a gap between spies into a chasm

Plus: Is this season trying to say something interesting about gender? Or are we thinking about too much?

The Americans
Paige and Elizabeth have a talk.

Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, a variety of writers offer their takes on “Tchaikovsky,” the second episode of the final season.

Elizabeth visits a long, mostly forgotten friend

Todd VanDerWerff: Last week, we learned that Elizabeth Jennings has been out there, being a spy, for the past three years, with no help at all from Philip. Remember in the season five finale when she told Tuan that the work they do is too difficult to do alone? (I don’t blame you if you completely forgot.) In “Dead Hand,” we got just a taste of how much it’s worn her down.

In “Tchaikovsky,” we get to see an Elizabeth who’s running so many different operations at once that you might wonder how she remembers who she is. When she contacts an old pal who can help her get hold of a piece of proprietary military tech, it’s natural to wonder if this guy has popped up in earlier seasons. (Dummy that I am, I forgot to check.)

But in the end, it almost doesn’t matter. What’s important here is that he refuses to work with her, then pulls a gun on her during their last meeting. But after an extremely stressful grappling match, it’s the general who dies, leaving Elizabeth covered in his blood. (Whether Elizabeth murdered the general or he killed himself was an open question in our group, thanks to the darkness of FX’s screeners. I think Elizabeth killed him, but if you disagree, reader, that’s just fine.)

And then Paige walks in and sees the bloody body.

This is The Americans in a nutshell. Is your duty more important, or your family? Should Paige hold back and not approach, or should she run in because she’s worried for her mom’s life? Or, let’s look at this another way: Is Elizabeth’s work with Paige stemming from her duty to her country or her duty as a mother to help her children become everything they can be? The knots are more twisted up than ever.

“Tchaikovsky” doesn’t have the propulsiveness of “Dead Hand” — a surprising amount of it is spent on business at the travel agency, for instance — but it continues the season’s theme of the marital split between Philip and Elizabeth manifesting itself in their approaches to their respective professions. I find it rather interesting that at this point in the season, the “character” I’m most worried about is their marriage.

And even if “Tchaikovsky” is a bit of a setup episode, a lot of the stuff it sets up is stuff I’m interested to see pay off. Stan finding out Oleg is in town promises something great once the two of them are in each other’s orbit again, while the ongoing peeks into what’s happening over in the USSR are making me wonder just how political (well, “political” insofar as we’re concerned about the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev) this final season is going to be.

But let’s answer the really important question here: If something happens to Elizabeth, is Claudia really going to become, effectively, Paige’s surrogate mother? I can’t imagine the two women having all that much in common, but God knows Claudia’s trying.

The Americans
We have seen Gen. Rennhull before. Libby knows where!

Libby Nelson: We did meet Gen. Rennhull before — or at least Philip did, way back in the finale of season one. He was “the colonel” then (he’s apparently moved up the ranks), ready to sell the secrets of Reagan’s “Star Wars” program to Elizabeth. At the last minute, afraid the meeting was a trap, Philip went to meet the colonel instead. But Rennhull was legit. It was Elizabeth’s meeting, on the other side of town, that was the setup. That’s when Stan shot her in the abdomen.

I had to look that up — and Rennhull’s relative obscurity, I think, is part of the point. Six years ago, he was a source important enough that meeting him was the climax of the season. (It was even the title of the episode: “The Colonel”!) Since then, there have been so many clandestine meetings, so many close calls, and more than a few loose ends. Who else have we forgotten? What other long-forgotten source from the past can turn up and knock down the whole house of cards?

Besides Rennhull, though, there was another echo of “The Colonel” in “Tchaikovsky.” That first-season episode also saw Elizabeth making a contingency plan should the worst happen. Back then, she could barely stand to be in the same room as Claudia; meanwhile, the Jenningses, still separated, were squabbling at Dupont Circle Travel over who’d get to walk into a likely trap.

Elizabeth insisted that she take the meeting with Rennhull to keep Philip safe to look after the kids: “After everything, it should be you,” she said. “I want it to be you.” They wouldn’t formally reconcile until after Elizabeth got shot, but that scene was a signal that their (admittedly far from normal) marriage was somehow intact.

Now Claudia is the contingency plan. Philip is barely in the picture. The breakup of a marriage, as Stan and Aderholt reminded us, is sad even if nobody’s life is at risk. Is Elizabeth’s biggest threat right now Philip — or is it her own riskiness, unchecked without him?

The gap between Philip and Elizabeth is becoming a chasm

Genevieve Koski: This episode really exposed just how wide the gap has become between Philip and Elizabeth, not only as a couple but as parents.

There’s a distinct delineation happening in the Jennings clan right now, and it’s split along gender lines: We get our first real glimpse of Henry (So grown! So stonewashed!) this season through his phone conversation with Philip, which centers on Philip’s travel agency woes specifically.

