There is so much tension occurring within The Americans it’s impossible to imagine how the Jennings household is going to make it to next week, let alone the finale.
Take the opening scene of ‘Urban Transport Planning’. Elizabeth is still cleaning the muck of General Rennhull’s brains out of her hair while Philip tries to reconcile Paige with her new reality. Paige is instantly forced to realise that her gradual introduction to espionage still has a long way to go if she’s meant to divorce herself from her emotions as readily as her mother, while being able to accept violent deaths as a normal part of the job.
Philip, understandably, offers her chances to open up and realise that she has support. He references Est, and talks about how he found strategies to cope with the spying life (even if he couldn’t cope, in the end). He had Elizabeth, he says, and Paige will too.
But then on cue, Elizabeth returns and proceeds to criticise Paige’s performance on the job. She made mistakes, she didn’t stick to her post, and so on. Not a breath is taken to see if her daughter is coping with the sight of her mother covered in brain matter next to a headless US general – she must be soldier first, and mother a far, distant second. And yet there’s a suggestion that this isn’t because Elizabeth can’t be a mother to Paige, she clearly can, it’s because reverting to the socialist soldier type is easier. She doesn’t have to confront the reality that her actual daughter is in moral and physical danger because of Elizabeth’s work. That’s too difficult. That’s the dark that she didn’t want to look at last week.
And then Henry calls, intruding on the scene with more sporting success and real happiness, but Philip has to fob him off – he’s in the middle of a work thing, of course. Suddenly Paige is part of that work thing, and we can see every childhood memory of work things intruding on their family life starting to gain greater significance. She is through the looking glass, and no longer just a daughter.
It’s all good and well for Elizabeth to demand perfection from Philip when they worked together – theirs was a marriage arranged for cover, they played the part while their primary role was for Russia. But this cover of marriage gave them real children, one who they’re ignoring (and not paying school fees for) and the other is now a part of their operation. Only she’s their real daughter, not a pretend husband. Paige sees Elizabeth as her mother, not her boss. She sees Claudia as a grandmother-type, not as their handler. There is no cover for Paige, no pretense that she is a part of. And Elizabeth’s harsh words to her are those of someone who can’t deal with the reality that her life in America has brought her, who can’t look at the dark consequences of her actions, because it terrifies her. Paige isn’t Tuan, pretending to be a family unit in aid of the socialist dream. Paige is there because of her mother, not because of Russia.
And this is all before the opening credits.
Philip’s phone call to Henry’s school to arrange deferred payment on his fees, and his forced motivation to his travel agency staff to earn more, suggests that his adherences to capitalism are on shaky ground. It’s not easy, being a part of a machine that values money rather than ideology. He’s pouring over accounts and invoices later when Elizabeth interrupts him with a tupperware container full of home-cooked zharkoye. The dream smells good, he can get just a small taste before it’s down the garbage disposal. And while this prompts a disagreement between Philip and Elizabeth about whether Russia is better now as it moves toward a more Western society, or if they should be fighting to preserve the old Russia (before it too goes down the garbage disposal), Philip is still able to extract a hell of a lot of information out of Elizabeth without it seeming obvious. He has a moment to consider mentioning Oleg, but doesn’t. They’ve each made their choices, and they don’t include one another.
Stan meets with Oleg and warns him off whatever it is he’s in the US to do. His senses are so acute there that despite the personal and ideological rifts between the two, Stan doesn’t buy any of Oleg’s answers. Later, Renee confronts Stan about her lack of job satisfaction, and that she wants to work for the FBI. If she is an operative who’s working Stan, this seems an unlikely avenue for her. Unless Stan somehow takes the bait and finds her an administration job. But if his senses are as good as they are, perhaps his dismissal of Renee’s aspirations is the beginning of him realising her motivations don’t quite stack up. Can Stan survive the unmasking of Renee and the Jennings this season?
Elizabeth’s final scene is brutal, but telling. Backed by Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love, she murders a sensor plant worker without hesitation after hearing his girlfriend works in security. This was not part of the plan, but now there’s a new plan. Easy solution: murder. She’s tired, she’s overworked, she has no comfort or support in Philip, no family in Paige or Henry, and she’s making mistakes. Earlier in the episode, she mentioned to Paige that the general was desperate, he was caught in a corner and saw his suicide as the only option. Like last week’s foreshadowing, we can’t help but speculate if this is the end for Elizabeth. Will she be caught in a corner, deciding between her fake-then-real family, or her Russian dreams? And if so, what choice will she make?
Stan’s abrupt wrapping up of Sofia and Gennadi’s storyline also gives us a potential dress rehearsal for later in the season: will Philip and Elizabeth request asylum? And if so, who will the children go with?
The other wrinkle that comes out of this beat is that Elizabeth’s harsh words to Paige could potentially spur Paige on to become more devoted, more perfectionist. And so while Elizabeth may be too overwhelmed to realise Philip is spying on her, perhaps Paige will realise something, and then too she will face a choice. Will her tragedy be attempting to emulate her mother by giving up her father?
Until then, all these characters will just have to dance toward the end of their love. There’s not long to go.