Review: 'The Americans' hosts an uncomfortable 'Dinner For Seven'
A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as I drop off Silver Streak on VHS...
"None of us are in control, not really. Not ever." -Pastor Tim
In case you missed the great news earlier today, FX renewed The Americans for two final seasons, 13 episodes next year, and 10 in 2018 to close things out. It's great that Fields, Weisberg, and company will get to wrap up the story the way that they wanted. But between the departures of Martha, Nina, and Gaad (the latter two fatal), the pressure being created by Paige, Pastor Tim, and Alice all being in on some stage of the secret, and the progress of Stan and Aderholt's investigations, there's been such a whiff of near-finality to things that it sure seemed like next year would make sense as the end. But the showrunners have had a long time to decide how much more runway they needed, and if they think it's 23 more episodes worth, than I look forward to feeling gut-punched by every single one of them, as they put us through the wringer along with all the surviving characters(*).
(*) Well, maybe not Henry. Though maybe they needed that 10-episode season just to detail his corruption and downfall?
Everyone has it rough in "Dinner for Seven," if if, like Young-Hee — who will likely never learn why "Patty" has vanished from her life, nor why her relationship with her husband has completely soured — they barely appear on camera. But the hour is particularly rough on Elizabeth, who surprises herself (and us) by starting to look to Pastor Tim as something other than a problem to be endured, and is just starting to second-guess the entire business of bringing Paige into the KGB fold right when she's forced to kill a man right in front of her horrified daughter.
It's fascinating to watch the progression of the Elizabeth/Tim relationship over the course of the hour. When he shows up at the house unannounced in the opening scene to talk about "all the things being a parent can mean," both Jennings adults look baffled by the words and actions of this man whose life has become so entwined in theirs. And when she stops by Tim's office on the way to picking up Paige from choir practice, her confession about how hard things are for her and Philip seems like a sympathy play — much like previous ones she's tried with assets in the past (like the lonely sailor from season 2) — to get what she needs, which in this case is that pesky tape Alice allegedly gave to her lawyer.
When she returns to his office a few days later — after an amusingly uncomfortable family dinner crashed by Stan Beeman, where Pastor Tim's anti-war proclivities turn into a useful distraction from talk of Stan's job — she notes how none of them chose to be in each other's lives, and things just unfolded that way. If Stan and Sandra Beeman picked another suburb close to his job, or if Paige got on a different bus to visit her mystery aunt, Philip and Elizabeth might be free of pesky FBI agents and intrusive clergymen, but the nature of their jobs mean their lives are always going to involve difficult choices and emotional hardships. The phone message from a crying Young-Hee hits Elizabeth so hard that she can't even listen to the whole thing, and makes her next plea for Pastor Tim's advice seem a whole lot more sincere. Even though, as she reminds the man, she doesn't believe in God, or religion, or prayer, she is genuinely seeking his advice at a moment where she is particularly feeling the human cost of the work she does(**), and if his words about the importance of how we treat each other don't prove an instant balm, she at least seems to truly hear him for the first time.
(**) That she feels this about Young-Hee and not about the many people she's killed speaks to this one becoming too personal for her. She never so much as had a conversation with the guy she dropped the car on, but Young-Hee turned into something like a real friend, and Elizabeth wrecked her life for Mother Russia. That's harder to shrug off, no matter how much she believes in the cause.
The mother-daughter scene that follows should have obviously pointed to the violence that comes at the end of it, since it goes on for so long and is happening in a dark and sketchy part of town. But the substance of Elizabeth and Paige's discussion is so rich and complicated — particularly Elizabeth's very conflicted reaction to Paige telling her what Stan told Matthew about Martha — that the attempted mugging (or worse) still snuck up on me.
It's an interesting choice to have this be the moment when Paige finally gets a glimpse at what her mother can do — and what she obviously has done in the past, based on how quickly and easily she gets the better of her attacker and gets the blade into his neck. This was an inevitable thing — once Paige came into the spy loop, there was no way her parents were going to keep the lethality of their work from her forever — yet the context it's introduced in isn't a spy one. Paige doesn't walk in on Philip poisoning somebody's drink or Elizabeth choking out a CIA agent; she experiences a much more everyday form of danger, and her mother responds to it in a way that Alice or Sandra couldn't. On the one hand, this gives both her parents and the show something of a buffer; she can take what she's seen and extrapolate it to some vision of what her mother actually does for a living, but she doesn't really know. On the other, that's probably a necessary buffer if the series has two more seasons to go. A Paige who saw her mom drop a car on an innocent man, or drug and molest her best friend's husband as part of a blackmail scheme would be forced immediately to make a huge decision about what she wanted to do in response. This gives her, and the show, more room to maneuver.
Including the rest of this season, we've got 25 episodes to go. I expect to feel very queasy for most of them. And I can't wait. Is that wrong?
Some other thoughts:
* Several very interesting bits of fallout from Gaad's death: 1)Stan absolutely believes it was the Russians (and, like telling Matthew about Martha's dad, is talking much more than he should about his work); 2)Philip understandably wonders if he deserves some of the blame for telling the Centre about Gaad's trip; and 3)Rather than go all Charles Bronson on Oleg and everyone else from the Rezidentura the way he did after Amador died, Stan just seems really tired about the whole thing, and decides to be candid and even kind with Oleg, rather than trying to lure him back onto his fishing line.
* MAIL ROBOT IS NOW HUGELY IMPORTANT TO THE PLOT. (And, yes, that sentence needed to be in all-caps.) I'm happy about this development not only for its returning of the show's greatest character to its deserved position of prominence, but because, like Stan and Aderholt figuring out what Martha has been up to, it's a good reminder that the FBI agents aren't dumb. The show now has two more seasons to get through, so Aderholt's not likely to catch Philip just yet, but it's always good to see the actual Americans being smart.
* This show doesn't go meta very often, but Stan's joke about Elizabeth and Alice both having (in different ways) a roast in the oven was a nice acknowledgement of the pregnant star in the room.
* The entirety of the play with Don finally comes into focus. I could never make sense of how Patty might go from Young-Hee's friend from Mary Kay into someone blackmailing Don for access to his secret lab. Faking Patty's death to give her family time alone in Don's office seems at once very complicated and an approach least likely to leave metaphorical fingerprints, or make Don ask questions later. Patty is dead, as far as he's concerned, and that's the end to this terrible incident.
* Hey, it's Marceline Hugot — aka Kathy Geiss from 30 Rock or Gladys from The Leftovers — as the woman posing as Gabriel's wife for the sting on Don. As often happens, she didn't say much.
* Speaking of Gabriel, it's taken me this long to understand that the safe house where Philip took Marth has, in fact, become Gabriel's new primary residence after the Glanders incident at his old apartment. Sometimes, I am slow to understand things.
* What, by the way, do you suppose the Centre did with the money Don gave Philip? Does that cash go towards paying rent on Gabriel's place? For the EPCOT trip? To help the travel agency operate at what I'm assuming is a significant deficit?
What did everybody else think? And what did you drink upon learning of the glorious renewal?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org