The Americans: Your life is a lie

We open this 100% Paige-free episode with Henry, the changeling-childe/early adapter/multi-tasker, listening to his Walkman while doing homework and/or inventing a new digital language.

Next stop: Harvard.

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Philip asks if he knows where his mother is. A ruse if ever there was one! Henry never knows where anyone is. Philip just wants an excuse to talk to his son. Henry asks straight out if they’re going to let him go to St Andrews, and Philip’s answer is sure, whatever. Then as some soppy Russian ballad plays in the background, Philip goes off to spend time with fake-son Tuan, as he flashbacks to a childhood memory of playing airplane with his dad. Dear God, did Philip just find an actual happy memory in the haunted house of horrors that is his mind?

The memory was happy, but having it didn’t make him happy because his despair is as deep as the graves of all his victims.

The Jennings go to meet Claudia who will be happy to find a new mission for Pastor Tim. Maybe she’ll send him to Cuba the same way she sent that poor spy-widow to Cuba, if by Cuba you mean overdosing her on heroin and dumping her body after telling Philip and Elizabeth they were sending her to a tropical paradise. Claudia also proudly tells them that the virus sample they sent was indeed “weaponized” and they named the strain Vitali, which was William’s real name. He would have been so proud! (No, he wouldn’t have been.)

Claudia should be a cautionary tale for Elizabeth, not a mentor.

Claudia has a new assignment for them. There’s a Russian woman who may have been a Nazi collaborator who executed Soviet prisoners. She’s living in Massachusetts and it’s their job to find her and then do something else which isn’t spelled out, but only if the Center confirms her identity. Philip is skeptical. All they have to go on is an old photo from when she was a teenager, before before the war.

Meantime, in the Soviet Union, a random KGB officer complains to Peter Lorre and Oleg about sending yet another not-crazy poor soul to a mental institution. Peter Lorre comments that if he didn’t want to go to a mental institution, all he had to do was keep his mouth shut, which sounds perfectly logical.

While on a bewigged stakeout in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Jennings discuss Henry. It’s hard for Philip to separate from the son he never sees, but Elizabeth tells him he’ll be back every couple of months. Seriously, would they see him any less? Elizabeth thinks the photo looks just like the woman they are watching. Philip continues to be oppressed by doubt.

Henry visits the FBI where nobody thinks it’s weird that Stan’s has a fourteen year old boy as a best friend. Henry is impressed by the super-high tech creature known as the mail-robot.

It’s funny because by the time Henry makes his first billion, there won’t be any snail mail.

Oleg and Peter Lorre are still following around Fomina. Oleg offers to score Peter Lorre some fancy vittles at the special store he can shop in because some comrades are more equal than other comrades, but Peter Lorre says no thanks because he is the last honest man left in Russia. Later they go to Fomina’s office, where they find a nice dress, good booze, and a ledger book. The good booze is kept in a locked drawer, but the ledger book, which is the smoking gun evidence they need, is not.

Who knew Russian apartment buildings in 1980s Moscow looked so much like housing projects in 2017 Brooklyn?

Elizabeth and Philip develop the photos they took of Natalie, the woman in Massachusetts who may or may not be Anna, the Nazi executioner. Elizabeth is fine with letting the Center decide whether or not the “then” and “now” pix match. Philip wonders whether Paige wanted them to see Pastor Tim’s diary, whether it was her way of confronting them. This is clearly an idea that never entered Elizabeth’s mind because she is a robot. Does Philip really think this is the kind of thing his wife wants to discuss and pick apart for hours? How long have they been married. Oh that’s right! About a week.

Claudia has more intel about Natalie/Anna. Her husband who was a medic when they met after the war in Germany, became an ophthalmologist. She’s a nurse who works part time. She takes care of her grand-kids and does volunteer work. Philip points out the skimpiness of the evidence of her being Anna, but the Center will look at the photos the Jennings took and decide.

Here’s a question: Would the Soviet Union actually have risked sending its own spies to take care of this? Why wouldn’t they publicly have asked for her extradition? If the US said no Russia, could have gotten great publicity out of the idea of the US protecting a war criminal. At worst, the US would have tried her in this country. What’s the gain in quietly taking her out? The scenario makes no sense except as a plot contrivance to move Philip and Elizabeth from point A to point B.

Stan and Henry are hanging out at Stan’s which isn’t weird at all. Henry is excited by his FBI visit and is maybe thinking of a career with the agency. Stan warns him that the spy-life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that you can never trust anyone. Henry thinks “that sucks” and his buddy agrees.

“So Henry, you want to watch another gladiator movie and wrestle?”

