Regarding Henry — and The Americans' other lost threads
A recap of season 5, episode 4: "What's the matter with Kansas?"
"Who knows what goes on with the good pastor?"
Who indeed, Elizabeth Jennings? In the latest episode of The Americans, Paige snoops, Oleg's mom speaks, and Pastor Tim surprises us all by introducing Paige to the works of Karl Marx. The Americans is finally picking up the narrative throughlines that really make it hum: blackmail and flirtations that blur the peculiar dynamics distorting the apparently bland social lives of everyone on this show, from Paige to Elizabeth to Oleg and Stan.
I've observed in previous recaps that the camera seems unusually playful this season; that's symptomatic of the crab-like precision with which this show sneaks up on viewers and targets alike. I'm suspicious of the extent to which the show has refused to tell us who exactly Stan Beeman and Dennis Aderholt are watching — and how worried we should be about it. I'm suspicious, too, of Stan's new lady-friend. Elizabeth's face as the woman nattered on was hard to read, but her particular brand of chatter — stories with too much detail, too bland by half — reminded me of Elizabeth when she's undercover. I wondered if there might be a flicker of game recognizing game.
Unlike so many shows that get obsessed with planting these kinds of clues and reveals, The Americans never loses track of what really makes it work. The "secrets" are always the garnish, not the main course, and scenes containing them perform multiple functions. Take this season's obsession with hunger and food. For all that the show has thematized food from every angle, one of the smartest ways it portrayed the Russian food crisis was by showing Martha browsing the near-empty shelves of a grocery store that's being targeted by the government for being too well-stocked. That last move — nesting a little social and historical context into a massive revelation that has us thinking of anything but the state of Russian grocery stores — is masterfully concise world-building. When Elizabeth walks into a Topeka health food store and spills carob chips to ensnare her target in an engineered meet-cute, it's a subtle but piercing comment on the abundance and disposability of American food — a point made again by Henry, who appears just long enough to earn Paige's ire by wastefully trashing his toast.
The same is true of conversations, which serve dramatic purposes intriguingly orthogonal to their narrative functions. Take Philip's bar chat with Morozov. Up till now, Morozov has been so insistently anti-Russian that he's bordering on caricature. That's narratively smart; it makes it easy for us to follow Philip and Elizabeth's lead and refuse to listen to what he's saying. But his nostalgia for kvass — his statement that "we all drink from same mug" sounds like another indictment of life in Russia until he adds that "kvass is the only thing I miss" — goes a long way toward humanizing him (in Philip's eyes, and in ours). It lends weight to his frustrated assessment of the food shortages in Russia, which echoes Philip's own observations about the similarities between Russian and American landscapes: "Soviet Union, we have same great land, same great climate, but system is broken."
That invitation to sympathy with Morozov marks a real departure from last week's episode, which highlighted the brokenness of American institutions like the FBI and the CIA in ways that favored the Soviet perspective. This show juggles our sympathies the way the Jenningses juggle missions. We condemn the U.S. for heartlessly blackmailing the undeserving, only to find Elizabeth proposing to Philip that they blackmail Pastor Tim — who has just given their daughter the works of Marx in an effort to help her relationship. We decide that the KGB has better ethics than the CIA, only to discover that Oleg's mother was imprisoned for five years — as a punishment to her husband.
This is obviously what The Americans is terrific at doing — making these hardened spies just permeable enough that we can see how things strike them, and exploiting the contemporary viewer's willingness to side with the antiheroes as a vulnerability to manipulate us in turn. Stan's conversation with Aderholt about blackmail is the most obvious instance of these sympathetic switchbacks. Stan realizes that Aderholt's insight — blackmail does no harm if used well — can be turned back on the broken system that does the blackmailing. "You will find a way to make sure the CIA leaves Oleg Burov alone," Stan says, blackmailing the institution he serves by essentially blackmailing ... himself.
I said last week that the show's focus on the Morozov mission has come at a price; I've missed the show's longer arcs, including Paige's ongoing challenge handling Pastor Tim, the Jennings' psychological brittleness, and Elizabeth's grief over her mother (and, relatedly, her motherland). All that table-setting put a bunch of interesting things on hold. Now they're back, and the show is using every arrow in its quiver to target the connections between the local plot and the larger narrative. I've talked about how the show used sound to elicit disgust; this episode, what struck me is its use of color. The white balance works differently in Eastern European vs. American scenes. The shift from blue and cold to a more neutral grey to the yellow warmth of American domesticity visually registers Mischa's slow progress toward America (and, perhaps, his perspective on it: The airport is close to neutral when Mischa deplanes from TWA compared to Elizabeth and Philip's plane scenes, which are warmer). But the use of cooler tones in Stan's showdown with the deputy attorney general reinforces how much these environments share. It isn't just the richness of the land that binds American and Russian potential.
Perhaps the most subtle thread this episode picked up was Elizabeth and Philip's fractured marriage. It's been a long time since we've watched Philip and Elizabeth as Seducer Spies, and while it's amusing to watch Philip fail, their shared resistance to the mission in Topeka suggests there's still some residual damage from Philip's marriage to Martha. That fake marriage drove a real wedge between them; Martha provoked a systemic failure in the Jenningses' ability to compartmentalize. Their reluctance to resume erotic espionage — and the discomfort with which they talk to each other about their respective flirtations — shows the fragility of whatever they've managed to rebuild. Elizabeth's joke about how she told a fellow passenger she'd give the booze he bought her to "her husband" does not land.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the pressing matter of Henry's performance in math class, a narrative gun the episode prominently places on the mantle and then forgets to fire, much like Henry himself. Poor Henry. The show loves to joke about his unimportance. But I suspect that, too, will come at a price. To crib from Elizabeth, "Who knows what goes on with Henry?"
I suspect we'll find out soon.
Read more analysis of The Americans: