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 deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski offer their takes on “Rififi,” the sixth episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!
Todd VanDerWerff: It’s appropriate that an episode called “Rififi” would be as interested in process as it is. We watch Philip investigate Elizabeth, then leave a dead-drop message for Oleg (we don’t learn about the contents, though presumably it has something to do with what Elizabeth has been up to). We watch Elizabeth slowly cultivate a new source (a congressional intern — she’s getting ideas from Paige). We even get a lengthy explanation of how the FBI has caught on to an illegal in Chicago, courtesy of Aderholt, who turns out to be the greatest investigator in the history of the bureau.
But that focus on procedure and process, on the way the job gets done and not always the job itself, is paired with a somber portrayal of the continued fraying of the Jennings family unit — with the briefest of hopes at the end for renewal. Elizabeth is called away to Chicago to try to extract the illegal the FBI is surveilling, but it’s over Thanksgiving. (Philip’s covering for her at Stan’s celebration isn’t especially convincing, but it gets the job done.)
And it being Thanksgiving and all, both Philip and Elizabeth can feel the absence of each other, or — maybe more accurately — of the marriage they once had that has been washed away of late.
This is fascinating because Thanksgiving is an American invention of a holiday. There are a few other countries that celebrate it, but it’s not like Christmas or Halloween, where there are traditions throughout the world. No, Thanksgiving has always been, on some level, a salute to American overabundance, a holiday celebrating all “we” have, while chuckling over how little “they” have.
Stan brings this to a fine point with his Thanksgiving toast in honor of the American way, which Matthew Rhys and Holly Taylor’s facial expressions make one of the funniest scenes in the show’s history, but this idea of American overabundance (and its less talked-about but inevitable opposite) has been knitted throughout the season. What does history look like when you don’t think you’re the hero? What does it look like when you stop believing in heroes and villains at all?
“Rififi” is a bit of a time-marking episode, getting various pieces in place for the final push, but it does conclude with the season’s most momentous act: Philip agreeing to join Elizabeth to help her in Chicago, but only after he begs her to come home. The personal is the political, and vice versa, and at this late date, there’s no way to extricate them from each other.
But let’s talk about the most important thing in this episode: Keidrich Sellati got to say, “Previously, on The Americans”!!!
What the movie Rififi has to do with the episode “Rififi”
Libby Nelson: Excuse me, Todd, I believe the word you’re looking for isn’t process, which is boring; it’s spycraft, which is awesome. It turns out all Stan had to do to was … [checks notes] go through the records and registrations for every car bought in cash in a major metropolitan area for several years, hoping that the KGB used the same fake names they did in Chicago and they’ll recognize one?
Okay, fine. It’s process, and “Rififi” was a table-setting episode; no better time than Thanksgiving to set a table. But from the moment Claudia said “Chicago,” I was almost too nervous to watch. (Let us not speak of the moment Philip entered the wig-and-prop garage that, at that very moment, Stan was combing through records trying to find.) The FBI has finally found the thread to pull that could unravel the whole dang sweater. All this time, it turns out, the real action in the hunt for the KGB was 700 miles away, where an agent we’ve never met was tracking a KGB spy we’ve never heard of, and the plot was set in motion by, of all people, Mr. Teacup.
We’ve been on the sidelines, privy only to a tiny piece of the action — just like Henry Jennings. By the standards of The Americans, Henry is carefree. But his parents can’t afford to pay tuition for his senior year; his new friends come from families that “own a couple of companies”; he’s so distant from his mother that their phone conversation consists of awkward small talk; and he keeps getting asked if he has a girlfriend, which he doesn’t.
Teen dramas have been built on less. Sellati got some material to work with here, and it’s a credit to his performance that for a moment I really did worry about Henry’s future summer job in a West Virginia tannery. His stilted phone conversation with Elizabeth was arguably more awkward than Stan’s toast, and it was a punch in the gut.
