The Americans is failing its sons
A recap of "Lotus," the fifth episode of The Americans' fifth season
"Old patterns between parents and children create barriers. They keep us from seeing what's really there," says an EST lecturer in "Lotus," the fifth episode of The Americans' fifth season. "You can't experience the love your parents have for you, or you for your children, when old habits and belief systems, all the things your mind is telling you about who they are, who you are, stand in the way."
It's a neat subtitle for the Jenningses' failures as parents (and for the memories of the motherland that shaped their parenting strategies and their fragmenting loyalties). Philip's paralysis when Paige tells him over spaghetti that she thinks she's meant to be alone is almost as egregious as his and Elizabeth's loud surprise at Henry's aptitude in math. Philip is spinning out, and this EST lesson is targeting some of his core beliefs.
This season, The Americans has consistently thematized the ways food blurs questions of basic need with ideological allegiance. It's no coincidence that almost every major scene in this episode takes place in a kitchen as food is being prepared or at a table: "Dee" natters about substituting store-bought tomato sauce for homemade as Pasha's mother reveals that she's about to become a language instructor at the Department of Agriculture. Benjamin goes on about his Peace Corps experiences as he prepares food for "Brenda." As Oleg Burov reluctantly blackmails a man into giving up his food suppliers, his father has arranged a sumptuous meal at home. And finally, "Brad" and "Dee" deal with the collateral damage of their shattered mission over McDonald's at their Typical American home, while the neglected son waits upstairs.
This is an episode awash in undernourished sons, and Philip's distorted flashbacks of the motherland are all the more interesting for how powerfully they connect to that failure. Philip has spoken about his mother making onion soup that was basically just hot water, but as he's servicing Deirdre, what he remembers is his father bringing back bread so stale it looks hard and rough as rock. A shot of the mother retrieving those unappetizing items from the fire echoes the shot of Benjamin retrieving a burnt s'more for Elizabeth. The juxtaposition is clear: America is nourishing people in ways Russia isn't.
This episode is steeped in Philip's tortured perspective, which seems increasingly to be — at least in subtext — that Russia never really exactly fed him. In fact, Russian fathers who try to nourish their children wind up feeding them stale black bread. The father who sent his son to Afghanistan now realizes that the efforts he's made to put food on the family table might get that son killed. I imagine Oleg suffering agonies at the amount of illegally obtained food at his father's table. Gabriel is as close to a father to Philip and Elizabeth as this show has, and he's unable to override Claudia's edict or resist the Centre.
As for Philip: Unbeknownst to him, he's subjected his son Mischa to a miserable journey that ends with a diktat framed as an ugly love test: if you love your father, you won't see him. On a quieter scale, he's witnessing the damage he and Elizabeth and the Centre have done to Paige. It's true that the effects on Henry are only just starting to make themselves felt; this was the first inkling we've had that Henry resents his parents' inattention to him and their blatant lack of regard for his abilities. And there's at least a hint here that Paige and Henry are the human equivalents of Benjamin's crops: They are being subjected to noxious forces, and whether they'll survive is an open question.
But Philip's creeping love for America hadn't quite ripened into a corresponding hatred of Russia. This was always a risk, and it's interesting to see Gabriel and Claudia discuss their predicament: namely, that Philip might discover the truth about Russia's treatment of those who fight for it. In his conversation with Morozov last week, we saw Philip for the first time really considering Morozov's claim that Russia's food distribution problem is not of America's making. It's an impression that Elizabeth's revelation that the crop experiments are meant to end world hunger — not create it — catastrophically confirms.
The hit to their relationship is substantial. For better or worse, Philip and Elizabeth had bonded over this new instance of American villainy. When Philip said "I thought there were things they wouldn't do" back in Episode 2, we heard a shred of his secret American idealism die. He recommitted himself ideologically to their mission, and — though this is never made quite as clear as it was in this episode — to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth knows this. She even respects it. Her greeting to Philip after she's discovered the truth doesn't develop into sex, even though it could have: The children are gone, and they're closer than they've been in some time. But she needs him to know the true state of affairs — that they murdered someone without cause, and that the enemy wants to feed the world. Philip's disillusionment with America is undone. And now — evidently suspecting the Centre of spying on Stan through Renee — he appears to be spying on the Centre.
All this really boils down to the problem of sons on this show. "Dee's" advice to Evgheniya was to leave Pasha alone. This is also — to all appearances — the Jenningses' feeling about sons in general. But there are consequences to a strategy that always passes off store-bought tomato sauce as your own, and to feeding your son eggplant without telling him what it is. The Jenningses have been closing their ears to calls for help: from Tuan who asks them to be there for his playdate with Pasha, and from Henry, whose resentment of them is more intense than anyone suspected. "Old patterns create barriers," the EST guy said. Indeed.
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