In some ways, we all live our lives with cover.
There’s us, the one we put out to others. The lie that we believe and so it isn’t really a lie as it is a self-ideology. It allows us to present a face to the world, to create an impression on those we care about (and those we don’t), to have confidence where we otherwise wouldn’t, to navigate the difficult situations.
And underneath, there’s the real. The one we pretend doesn’t exist until those moments of aloneness. And even then, it can be begrudgingly. Do we put up with the echoes in our head of our own selves, fighting against the cover we present to the world? Is it a source of comfort, or anxiety?
Philip and Elizabeth have so many covers, so many different versions of themselves they play, it’s no wonder they are entirely lost in their three-year old arrangement. It isn’t a simple case of spies pretending to be married and then layering false identities on top of that.
Who were they before they were married? Before they were even signed up? Is that gone from them?
We’ve had rare glimpses of Elizabeth’s past during the six seasons of The Americans: most notably early on in the first season when she was forced to encounter her abuser. For the most part though, it’s only Philip’s memories that we’re afforded to, as we are in ‘Mr and Mrs Teacup.’ Here he’s a small boy again, scraping the bottom of used pots from a kitchen for the scant after-taste of nutrition. He is even able to share.
He has constantly been the character trying to maintain some vestige of who he was in who he is now. That alone would be enough to drive him into retirement.
But even there, he isn’t a travel agent. He isn’t a concerned father trying to scrounge money for his son’s tuition fees. He isn’t a husband feeling isolated from his increasingly cold marriage. All of it is cover, and always has been. The faces he adopts, personas he attempts, in order to navigate this life of faking reality.
It’s spies all the way down.
The point with all of this is, at some point there’s a cut-through. A moment in the facade-upon-facade-upon-facade that suddenly makes our principal characters see themselves. Ambushed from their unconscious with their own reflection, their own longing and loneliness for a life that is theirs. The memory of Philip’s that concludes the episode bookends the question raised in his meet-up with Kimmie. Forgetting all the plot points this scene is concerned with, she notices that Philip is aimless, and lost. He isn’t the boyfriend-father figure from three years ago – now she’s older, and he’s just old. And there, without reason.
The connection between these two moments is palpable. What part of this life does Philip still want? What part belongs to him, the boy who scraped pots with a wooden spoon in the snow for food?
The title invites us to connect the Gennadi-Sofia marriage (the codenamed ‘Mr and Mrs Teacup’) and their current plight with the Jennings. Sofia and Gennadi are forced into political asylum, but separated. Sofia has their child, Gennadi is alone. Both are under threat from mortal retribution, or facing the consequence of a life that isn’t theirs.
This is the guessing game for the remainder of The Americans: what is the end for Philip and Elizabeth? Nothing they are doing at the moment has any future (Philip can’t sustain his capitalist fatherhood; Elizabeth will destroy herself serving her communist handlers), and so we need to speculate.
Will Philip end up in America or Russia? The former would be a tragedy for Elizabeth, and the latter a happy dream that her current murder-happy spy incarnation can’t fathom. Henry doesn’t even speak to Elizabeth, but may be the only ‘true’ American in the family, which may isolate him entirely. Paige’s storyline cannot end happily. Her aspirations (given suspicious inflation here from Elizabeth) are entirely coerced by the misconstrued version of the world Elizabeth has given her. She is not blameless now, and so cannot escape as an innocent.
Philip ends the episode remembering who he was as a child. Paige ends finding herself emulating her mother unknowingly – sleeping with a target she actually felt attracted to, while still getting the information she needed from him. And Elizabeth, covered in vomit and forcing pain and anguish into a tortured family’s life, all so she can capture a recording of a suspected Russian, who only wished sympathy and not malice.
Are we our cover selves, or are we us? A memory, a romantic encounter, a painting. All of life becomes a hall of mirrors, and we’re left searching for the true reflection.