Before we go any further, though: Have either of you seen Rififi the film? My cursory Google search suggests it’s about an elaborate criminal plot gone horribly awry due to the unforeseen human element of feelings and relationships. So definitely not relevant in any way as Philip flies to Chicago to join Elizabeth on a risky, quite possibly doomed mission, right?
Genevieve Koski: Nope, totally random pop culture reference!
Of course I jest. There’s certainly some thematic and/or character connections you can draw between Jules Dassin’s 1955 film and The Americans as a whole, but as Todd alluded to at the beginning of this conversation, its invocation in this episode seems to be functioning mainly on a structural level.
Rififi is considered the gold standard of heist films for the clarity and style with which it deploys its heist mechanics, most notably in the sequence depicting the central robbery, which, as Elizabeth and congressional intern Jackson Barber briefly discuss, spans a full 35 minutes of silence, with no dialogue or music. It’s a highly efficient, hugely suspenseful film that is stylistically fixated as much on the how of its crimes as the why, making its appearance in this process-oriented episode feel especially pointed.
(Another thing to note about Rififi: It was, as Jackson tells Elizabeth condescendingly, made by an American filmmaker who’d been blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, who moved to France and took full advantage of the country’s much looser moral standards around film production. It would be a stretch to draw a one-to-one connection between Dassin’s background and that of the Jenningses, but it’s not hard to hear a bit of a distorted echo.)
Given the table-setting nature of “Rififi,” though, I’d wager that its allusion to the film is also foreshadowing the Chicago mission we’re going to see next week, positioning it as the high-stakes culmination of what we see in this episode. It would be kind of weird to invoke Rififi so loudly and not have it lead to some bravura centerpiece sequence, and we don’t really get one of those here, so much as the various process-oriented teases that Todd outlines above.
I want to make clear, though: I loved this episode in all its time-marking glory. It’s thrilling to see all these puzzle pieces that have been scattered across the seasons get methodically turned over and nudged into their final positions, allowing us to gradually see the final image taking shape. Philip’s call to Elizabeth, and his begrudging acceptance that he’ll be joining her on this ill-fated Chicago mission, felt like — to belabor this puzzle metaphor a bit more — snapping the final border piece into place; the framing for The Americans’ final resolution is there, just waiting to be filled in. It’s exciting! It’s terrifying! It’s wildly methodical!
Todd: I was talking with a fellow TV critic (who shall remain nameless), who was ... a bit frustrated, let’s say, with the fact that the season hasn’t turned into a high stakes showdown between Stan and the Jenningses, or that Paige hadn’t turned on her parents, or that Henry hadn’t discovered their secret, or something. And I guess if I were to have predicted before the season what it would look like, I might have expected things to have progressed a bit further than they have.
And yet I’m not at all upset about this. Season six has been as deliberate and careful as any other season of the show. It wasn’t going to suddenly shift into a more action-packed show than it’s always been. The further we progress into the season, the more likely it becomes that Stan discovers the names of his neighbors in that giant stack of papers (my general prediction for how this all winds up), but it probably won’t lead to a car chase or a gun battle or anything like that but, instead, a kinda sad arrest.
I don’t know how widespread the opinion of my colleague is — I’m going to wager not particularly, given the other articles and social media discussions I’ve read about the show. But I have to admire The Americans for sticking to its non-pulpy guns to the very end. There are so many places where the show could suddenly become complete and utter nonsense, but it remains sober and straightforward. It’s less about the spycraft and more about the spies.
Maybe that’s why “Rififi” sticks out just a little bit for the amount of spycraft we actually see. At all turns, the final two seasons of the show have taken pains to point out just how taxing all of this is, and how exhausting. But it’s also fitting that the episode ends in a place where a mission is undertaken less to save the Soviet Union and more to save a marriage. That’s the way this show has always rolled, and I’m glad it hasn’t suddenly decided to do anything all that differently. It just keeps trucking.
But what a relief to have the two Jennings parents on the same team, right? The season has been building not to discovery but to reunion. If they go down, they’re going down together.
