by Josie Kafka
After last week’s violent cliffhanger, The Americans went for a quieter tension this week in an episode that allowed Matthew Rhys to shine just as much as Keri Russell did in “A Little Night Music.”
Philip’s discussion with the Mossad agent was an excellent example of the theatrical quality of this show. I don’t mean “theatrical” in the sense of spectacle: I mean “theatrical” in the sense of theater, drama, plays: those dialogue-heavy works of literature that depend on actors to lend nuance to the often oblique words on the page.
Take for instance, the icicles: to the Mossad agent, they were a symbol of why he would hate to live in the Soviet Union. (Me, too!) He wants to die in view of the Mediterranean. (Me, too!) He loves his homeland, even as he hates what he must hide to protect it. He assumed Philip would dislike the Soviet Union. (Me, too! I think this Mossad agent might be a stand-in for the audience, eh?) But Philip said he didn’t remember if there were icicles back home—and we, as astute viewers, knew he was lying. He didn’t want to give that memory to the Mossad agent; Philip wanted to protect his cherished childhood recollections.
Tellingly, he shared his icicle story with Elizabeth. He chose to connect with her, and to foster the connection that they (as ChrisB pointed out in her review of the previous episode) are committed to protecting. But how can they commit to a marriage if they’re forced to have affairs?
Elizabeth must have been wondering that herself, as she was forced to play Philip’s sister with Martha. Elizabeth described Philip as lacking certain social graces, particular moments of consideration for others: that does not describe Philip, but I wonder if it is how Elizabeth sees herself. She does find it difficult to show Paige, for instance, just how much she loves her.
Keri Russell didn’t have as much meat this weak as she did last week, in which she managed to use her real vulnerability to portray false vulnerability to her target. But Elizabeth’s conversation with Martha seemed to reveal a few tinges of jealousy. Is Philip not an “animal” with Elizabeth? Does she want him to be?
The question behind that question is: how does Elizabeth want Philip to be? He may not appear to be overcome with animal lust, but he shares his icicle stories. He loves her. That may be more “real” than what he has with Martha, but Elizabeth may not understand that what she has is reality. She may not understand how important a story about icicles, the buzz of an alarm clock, and a shouting teenager truly are to Philip and to their marriage. “Home” is the right word for Philip, even if he doesn’t let the Mossad agent know that.
Arkady said that Russians will die for their principles. That might be true of Arkady, and might even be true of Elizabeth. But it’s not true for Philip. His memories of his homeland are of family, play, and childhood. His connection to America is the family he has built. He may miss Russia, but he understands why Anton wants to stay in the US: it is his home, for reasons that transcend politics. Until they don’t.
The Americans has always emphasize the impossible balancing act of the spies and operatives it portrays. It’s not just Elizabeth and Philip, but Stan and Nina and Oleg, the Mossad agent and Anton—they all are torn between love of people and love of ideals. Now that Oleg has caught Stan out, Stan will have to choose whether to protect Nina, his relationship with Nina, his “source,” and himself. I wonder if he’ll make the right choice. I also wonder if I could even tell you what the “right” choice is.
In the Anton-trade scene towards the end of this episode, the Mossad agent asked Philip if his life was real: “Is home the right word?...Your name isn’t your name, is it? Is your face, your face? Are your children, your children?” I heard an echo here of the Talking Heads song “One in a Lifetime” (lyrics: “This is not my beautiful house…”), which came out in 1981. But Anton was wrong: Philip is not a monster, and he does not lack all humanity.
Philip’s quandary—love of family vs. love of duty, the appearance of one thing and the messy reality of another—is not a dilemma specific to Directorate S agents. It’s the fate of all mankind: to wonder if where we are is where we ought to be, and to make impossible decisions for difficult reasons. As Paige said: “My life, my crazy life—I don’t know where to put everything.” What Paige might gradually realize this season is that none of us do.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)