Review: 'The Americans' just aired its best episode ever
A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as I take my antibiotic and a nap...
"It's never been this bad. It's worse every day." -Gabriel
When Alias revealed that Sydney Bristow had been missing in action for two years, or when Battlestar Galactica leaped forward a year in mid-scene, the idea of a huge time jump was still shocking. Over a decade later — after shows as diverse as Lost, Desperate Housewives, Hannibal, Parks and Recreation, Masters of Sex, and Catastrophe have skipped ahead either between seasons or during them — the idea is just another commonly-accepted tool in any showrunner's tool kit, so that fans often predict their favorite series will use it as the only way out of a current story arc. The device has become so familiar, in fact, that where once it dropped jaws, it now risks eliciting shrugs.
What makes the seven-month time jump at the end of "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears" so powerful is because of what a goddamn relief it is. We've seen, like Gabriel has, what a terrible emotional place Philip and Elizabeth are in, and really have been since the Centre ordered them to recruit Paige. With each passing episode, Philip has looked pastier and more haunted, Elizabeth's expression has become ever stonier, and it's seemed like only a matter of time before one or both of them has a breakdown that makes Philip's explosion in "Martial Eagle" seem like someone getting hangry because the line at Dunkin Donuts is moving too slowly.
Though Martha escapes the country alive in the episode's stunning opening sequence — which is completely wordless until Martha turns to her husband and tells him, "Don't be alone, Clark" — and though Philip later gets confirmation from Stan that he was right to pull her off the street when he did, she may as well be dead as far as Philip and her other loved ones are concerned. She'll never leave Russia(*), never see him or her parents, never know the life she used to have. And Philip is entirely responsible for her exile. And it seems the last straw for him, and in a way for the marriage to Elizabeth — not just because of his crushing feelings of guilt for this and his other sins, but because underneath the spycraft and other deceptions at the head of their relationship, Martha provided him a sympathetic ear and other traditional comforts of marriage that Elizabeth is only occasionally willing to. Now she's the one who has to deal entirely with his magnified mid-life crisis (her reaction to his announcement that he's going to start playing hockey again was priceless), and also the one he can reflexively blame whenever Martha comes up in conversation.
(*) In theory, Baklanov might be able to make it back to America if he's still alive at the time the Iron Curtain fell. Martha's not a prisoner, though, but someone guilty of treason against the United States. She can't ever come home.
Not that any of this has been fun and games for Elizabeth, either. Before Martha left the country, Elizabeth finally came to truly see how Philip felt about her, which isn't an easy thing no matter how much she may have already known about the details of that relationship. And while it seems in the moment that her trip to an est seminar has her recognizing the value her husband finds there (particular when Lawrence says, "You love the prison you've made for yourself"), it instead turns out to be yet another reason to view Philip as too soft for their mission. And yet, the seminar does force Elizabeth to release a lot of what she's kept bottled up, as the fight she has with Philip about it turns into a spectacularly ugly discussion of all the worst compromises and betrayals of their relationship, including Gregory and Irina. It's the sort of conversation that Elizabeth's idealized self would never dream of having, both for the sake of the work and her belief in her ability to handle everything. But she's as shaken up as he is, not only going to est, but calling up Young-Hee as much because she desperately needs a friend in that moment as to continue working her as an asset.
And all of that is before she has to murder Lisa with a glass bottle to keep her from going to the authorities! This is an amazing episode, yet a profoundly unsettling one for most of its running time, because of how unrelentingly miserable Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige (who has to endure the mother of all angry maternal lectures from Elizabeth) are with their current circumstances.
When Gabriel offers to have the Centre give them a "vacation" — no new assignments, just low-pressure work on existing assets like Kimmy and Young-Hee — it could be purely altruistic, or it could be him realizing that this is the only way to get them to trust him again and follow his orders. But his motivations don't matter, because he's a good enough handler to realize how badly they need this break to continue being effective spies.
