“The Summit” may very well mark the beginning of the end for The Americans; Stan Beeman is now fully convinced Stan and Elizabeth are the two Soviet spies he’s been trailing, the brooding spy couple finally find some common ground, and Elizabeth has finally drawn a line in the sand in her ruthless, cold-blooded and fanatically devoted work. Elizabeth, in particular, seems to be the spotlight of episode eight. We see her (like in previous episodes) in three different forms: the nursemaid, the pantsuit businesswoman and Elizabeth (who is still the spy’s most devotedly complex creation).
Inside the skin of each character, Elizabeth’s identity seems to regress further away from a singular identity. Somehow, it also forms into someone entirely new. As “Stephanie,” nursemaid working for the terminally ill wife of a weapons negotiator at the US State Department, Elizabeth externalizes her tucked away emotions through a newfound appreciation for art. In one heartbreaking moment, Elizabeth—asked by the weapons negotiator following his wife’s death—takes one of the artist’s paintings and forces herself to burn the mural. We see Elizabeth’s internal duel with herself play out here—first she folds it and tries tucking it away, however, Elizabeth, ultimately having to think practically, ends up burning the mural.
Among the moment’s strengths is that it doesn’t merely act as yet another heavy-handed symbol for Elizabeth’s humanity or artlessness being engulfed in flames. Here, it’s more of a catalyst that ultimately changes Elizabeth. Burning the mural, the Soviet spy finally realizes what she has to sacrifice (and its unbearable cost) in order to serve her department’s increasingly futile and idealistic mission.
As “Wendy,” the working woman sporting the thick-rimmed glasses, Elizabeth carefully analyzes the blueprints of human affection and uses it to manipulate and coerce a young intern at the state department (courted by Elizabeth the previous few episodes) into having sex with her. It’s not only uncomfortable to watch Elizabeth put on this mask and fake her way into people’s good graces, it’s also eerily her most watchable persona. Playfully mining information from others, toying with emotions and looking innocent while doing it, Keri Russell’s performance more than ever feels like a tapestry unto herself, woven in so many different textures, colors and shades.
Where Russell should be noted for her versatility, Matthew Rhys should be credited for his powerful understatement as her long-suffering, disaffected partner in crime. In the opening he confesses to Elizabeth how he informed Oleg about her plans (fatally effecting her Chicago heist). As the sparks fly in this episode’s brilliant opener, we see an understanding gradually develop between the two. Both have their own interests in mind and, surprisingly, the interests of their country. One of The Americans’ best decisions was to allow Elizabeth to slowly come to grips with the reality of the world, through brutal trial and error, rather than let Philip condescendingly take the intellectual high ground and convince her of it. Bequeathed with foreknowledge of Russia’s eventual transition of power, it’s quite nice to see how this realization seeps into the unknowing characters.
“The Summit” ultimately works as season six’s designated turning point. Here, characters make their goals known and we finally see somewhat of an endpoint on the horizon. Better yet, episode eight feels like a chrysalis in its final stages, particularly for Elizabeth and her newfound self-determination. The Soviet spy, after decades of unstinting loyalty, gets to think for herself for once. She reluctantly avoids killing a Soviet negotiator, arguing for denuclearization, after being profoundly moved by his appeals—a dodge that crosses Claudia. Following the scene, we hear another one of Claudia’s fatalistic diatribes about stone cold Soviet devotion, but for once Elizabeth doesn’t buy into her traditionalist lingo.
The Americans might not see perestroika, glasnost or the Fall of the Wall happen in its airtime, but “The Summit” convinces us that Elizabeth and Philip, for all their hard-nosed devotion to a near-ancient cause, might just be able to see far ahead enough to carefully steer towards a happy end. And while “The Summit” does suggest some truly positive changes coming ahead and ultimately encourages us, like the characters, to leave past notions and values behind us, the episode—much like the titular summit—leaves a tingling chill in its promises of resolution. Even with peace talks and denuclearization on the table The Americans have made us more than aware that some conflicts, whether personal or political, can’t be resolved with words.