In the fourth episode of The Americans, Philip and Oleg talk about the dissolution of the Soviet government, but what hangs more desperately over the show is the possible dissolution of Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship—brought up in the conversation with a heart-rending ambiguity. “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” is yet another suspense-filled episode, but as much as the tension relies on the covert, cloak-and-dagger operations, the suspense seems to rely more on our dwindling trust in the integrity of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. As we know, Philip no longer holds any attachment to the Soviet Union and Elizabeth does. What these allegiances do for their characters in the fourth episode enriches their perspectives and conflicts immensely.
“Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” explores the relationship between communism and capitalism through a series of subtle contrasts and counterpoints. The most obvious vessel for the capitalistic machine is Philip. Running a failing travel agency business, he asks his neighbor Stan, “Do you ever worry about money?” This question doesn’t come naturally to Philip, who grew up in an impoverished postwar Soviet Union. Where scavenging food was a challenge for Philip as a child, in America he’s worried about not being able to pay his son’s tuition at a high-end private school. One of the episode’s most absurd moments is the look of devastation on Philip’s face when revealing this fact to his obviously spoiled teenage son Henry.
For Philip, the illusion he’s kept up for twenty years has become more real to him than anything in the Soviet Union. This isn’t the case for Elizabeth, a sort of Soviet purist. Philip confronts Elizabeth and Paige early in the episode, wanting to deal with what happened to Rennhull upfront. Philip finds out that Elizabeth has lied to Paige by telling her Rennhull has committed suicide. The powerplay in the scene is devastating in its implications of where the characters are coming from and where they may end up. Philip, no longer loyal to the Soviet Union, no longer accepts the lies and deceptions used to further their cause. Elizabeth, on the other hand, embraces the lies without question.
Elizabeth, who seems to grow more cold and clinical with each episode, doesn’t seem to shown a sign of a breaking point as she did in the fourth and fifth seasons. In the scene following Philip and Oleg, Elizabeth racks up another ridiculous body count. Paige, watching from outside, is distanced from Elizabeth’s true actions but complicit in ways she will never understand. One crucially ambivalent scene happens near the end of the episode, starting with Paige telling Elizabeth about an intern she meets who works for a congressman. Elizabeth rebukes her for even considering the opportunity, warning her daughter of the dangers becoming too “close” to the intel. Paige ends up sleeping with the intern and eyes his government ID in what we can only imagine is what Elizabeth has been warning her about.
Elizabeth, now completely refusing the human intimacy, which made her vulnerable in the previous seasons, barely makes an attempt to come off as human in the sixth. “He’s your department,” Elizabeth coldly says to Philip, referring to Henry and their son’s tuition. She’s become a fascinating if somewhat unlikable character. Her every attempt to come off as sympathetic seems to have some methodical ulterior motive. When she lies to Paige about Rennhull, it’s not to hide the darker truth, but to retain Paige’s trust. When Philip confesses his concern for Henry’s tuition Elizabeth brushes him off, unconcerned with how he feels if it doesn’t affect her own mission.
In what is yet another very rich and intense episode for The Americans the only drawbacks that appear are the subplots outside of Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship. Little progress is made in the Stan Beeman other than some strange urgency to connect him to Elizabeth’s ongoing mission. The final six minutes come as the most troubling. Not only is it an ugly portrayal of terminal illness (note: it’s portrayed with far more heft and grace in the second episode), but the only purpose it serves in “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” is to re-stamp Elizabeth’s heartlessness in much of the same effect as the last episode did.
This sour grace note is saved, however, by the final moment, a shot of Philip staring down a sandwich whilst reminiscing a time in his childhood where he had to scavenge desperately for food in the Soviet Union’s notorious breadlines. That frightful contrast between Soviet and American problems alone is illustrated in Philip’s drained expression (even in total silence Matthew Rhys can yield a powerful performance). It leads Philip, and the audience, to question: What exactly are he and Elizabeth fighting for again?