And yet the heartbreaking fact of it all — on a show designed to crush our hopes at every turn — is that as happy and relaxed as Philip and Elizabeth seem when we catch up with them in the fall of '83, Paige looks worse off than ever. They've gotten to take it easy and be travel agents, while she's lived every day of that seven months as a spy, forced to interact and keep tabs on Pastor Tim and (the now pregnant) Alice, no matter how uncomfortable it all makes her. When Paige gives her report about the mini-golf outing, she is doing the exact thing Elizabeth promised her she would do earlier in the episode — "That is all that stands between us and this family being destroyed!" — and she looks as downcast as she has at any point in the entire series. Everyone else has gotten to move on in some way or other — even Frank Gaad seems at peace with the abrupt end to his FBI career, since he gets to go to Thailand and enjoy Stan's company without worrying about the latest headache Agent Beeman is about to bring him — while Paige has been trapped in the same moment, day after day, week after week, for the past seven months. Her parents get a break from the job they chose — a chance to make their problems disappear for a bit like David Copperfield did in the TV special that gives the episode its title — while she doesn't from the one she didn't realize she was born into. (Even if it's her fault that Pastor Tim knows in the first place.)
Even by this series' remarkable standards, "The Magic of David Copperfield" is a wonder, and the actors better than they've ever been before. Moment after moment knocked me off my chair: the way Philip's throat keeps opening and closing as he watches Martha go, somehow more upset about the situation than he is; the hardcore rage that Elizabeth brings to her fights with both Philip and Paige; how utterly exhausted and ruined both spies look in the moments before Gabriel decides to cut them some slack; and Paige tersely rattling off the details of mini-golf, to name just a few. The episode's designed to put the audience through the ringer as much as Philip and Elizabeth, and though the time jump feels like a relief for a few moments, we also know it can't last. We see how hard this has been on Paige, we hear Gaad warning Stan not to let up on Oleg or the search for the illegals, and we know that one of the reasons for the leap forward was so the show could very quickly get back to its leads doing the same kind of soul-crushing work that required such a lengthy vacation in the first place.
I've long held up "Martial Eagle" as Peak Americans. I think this one just topped it.
Some other thoughts:
* This is the first Americans episode Matthew Rhys has directed, but not the first episode of TV he's directed, since he got behind the camera for a handful of Brothers & Sisters installments when he starred on that show. He lived up to all of the demands of the script, drawing out particularly strong performances from everyone (himself included) and doing an excellent job on tone and staging, like the way that Philip and Elizabeth are positioned what feels like miles apart when they really begin the argument about Martha, and Gregory, or how Elizabeth drops out of frame to do even worse things to Lisa than we've already seen.
* While I'll miss Alison Wright if that opening sequence is the last we ever see of Martha, there's a part of me that hopes she doesn't step into Nina's old position anchoring a mini-show set back in the USSR. It's perhaps more powerful if we, like Philip, only get to imagine what her new life is like.
* The song over the closing montage is "End of the Line" by Roxy Music.
* Fields and Weisberg have talked in the past (most recently on Andy Greenwald's podcast) about how the story always winds up taking place over a more compressed time period than they want it to, particularly with how quickly Keidrich Sellati is growing. This season picked up almost immediately after the events of last year's finale, and the action prior to the time jump covered only a couple of weeks. The time jump was valuable for a lot of reasons, but it'll also help explain Henry rapidly turning into a giant.
* This week in Alan Wants a Web Series: National Lampoon's American Vacation, in which we see the Jennings family go to Epcot and other family destinations, and otherwise enjoying the downtime through the spring and summer of '83. (For what it's worth, I looked carefully in the final scenes for evidence of a recent family trip to Epcot, but didn't see any souvenirs in the house.)
* Kimmy hasn't appeared yet this season, but this episode makes clear that Philip is still working her to gain access to the bug in her father's briefcase. As with the return of Lisa, it's nice to get reminders that many of these operations continue off-screen long after they've ceased to be relevant to a specific story arc.
* While Philip gets the good news that his son Mischa finished his tour of duty in Afghanistan, Tatiana learns that her brother was just called up. Like America in Vietnam in the '60s and '70s, the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan was so sprawling and disastrous that everyone either had a loved one or knew someone with a loved one serving over there.
* Party like it's 1983: In addition to the Copperfield special, Elizabeth and Young-Hee go to see Tender Mercies, which would win Robert Duvall a Best Actor Oscar, and then sneak into a screening of The Outsiders, featuring one of the more impressive Before They Were Stars casts of all time (Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell) in an adaptation of S.E. Hinton's YA novel.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com