Everybody fails. It’s just a matter of timing.
During the sixth episode of the final season – ‘Rififi’ – Philip is stunned that his son has not only been discussing his (legitimate) business with others, but also the fact that it might be presented in a way to suggest the travel agency is failing. He doesn’t want to be seen as having failed this basic test of American life.
This is particularly unnerving for Philip because he seemingly put all his eggs in this basket. The business, Henry’s education – this is all his job in the arranged marriage with Elizabeth. Meanwhile, she continues the other business, the one he opted out of – at Elizabeth’s urging – but is now rewritten in their lives as another thing he failed at.
This sense of failure was as much a part of his physical confrontation with Paige last week, and clearly also impetus for Philip’s decision to about-face on Kimmy. He wanted to take control back of his own life and not have it be viewed through someone else’s lens of failure.
In an episode named after the French heist film Rififi, the desire to get things right just one last time is apt. On a meta-textual level, the show is aware of its own ending and needing to bring some sense of finality to the narrative. And like it or not, that awareness is there in all our main characters. Philip trying to fix his marriage for good but also free himself of the burden of espionage. Elizabeth pushed further and further and further, knowing that at any second she might break, or be broken, but also dreaming that the reward for all this work is just there within her grasp. And Stan, lured back into counter-espionage for one last job, despite the fact that, as he says, every time he goes down there someone dies.
The one last job trope is well-worn, but at the time of Rififi, it still worked fresh. The protagonist is not motivated by greed, or financial necessity to commit one final heist. It’s an internal pressure, a hole that needs filling, with the understanding that just this one last time will do it. And of course, it works, until it doesn’t.
The obvious parallel is Elizabeth’s mission to extract another illegal from Chicago. She knows this is extremely dangerous, she knows it’s unlikely to succeed, but she’s committed herself so fully to her path that she can’t back out now. To admit that this is a mistake is to admit many more mistakes that came before. And that’s too hard. She spits this all back at Philip over the phone when he senses that she knows this is nearing the end.
The centrepiece of Rififi is the long, patient heist, carried out in almost pure silence. The heist and its build-up are focused on the technical details that go into this kind of work, a forerunner to the crime films of Michael Mann, and large sections of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. And, clearly, The Americans. The technical mundane is the story. Compare Philip and Oleg’s communication via invisible ink with anything from the first half of Rififi, or just about any scene with Mike in Better Call Saul, and the topic of what these characters are doing is secondary to how and why they’re doing it. And while ‘Rififi’ doesn’t contain a heist per se (that will probably come next week) this episode functions almost as the long, slow, at times silent build-up to the heist. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that when it does, all the chaos of Stan and Aderholt’s FBI team will descend upon them.
On another interesting note about Rififi, it was directed by the American Jules Dassin, who was a signed up member of the Communist Party in the 1930s and later blacklisted in Hollywood, resulting in him turning to Europe to make films. Rififi is an adaptation, but reinterprets at length the nature of the characters in its story from the source material, including one scene where one of the heist team is executed by another for giving them up, post-heist. The execution is understood, accepted, as he broke the code. Dassin wanted another actor to play this particular part but in the end, had to play the role himself, in some ways commentating on those who gave names up to others during the Communist paranoia era.
Bit by bit, The Americans is leading us to the end, to the ultimate failure of these characters on their last job. Will one break the code and give up the other? There was a clue in the Aderholt-Stan scenes that they were investigating Russian priests in the area, which both locks in the reason for revisiting the priest earlier in the season who married Elizabeth and Philip, and suggests this may be the thread that untangles the whole operation.
Philip is heading to Chicago not necessarily to help the job, but to protect Elizabeth, and protect the one thing he’s got out of this whole journey in America: his marriage. The (messy) dry run of asylum for Gennadi and Sofia already gave us an indication for how Stan’s storyline might meet up with the Jennings’, but it’s uncertain who – if anyone – comes out of it okay. With Oleg acting as handler for Philip, working toward a more open and honest Russia but still categorised by Aderholt and Stan as a spy despite his intentions, and Paige now blindly committed to the cause and in a position to view Stan as the enemy, it’s increasingly unlikely there’s a happy ending for any of these characters. Except perhaps Henry, who seems capable of managing himself without active or involved parents.