Are Philip and Elizabeth on the same team? Not so fast.
Genevieve: Together, yes. On the same team? I don’t know about that.
What made that final phone call between Philip and Elizabeth so tense and gut-wrenching is how clearly Philip is trying to get Elizabeth to stand down, to not force him to do the thing they both know he’ll do, come and be by her side for what certainly looks like a doomed mission. Elizabeth protests, “Nobody’s asking you to do that,” but that’s not the same as telling Philip not to come, and they both know it.
Underlying this carefully coded conversation is the same basic conflict that’s been driving a wedge between the Jenningses for years now: Philip’s lack of conviction that the Soviet cause is worth the blood, both literal and figurative, being shed in its name, and Elizabeth’s disdain that he could even entertain such a notion. “What’s happened to you?” she asks him, with no small amount of reproach; the irony lancing through his response — “Still the same asshole as always, doesn’t care about anyone but himself, right?” — is impossible to miss.
But is Philip’s resigned decision to join Elizabeth an indication that he cares for her, that he wants to protect his wife or to die by her side? I’m not sure it’s as simple as that, given how he’s been actively working against her this season, and given that Claudia tells Elizabeth that the operative who’s under surveillance in Chicago is also working on the “Mexico” project that Philip has been secretly reporting on to Oleg.
It’s hard not to see this final scene as a bookend to the equally tense, gut-wrenching scene that opens “Rififi,” where Philip reveals to Elizabeth (with no small amount of reproach) that he knows what she did to Mr. and Mrs. Teacup — and, more pointedly, their kid — and flat-out tells her he sabotaged her plans for Kimmy. Not only is Philip no longer turning a blind eye to Elizabeth’s increasingly extreme actions, he’s doing what he can to stop them from happening.
Of course, Elizabeth failing in her mission this time would by extension expose him, and Paige, for that matter, forcing Philip to set aside his moral stance in the name of self-preservation — not just for him but for the not-quite-grown children they’re leaving back in DC. But after that opening scene, where Philip looks at Elizabeth like she’s a monster he no longer knows, I’m not sure if he’s concerned with protecting her so much as stopping her from doing further damage.
Libby: Oh, that’s interesting — I’d had Todd’s read on the situation, and thought that the Jennings marriage had finally reached rock bottom before allowing them to unite one last time. (Perhaps I was primed to remember their secret wedding from earlier in the series by the FBI’s pursuit of Russian Orthodox priests.) I’d also wager this isn’t going to end well, although The Americans has fooled me enough about what the endgame looks like that I’m not going to make any more predictions.
One thing I’m wondering: Isn’t Elizabeth’s cover as a home-care nurse for Erica a little restrictive when it comes to these out-of-town missions? The moment when Elizabeth, in her hotel room, picked up a pencil and started to sketch was a lovely little moment that you could miss if you blinked.
We haven’t said much about the Erica storyline in these weekly talks, but they’ve added a nice leavening of humanity to a season that has come closer than any other to making Elizabeth a villain.
Todd: Yeah, this series has always been great at making Elizabeth a deeply complicated antihero. Yes, she does terrible things, but it gives you these glimmers of her humanity, especially in her relationships with Philip and her kids. And now that those relationships are foundering a bit, she’s clinging to this tiny shred of her own humanity that Erica has handed to her.
The “dying artist” plot line maybe isn’t as juicy as some of the season’s others, but I think it’s probably vital to what the show is trying to do this year, which is tell a story about finding a way to deescalate, to pull back from the brink. Expressing what’s in your soul in the face of certain death is one of the most human impulses there is, but alone in her hotel room, Elizabeth has only a pad and pencil with which to make this last confession (of sorts).
And, really, think of how beautifully that ties into the season’s story as a whole. The US and the USSR could have killed each other — but they didn’t. We found a way out of the swamp and to the world we live in right now. Maybe that world is a mess, but it’s still ours. There’s a beauty in that, and it gives me hope Philip and Elizabeth might find their way back to each other too. Just in time to die.