It’s so typical of The Americans.
At this stage of any show, speculation is rife. We’re so far along that there’s only so many permutations of an ending that can exist – running them all hypothetically through your imagination makes it possible to happen upon the actual ending.
And yet The Americans has continually looked for the unimagined version of their stories. Not just anticlimactic, in the way The Sopranos would routinely set their audiences up for big showdowns and then undercut them with smaller, more damaging climaxes, but what The Americans does is look for the untold story.
It’s so typical of them that really this episode should have been expected.
Instead, what was expected was a chaotic mess of espionage as Elizabeth attempts to pull off many impossible expectations and do the work her masters ask of her at the summit meeting she – and the show – have built up all season. Instead, the summit is almost entirely backgrounded, and happens mostly offscreen. What ‘The Summit’ gives us, instead, is the breaking point of Elizabeth. Her summit.
At the beginning of the episode, Philip tells her everything. It’s a kind of love, one that can only exist between these two (who have had declarations of love played out in silence through scenes like last week’s corpse beheading, and the much earlier tooth extraction in the laundry scene). He talks about the tallying up of all their actions, all their spying and murder, and that it’s on them. To dismiss it is inhuman. The implication, to Elizabeth, is that he thinks she’s not human, the way she goes about her work. He doesn’t, but she’s right. She can’t continue like this in any humane way. Her shock over Philip’s spying of her is countered by Philip’s claim that she would have done the same in his place. He is the spy who loved her, and spying on her (like flying to Chicago, like telling her everything now while aware that it may get him killed) was the only action left to him to continue that love.
But Elizabeth has to continue with her humanity suddenly called into question. She has to still be present with the Haskards, and attempt to recruit 19 year old Jackson to plant a recording device to allow her successful infiltration of the summit meeting.
All season, Erica Haskard has forced Elizabeth to look at her own life in a way she hadn’t previously. To look at the dark, and not the light, in order to see things clearly. To Erica, art preserves life, something that Elizabeth has had no time for. It doesn’t get her closer to her goal, and is therefore of no value. But Erica is dying, slowly and agonisingly, because her husband botched her euthanising. And now Elizabeth has to kill her, again.
Erica’s life has been prolonged partly because Glenn Haskard feared to let her go, but also because Elizabeth preyed on that fear and convinced Glenn that there was still time to live. This served purpose to Elizabeth because it allowed her to continue spying on Glenn, but the irony is it meant she had to promote a worldview she doesn’t necessarily share. Furthermore, Glenn’s botched attempt occurred while Elizabeth was in Chicago, demonstrating that the needless prolonging of Erica’s life with the failed and excruciatingly painful euthanising occurred only because of Elizabeth’s presence in the Haskard’s lives. She has killed Erica multiple times before she does so finally, shoving a paintbrush down her throat.
(Another good note: Glenn blames himself for continually working when he could have spent more time with Erica. Elizabeth only hears this because she is at ‘work’, and always has to leave home to go to ‘work’, something noted by her children as a constant feature of their lives, and also now by Stan.)
And for Elizabeth’s sins, Glenn gives her a painting. Life is gone, but the art continues.
Elizabeth takes it back to the safehouse and knows she needs to burn the painting, lest it connect her to the Haskards. She can’t initially, stuffing it into a vent to hide, before relenting and burning the canvas anyway.
This is a rehearsal, as painful as it is.
Elizabeth moves onto Jackson, seduces him, manipulates him, and sends him off to plant the tape recorder in the summit. He discovers it, and she knows she needs to kill him. He knows she’s going to.
But then she doesn’t. She allows Jackson to live. Allows this canvas to remain unburned.
Later, she can’t kill her target, Nesterenko. There’s no evidence that he needs to go, and despite her orders, she is suddenly seeing things clearly. She’s reached the summit of everything the Centre can ask of her, and it’s a long way down from here.
She returns to challenge Claudia, to discover the truth of what is happening. Claudia has known all along that Elizabeth’s missions have been to remove Gorbachev and subsequently remove hope of a more open and free Russia.
She tells Philip to reveal this to his contact, even if it’s too late for either of them to get out of this comfortably. After driving these two characters apart all season, the last thing I expected was them to end up pragmatically in the same place. It’s going to make the inevitable sundering of the Jennings family all the worse, I fear.
Philip, in his purgatory, does several things that seemingly achieve very little. He visits Stavos, possibly out of a sense of guilt, or attempts to leave things on a better note than when he fired Stavos. Instead, he finds no method toward atonement, only the suggestion that Stavos knew Philip and Elizabeth were up to illegal things in their office. Suddenly, Philip’s security in his American cover is not so iron-clad. He goes to buy a suit, attempting another lavish indulgence in capitalism, but his face is that of the broken Philip, not the line-dancing Philip. This, like it or not, is American Philip’s burial suit. He can’t return to that life anymore. And so he rents a movie from the video store. A Russian movie. And watches it at home.
Elizabeth has to go back to work. Philip has to talk to Oleg and get in touch with the priest, who may or may not be under investigation by the FBI. Stan is watching from across the road, and the Jennings are as vulnerable as they’ve ever been.
If the ID sketches don’t get Elizabeth, then maybe her failed attempt at spying on the summit will. If the priest doesn’t lead the FBI to Philip, then maybe the loose VHS in the Jennings household will.
If there’s one way to relief in this episode, it’s that the Jennings are human after all. They thought themselves the consummate spies, but really there are many, many, many paintings they’ve failed to burn over the years, and they’re all waiting to be discovered.