Peter Lorre and Oleg try to get Fomina to cooperate with the usual “the prosecutor will go easy on you” jargon. She doesn’t care for their tactics and tells them they are clueless, that this is simply “the system” that gets people fed, how things actually work in the real world, and their little investigation isn’t going to change that. It’s a good scene, but all the “meantime in Moscow” stuff is beginning to feel like Downton Abbey with all the constant reminders that the old ways are falling apart.

The miseducation of Oleg Burov continues.

Elizabeth tells Philip they got the go ahead on Natalie/Anna from the Center. He asks, “They saw the same pictures we saw?” She tells him they’ll make sure before they do anything. How will that work?

Over in their bachelor pad, Aderholt and Stan meet with Mrs. Kovalenko, who still and always looks tiny and frail next to them. Does she have any useful? Doesn’t sound like it, but they tell her to keep paying attention and reporting on these seemingly irrelevant bits of office gossip, which are worth more apparently than her life.

Anybody else hoping that she’s really tougher than she looks, and is completely playing them?

And now we proceed to the final segment of the show, a sequence every bit as claustrophobic as the season opener finale where the Jennings dug up poor William. Natalie parks the car in the driveway of her safe suburban home and goes inside. A minute later the Jennings follow. Philip holds the gun as Elizabeth asks most of the questions. Natalie denies everything, telling Elizabeth she is simply a wife, a mother, a grandmother, who has lived in the same house for twenty-five years. Elizabeth insists she has “the blood of a thousand soldiers ”  on her hands. In a call back to last week she calls her a “monster.” Pot kettle black. Ironic given she just found out the virus they stole was “weaponized” and is being used to slaughter mujaheddin. She also tells her without the least little bit of self-awareness that her life is a lie. Well whose isn’t?

Elizabeth takes a break after slapping her, and confers with Philip, who starts to say, “Even if she is lying….” Elizabeth looks at her husband as though he’s lost it. Forgiveness is NOT an option. Elizabeth tells Natalie that they are going wait till her husband gets home. This is enough to get her to confess, and beg them to just kill her before he gets home as he knows nothing about her past and thinks she’s “wonderful.” They ask her more questions, now to figure out whether her confession is real or she’s just telling them what they want to hear. We hear a car pull up and John comes in. John of course would very much like to know what’s going on, and Natalie starts to tell him, and Elizabeth and Philip the truth. After her parents and most of her town were shot by the Nazis and she was forced to dig their grave. Philip asks why they would let her live, but she can’t think of a reason. Then they gave her so much to drink she could barely stand and made her shoot the prisoners. She was sixteen. She also alludes to other violations, probably rape. (We know she was in Germany being treated for venereal disease.) She says it was her body, but it wasn’t her. She apologizes to her husband, who tells her he knows she is “good.” She apologizes to Elizabeth and Philip and then evokes God in a callback to last week’s wedding scene. Philip still holding the gun, can’t bring himself to shoot, and it looks like he may even be ready to put it down. Elizabeth takes out her gun and first shoots John in the head, and then Natalie.

To be fair, Elizabeth was only following orders.

Did Elizabeth have to do this? On the one hand, their identity would have been compromised if they’d let John and Natalie live. However, they could have just reminded Natalie and John that if they reported any of this, their government would make sure her past became very public information and she could still be prosecuted.  Natalie’s “guilt” gave them leverage.  Of course then they would have had to deal with the Center, but what would the consequences have been if they reported back they were convinced she wasn’t Anna or that they had a right to use their discretion — as Philip did previously with Martha.

Philip has been slowly and with painstaking effort trying to recover his humanity, and it’s working. Part of being human is the ability to empathize. Philip can see how he and Elizabeth are like Natalie and John. He would have chanced a confrontation with the Center. He’s done just following orders, but Elizabeth is still an automaton, a “monster” working for the state. If she does on some not quite conscious level understand the irony of her calling Natalie a liar, it can only enrage her. She’s not just executing people. She’s executing doubt. Can this marriage be saved? And if it can’t, is that what the final season will be about?

On the drive home, the little vein under Elizabeth’s eye is sticking out. We’ve seen it before. It’s her tell. She tells Philip she’s done and wants to go home, and that’s where we leave them. Does Philip even want to go back? Will the Center still let them leave? And what about poor Henry who is currently on the verge of an almost limitless future? Do they drug him for the trip and take him unwillingly the way Pasha was taken out of Russia? What’s the alternative? If they think they can trust him to be more loyal to them than to his own interests (and his bestie Mr. Beeman) they may have miscalculated their very American son.

Marion Stein

Marion writes television recaps and reviews for the Agony Booth, and books you can find over at Amazon.

TV Show: The Americans

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