In one sense it’s comical how drastically different this is from what Elizabeth and Paige go through in this episode, but it’s also a little sad to see that Henry, away at that boarding school he was eyeing last season, is apparently as isolated from the women of his family as Philip is. (There’s a bit of an echo happening here with Stan’s connection to Henry, rather than his own child, as his marriage was falling apart.)

Philip is at least aware of the opposing forces that are pulling at the Jennings family — indeed, he was instrumental in establishing that divide — but Henry is still just out there dangling, blithely unaware of the invisible rift working its way through his family. And maybe that’s precisely why Philip reaches out to his son, a bastion of normalcy far removed — literally — from the terse conversations he’s having with Elizabeth about her work and Paige’s “mistake.”

It’s seeming less and less like Henry will become aware of the other family business before the series ends, at least in time for us to see him adjust to it the way we watched Paige do so over the last couple of seasons. It’s always been a bit of a joke how removed Henry seems from the inner workings of the Jennings clan — which is perhaps why I always love bringing him up in these recaps — but shuffling him away to boarding school has more or less downgraded him to guest star, both in his family and on the series.

Hell, we’ve spent more time this season with Sofia and Gennadi (whose FBI code name is apparently “Teacup”), two other characters I had completely forgotten about but who take center stage in Stan’s storyline this episode.

I admit to having some trouble tracking the specifics of Sofia and Gennadi’s marital woes and how they relate to Stan and Aderholt’s work with each of them, but the parallelism of a dissolving marriage with life-or-death stakes is clear enough, as is the irony of Stan telling Aderholt “I’m not a marriage counselor,” which is so thick you could spread it on toast.

Broken marriages are all over this episode — Stan and Aderholt both also briefly mention their own divorces — which sort of makes Stan’s storyline this episode feel like a thematically appropriate placeholder until we get to the Stan-informant reunion we really want, which is Oleg. That said, it did at least result in a nice spywork sequence (set to Talking Heads!) involving adjoining bathroom stalls and an X-ray machine, so it wasn’t a complete wash.

The Americans
The always welcome Reed Birney pops up as Elizabeth’s “friend” in the State Department.

Caroline Framke: I forgot how comically bad Team Teacup is at being FBI sources, and how that entire storyline of Stan and Aderholt trying to make them at all decent was (maybe unintentionally) hilarious, but whew. Maybe the husband will pull out something interesting against all odds — that bathroom setup was, indeed, pretty impressive — but if anything, that pairing mostly serves to underline just how good the other undercover Russian couple at the center of this show actually is. As The Americans both shows and tells us over and over again, not everyone can handle this kind of work, let alone be anywhere near Philip and Elizabeth’s level.

But like Genevieve said, the contrast between Philip and Elizabeth’s current jobs continues to get starker in “Tchaikovsky.” Elizabeth is juggling state secrets about Reagan’s potential senility and trying to get her hands on a lithium-based reactor; Philip is sad he lost a client. The difference in their respective stakes would be laughable if Elizabeth’s weren’t so horrifying.

Last week, I wrote that it was only a matter of time before Paige realized that her parents’ work isn’t the clean-cut decency that they sold her. I did not think that would happen quite this quickly or — I’m so sorry — explosively!

It did seem as though Paige was already questioning her mother’s honesty when she asked her, straight up, whether KGB agents use sex to get information — and Elizabeth replied with a firm “no.” Even though Elizabeth followed up with a more wishy-washy “things aren’t so black and white” clarification, it seemed pretty clear that Paige didn’t totally buy it.

Frankly, I’m not sure what Elizabeth’s end game was in shielding Paige from the realities of the job. Of course she and Claudia would want to gradually ease Paige into the more harrowing aspects, but if she truly is continuing down this track, she was always going to have to learn the harsh realities of what her parents — and now she — are expected to do for the cause. Now, after Paige found Elizabeth drenched in someone else’s blood and viscera, there should be no going back to patriotic platitudes.

Libby: It seems out of character that Paige even asked — the honey trap/femme fatale isn’t exactly a new trope in American popular culture, and her parents once lectured her about how sex makes you vulnerable and you say things you shouldn’t. Of course no one wants to think about their parents having sex with strangers as part of their job, but Paige wasn’t asking if Elizabeth did it; she was asking about the KGB as a whole. The only explanation that makes sense is she was testing her mother’s honesty.

Is Elizabeth lying to Paige, though, or is she lying to herself about the realities of her daughter’s future? She seems to believe what she told Philip: Paige’s life will be different. She’ll have a professional job somewhere in the American security state and pass secrets to the Soviets on the side.

Her value to the KGB is so great that others might always do her dirty work. But even in the best-case scenario, she faces a life of risk (the State Department, we learned this week, isn’t exactly lackadaisical about security) and isolation.

