While I’m sure rabid fans of The Americans continue to dig what the espionage drama is dealing out, I’m curious how others are taking season 5. The show received a surge in newfound popularity, given the Emmy/Golden Globe acclaim from last year, but nine episodes in and “IHOP” continues to see the show proceeding along at a very deliberate pace, with action primarily coming through as dialogue-based character conversation. Much like the later seasons of Mad Men, The Americans is so good and so in control of these characters, that fans (old and new) may be adding extra tension to confrontations, just based on how they may feel too comfortable seeing the domestic drama play out. This week may not have had any significant action, but it did do plenty to make us respect all of that great character work achieved by the series.
To get straight to it, moving past Elizabeth and Philip dealing with a missing Tuan and an ambitious Henry, “IHOP” gave us a confrontation we may not have been expecting. While the opening credits revealed Frank Langella would make another appearance, after having said his goodbye, the real surprise came from Alison Wright sharing a major scene right along with him. While Wright has been recently seen under the Hollywood sun in FX’s Feud, she’s still been given some time to wear the look of Poor Martha once more for a well-written/acted scene that puts everything into perspective.
Gabriel arrives on Martha’s Russian doorstep and enters for a conversation. He’s a man who is now a stranger to his own land speaking to a woman, who is a stranger to a place far from being her real home. Gabriel appears to be seeking solace from someone who may be able to relate and uses the grandfatherly attitude that has appeased the Jennings for so long. However, Martha wants no part of this. She may be eating a sad plate of potatoes by herself, but she has nothing but contempt for the presence of the man so key to taking everything away from her. In a show like this, these supporting characters have a history that is understood, and this scene does everything to bring out the appropriate responses, without feeling contrived.
Elsewhere, this episode deals with other significant confrontations. A major one involves Henry, of all characters. While Paige has been at the forefront of these recent seasons, as far as the younger Jennings go, the recent development of Henry’s unexpected intellectual brilliance has created a new wrinkle. The kid wants to take advantage of his smarts in a positive way, which means having a desire to go to a preppy boarding school. Philip and Elizabeth are shocked in a way that has us seeing them with their mouths agape.
Humor is one of The Americans’ coldest weapons to put to use, and it pays off greatly here. Rather than scream at their son, we see some irritation and mild arguing but watch as the parents take in the information and debate it more on a level of how unpredictable this development was. Given how Nadezhda and Mischa (y’know, the Jennings) are on an assignment that means they can only go so far into appreciating American values, seeing their children accept so much has actually presented a challenge. Paige turned to God and Henry is now possibly becoming a New Hampshire-educated yuppie. Regardless of how this could hurt or benefit their cover (I think it could help the Jennings in a lot of ways to have one less child around), it’s the principle of the situation that leaves the parents so concerned.
And speaking of concerned parents, there is no Tuan to consider. Those missing out on spy action got a taste of it this week, as Elizabeth went into full inspection mode, as she searched all over her house for signs of Tuan. She goes as far as using a ruler to make sure she can properly close the closet after looking through it. It all leads to a tailing mission, revealing Tuan’s mysterious trip to an IHOP in Pennsylvania. What follows is another saddening sequence.
Philip and Elizabeth shakedown Tuan and put the fear of a Paige-approved God into him, as they question where he went. It turns out the kid wanted to spend time with his sick brother. There’s disagreement between the Jennings as to what this could say about Tuan (as well as whether he’s telling the truth), but it is interesting to consider what this is saying about the parents. With three-ish kids who are growing up American, they can only control so much as well as hold onto the many different layers of their operation.
Not helping is the continual understanding that their mission has a lot of gray areas. A visit to Kimmy’s (Happy Birthday Kimmy) allows for Philip to get his hands on a tape that details the use of Glanders in Afghanistan, proving it to be used for deadly purposes. A visit with one of Gabriel’s contacts, a Russian Orthodox priest, highlights just how complicated it is to hold on to so many different units (though he does offer advice to Philip). This episode did a lot to remind the audience of the vast array of characters The Americans has in its stock and that only further increases a level of building tension that is sure to be released.
The level of confidence for a show like this to have such an intense focus on skillfully handled conversations makes me so excited for what’s to come. Not that I’m expecting big action, the opposite actually. I’ve often described this show as an exciting chess match, and that still stands strong here. There may be some decisive moves on the way, but the subtle building and arrangement is nothing to frown upon. So I only hope the newer fans like the moves being made, as this show knows exactly what it’s doing.
Other Things Behind The Red Curtain:
- Once again, apologies for missing a couple of weeks. I know there will be more absences coming as well, but I will be back to review the finale.
- Oleg is the trickiest character to figure out, regarding his trajectory. With Stan being slowly pulled into using him and Oleg’s organization heavily questioning his past, things are perhaps most tense in Moscow right now.
- Henry Watch: He was all over the middle of this episode, but Paige was strangely nowhere to be found this week. #PaigeWatch
- The priest’s advice: prayer, “You should try it.” Philip: “I keep hearing that.”
- Gabriel bringing up Philip to Martha and still addressing him as “Clark” really allowed for the mood to change. Wright was terrific in playing up the anger while keeping her cool.
- Is Tuan lying?