The title for The Americans’ sixth episode will leave a few cinephiles raising eyebrows. Rififi’s director, as mentioned in the episode, is the American expatriate Jules Dassin who fled his home country after the House of Un-American Activities commenced its witch hunt on suspected communists affiliates. The film itself doesn’t so much serve The Americans’ sixth episode as does the context behind it. The fact that Dassin is a communist who happened to live in America is a fact that fails to move Elizabeth, however. She is more fixated by the young cinephile who explains this to her, a potential government source she’s trailed to a theater playing classic cinema. She does, however, shrewdly note how the film has a near-thirty-minute heist scene in complete silence.
“Rififi” follows one of the season’s best episodes. By comparison, it’s considerably more understated, but no less sharply written or revelatory. It opens with Philip confronting Elizabeth about the grisly murders she committed in the previous episode, a crime he learns about just before making that fateful decision to warn Kimmy about Elizabeth’s planned kidnapping. Elizabeth is as understandably angry as Philip is utterly appalled at this turn of events.
“Rififi” is also the first episode that doesn’t see Henry as a disembodied presence. He, however, is clearly the episode’s weakest part—how much can one actually do with a character who is so distant from the main conflict even when he is standing in the midst of it?
Henry nevertheless provides moments of domestic relief from the almost unbearable strain of Philip and Elizabeth’s workaday lives. Philip continues to struggle with sales at his travel agency. After hearing Henry talk about working summers in order to cover tuition at his school, the concerned father takes drastic action and fires three of his employees. This action seems entirely self-serving as Philip, ingratiated into capitalistic society, is starting to learn about the harsh reality of private enterprise. On the other side of the coin is Elizabeth, now periodically seen standing outside her home smoking, who takes it upon herself to go on yet another mission (one with a low probability success)—an act of selflessness that entirely ignores the needs of her family.
Despite the decidedly low-key response to last episode’s gaping questions, there’s plenty of drama to chew on in episode six. In one scene, Henry asks Philip cluelessly about his mother, “I don’t understand why she’s so unhappy. She has a nice life, doesn’t she?” A question Philip ponders on because he’s starting to ask the same question himself. Elizabeth’s communist beliefs and crude devotion to the Soviets until this point seemed to resemble a wild animal in its death throes, but by this point it’s mostly starting to resemble a slower, more painful death.
In “Rififi” there is yet another reference to a work of art made, though it’s a literary reference this time to a book called Walden, written by essayist Henry David Thoreau—a brilliant piece of transcendentalism more deserving of the episode’s title than the French heist film. Although most of us will roll our eyes at how a supposedly bright and intelligent Henry only sees Thoreau’s book as “about this guy who sits at a pond and thinks about how boring it is,” there is something in Thoreau’s themes on the individual that the showrunners are tapping into.
Thoreau was an intellectual and freethinker who believed man’s destiny was greater than the roles designated by the state. Philip and Elizabeth in their own ways are embody this belief. Philip rejects the Soviets, whereas Elizabeth rejects the complicity capitalism encourages. But both are also subservient to their own ideologies, Philip to his newly adopted capitalism and Elizabeth to her long-cherished communism. Among the most harrowing of the show’s conflicts is for Philip and Elizabeth to somehow transcend their beliefs, to find a common interest unbound by these ingrained principles.
By the episode’s powerful final moments Philip, talking to Elizabeth on the phone, tells her he is going to join her possible suicide mission in Houston. She responds with a cold “No one’s asking you to,” which is really where the faux-couple’s personality differences are laid bare. Unlike Elizabeth, Philip has the power to think for himself, to make choices that aren’t already made for him.
For all its strengths, “Rififi” must unfortunately carry with it some problems brought on by typical television serial constraints. Unfortunately, aside from a wonderfully wayward patriotic dinner toast that would have made John Wayne proud, Stan Beeman’s story seems is disappointingly uninvolved this season. His partner’s whole “we’re finally going to crackdown on the Soviet spies” bit is arbitrarily introduced into the narrative, obviously meant to converge Philip and Elizabeth’s narrative to the FBI. This forced thrust seems to be something most mediocre showrunners rely on to use that sense of pointless immediacy. Philip and Elizabeth’s direction remain, thankfully, wonderfully mysterious.