The spycraft this season has been almost all about the women; Paige, Claudia, and Elizabeth are the ones on the missions while Stan, Philip, and Oleg are on the sidelines. (Stan confirmed this week that, like Philip, he’s happy to have left espionage behind him.) The Americans has some of the best female characters on TV, but it’s rarely about gender; is there a broader theme here that I’m missing?

Meanwhile, if Philip and Stan are both meeting with Oleg, they’re going to end up closer to each other professionally than they’ve been in a long time, and I’m very excited — and have some wild theories — about how that could play out.

What is this season trying to say about gender?

The Americans
Matthew Rhys directed this episode!

Genevieve: I am here for your wild theories re: Oleg, Libby, but the idea that there’s some sort of gender commentary happening with the distribution of spywork this season gives me pause. First of all, we did see Philip dust off his chops last week to meet with Oleg, and the spy-versus-spy conflict that meeting established suggests it may not be the last we see of it — though we may be seeing it in conflict with Elizabeth’s work, which is definitely different. And while Philip and Stan may have stayed on the sidelines this episode, ol’ Teacup was at least holding it down for spycraft with a Y chromosome.

What’s more striking to me about the spycraft differential — and where I think this vague sense of gendered work may stem from — is the extent to which Elizabeth specifically is shouldering all the “dirty work” she used to split with Philip. Both of them have engaged in their fair share of the more harrowing aspects of the job — sex and murder, basically — but with Philip out of the game, and Paige removed from those elements, at least for now, Elizabeth has to continue that labor on her own, with no one to share the emotional burden. (The idea of sex and murder as emotional labor is so quintessentially The Americans.)

With Paige now having witnessed one aspect of that dirty work and developing strong suspicions about the other, Elizabeth may now have someone to share the burden with — or, more likely, will take on an even greater emotional weight as a result.

Caroline: I have a feeling that we’ll have plenty of time to parse the significance of these gender breakdowns as the season goes forward, so I’m going to shift gears slightly and go back a bit to something “Tchaikovsky” does very well.

I actually disagree with Todd — the horror! — that this episode isn’t as propulsive as the premiere. Granted, “Philip gets frustrated with his travel agency” isn’t exactly spellbinding stuff, but the Stan storyline finds a way to hum along with that bathroom scene, and Elizabeth ping-ponging between assignments is tense in a way that recalls some of The Americans best moments.

I’d believe that just based on the stressful scenes of her evading security in the State Department alone. But that awful, riveting standoff ending still manages to steal that sequence’s thunder, especially for that lightning-quick moment in which Elizabeth goes from pleading with the general to spare her because she’s a mother to lunging at him with a rush of determination and panic. Director Matthew Rhys(!) once again crushes it, imbuing the entire episode with a thrumming, simmering unease that pushes in at the edges of every scene.

Todd: I was on set for the filming of certain scenes in this episode (notably the conversation between Elizabeth and Claudia about Paige’s future), and it was striking to watch Rhys work. Critics like me, used to parsing a filmed piece via its visuals, sometimes forget how much of direction is guiding the actors toward the performance that will best serve the material. And you might also think that on a show in its sixth season, the actors already know what they will be doing.

But watching Rhys work with Keri Russell and Margo Martindale to find the emotional core of the scene reminded me of how much craft is in every scene on this show. (I should also say that watching Russell go from “Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings” during rehearsal to ELIZABETH JENNINGS when the camera was on was a little awe-inspiring, as someone who can’t act his way off a bare stage.)

But I also like how willing Rhys is to just let quieter moments play out. I think back to his direction of “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (still my choice for the show’s best episode), and what was so striking about that was that nearly wordless opening montage of Martha leaving the US behind forevermore.

The scene where the characters just sit and listen to music is a good example of this. Rhys’s camera captures just the right angle on the individual emotional turmoil of these three women, but what stands out is the music, the way it informs the characters and the performances, and his trust in the performers to just put this over. (I find actors-turned-directors often have a higher trust in their performers than other directors, for reasons that should seem a little obvious.)

I also liked his direction of the State Department scene, with Elizabeth slipping away from the tour group and then evading security without raising the suspicion of her contact. The sequence conveys, readily, the desperation Elizabeth (and by proxy her country) feel in these waning days of the Cold War. But it also creates tension in what amounts to a couple of people checking badges in a room. It’s terrific stuff, just very small-scale.

Maybe this is what I mean by “Tchaikovsky” not being as propulsive — yes, it’s got some amazing sequences, but it also takes its time for these quieter scenes. But then, that’s why this show has always been one of my favorites — it depicts the dark, emotional labor (great catch, Genevieve) of spycraft, but also the little moments that still make life worth living for these characters. That balance feels like it’s slipping away this late in the game, so it’s nice to see it still exists on the margins.