The Americans: Vanishing Acts (S4 E8 Recap)

the-americans-season4 logoMartha washes her face sometime before dawn on her last morning in these United States. Everything she does is imbued with meaning because nothing will ever be the same. She looks at herself as though she must commit her features to memory, as though there might not be mirrors in the new place, or she might not have a reflection once she gets there.

She sits down to breakfast with Phlark and the old guy she will never like nor trust no matter how gently he treats her. She looks at the peanut butter jar wondering if she will ever see it’s like again.


It’s still dark outside when they leave the house. Phlark puts the baggage in the trunk. She doesn’t have much. She’s wearing the same clothes we’ve seen her in the past two episodes. Phlark is in the driver seat. The old guy beckons her in. She purposefully ignores him, and gets in next to her husband. They drive to a field where there is a small airplane waiting.

She’s not going to let herself break down. Her dignity is too hard won. Besides, she has to be strong for her husband. She tells Phlark not to be alone. He says you too. They are both play acting. She knows there was something more than fraternal between him and Jennifer. While he hasn’t spelled out what exactly, she is aware that Clark is only one of the personas he inhabits. He is also Philip and Mischa and maybe others too. He contains multitudes, but she is talking to Clark – the one she fell in love with. This man in front of her who sometimes is Clark and sometimes is not, channels her husband so she can say good-bye. It doesn’t matter that the wig and glasses are gone. She still sees him as she always saw him, much in the same way that a husband might look at his wife of twenty years and still see the “girl” he married.

But at the same time, she’s aware enough not to want to appear stupid or naive. They’ll never be anyone else for her in Russia, and she tells him so. She’s resigned to that. They kiss and she gets on the plane. Philip blinks as it takes off, and then he audibly lets out a breath.

That jar with the dead rat in it? It's a delicacy in my country. Just don't open it.

That jar with the dead rat in it? It’s a delicacy in my country. Just don’t open it.

Mission accomplished. She’s not going out stuffed in a suitcase.

Even your humble recapper who has often been annoyed by the revisionist history and rah-rah Reaganism of The Americans, has to admit that was three minutes of perfect television.

When Philip comes home, Henry is talking about another disappearing act. David Copperfield is going to make the Statue of Liberty vanish, an event that happened on April 8th 1983. Let’s ponder the date for a moment. Season three ended on March 8th 1983. We know because that was the finale title and the date of Ronald Reagan’s evil empire speech. Season four picked up exactly where we left off, so less than a month has passed. And soon we’ll be updates on two loose threads from last season.

Over at the FBI, they are still looking for gone girl Martha, and marveling at how much they underestimated her. If only someone could play her those tapes!

Back in the Jenning’s household the kids are out, so Philip and Elizabeth finally have a chance to talk although Elizabeth has to pry everything out of her faux-husband. He tells her that Martha made it out “as good as she could.” He’s reading an EST book. She asks if it helps. He tells her he’s going to start playing hockey again. It plays as less of a non-sequitur than it sounds, but they aren’t getting each other and she walks out. Where does she go? To the movies with Yung He, who confesses to feeling guilty for exploiting her because she’ll get a commission for turning Patty” into a Mary Kay rep. Oh the irony! Which is totally lost on Elizabeth who is not so much in the humor department.

You are so much more fun than my other fake friends.

You are so much more fun than my other fake friends.

Philip, the spy who is getting in touch with his feelings, gets into a wig and glasses and goes to the cemetery to visit Gene’s grave, only he doesn’t actually visit Gene’s grave because that would be too dangerous. He visits a nearby grave and just sneak’s a look at Gene’s.

Philip does not visit the grave of everyone he kills because than he'd never get anything done.

Philip does not visit the grave of everyone he kills because than he’d never get anything done.

When he gets back home, his faux-wife isn’t back yet, but Stan having seen him pull in, stops by to borrow some beer. He’s been hit with divorce papers, Torrie is more off than on, and oh yeah he’s facing “a disaster” at work.

Elizabeth comes in and invites him to dinner because keep the FBI agent across the street close, but he begs off. Once he’s gone, Philip tells her he was right about the FBI being on to Martha. At least he didn’t send her away for nothing. Elizabeth starts mentioning Martha’s virtues, how she was “uncomplicated” and “simple.” Philip is not pleased. Whatever might be about to happen is interrupted by Henry who’s just come home and is asking for Sloppy Joe’s for dinner.


Philip goes out to some lonely looking bar to meet up with Gabe and hand him the tape from Kimmie’s house – which is a reminder of how little time has passed and while all this was going on with Martha, Philip was either sleeping with or still somehow managing to not be sleeping with Kimmie. And we thought they abandoned that story line because it was too ick!

Gabe mentions that Philip’s son is back from Afghanistan and safe. He can go to Irena’s father in Moscow. Philip wants the Center to get in touch with Martha’s parents. He wants them to know she’s safe. At first Gabe says it will be months, but then relents and says maybe Philip can call them himself, which seems CRAZY given that the FBI will probably be tapping their phone forever. Then Philip presses more and wants to arrange for them to visit. Gabe tells him that’s not happening.

Next up is an EST meeting, but OMIGOD it’s not Philip who’s attending, but Elizabeth. There she is listening as EST-dude tells everyone that they made their own prison and they love the prisons they made.

Meantime, at the Rezidentura, Oleg and Tatyana are excited about a job well done. Even if they don’t know exactly what Martha did for Mother Russia, getting her sprung has to feel better than listening to the inane chatter caught on the Mail Robot bug. But Tatyana is troubled about something and confesses that her brother is going to Afghanistan. Oleg grabs her hand, but knowing that he’ll probably be forced to betray her by Stan or she’ll arrest him for treason sooner or later or some other terrible thing will happen to one or both of them kind of takes the fun out of it for the audience.

Elizabeth comes back from EST. First she tells Philip she sees why he likes it, but there’s a big but in there and the next thing you know she’s telling him that it’s a very “American” approach and it’s all about “manipulating” people into spending more money.

Here your humble recapper must interrupt to tell you that the show’s portrayal of EST is NOT historically accurate. In real life you couldn’t just show up for an afternoon seminar like it was an AA meeting. There was 60 hours of training you had to attend first, and they were notorious for not allowing you to leave the room even to go to the bathroom except during designated breaks. There was a lot of yelling. EST as portrayed on the show is much more accessible and user friendly than the real thing. The show uses EST not to make fun of it, but as a means for characters’ to quickly get in touch with their feelings, as a way of letting them hear the emotional truth about what they are doing – truthes that Elizabeth is very resistant to.


Elizabeth further points out that whatever Philip is “getting” it’s caused him to stop eating and stop sleeping and that can’t be good. Philip counters that there’s a reason for his feelings. And that’s when things go from tense to really ugly. This is show that truly believes in playing the long game, so the name of the long dead Gregory is invoked. Elizabeth without even realizing it has in fact gotten in touch with her truth, and her truth is that she is extremely angry that Philip got to send his favorite asset off on a plane and she got to send hers out to be shot by the police. Then Philip is hurling the accusation that Gregory was the man she loved (true) and he’s “sorry” she’s been stuck with him. Then she lets him have it with the n’uh-uh, telling him she’s stuck with him because she took him back after he slept with the mother of his son and lied to her about it.

Wow, maybe a little repression is a good thing.

The phone rings and then they have to meet with Gabe, who being the master intelligence agent he is can sense the tension. They are airing there grievances with each other in front of him. He tells them he’s going home to take his antibiotics and have a nap because if his near death experience has taught him anything, it’s taught him the importance of getting plenty of rest.

Things aren’t any better the next day. Paige wasn’t at church. Elizabeth reminds her that she has to stay close to Pastor Tim. Paige doesn’t see missing a week as any big deal, and tells her mother that she has to share and if wasn’t “in the mood” it would be obvious. Always with the “feelings” just like her father! Elizabeth snaps and starts yelling, telling Paige she doesn’t care how she “feels.” She got them into this mess and she better go every week and report back on everything. Got that, comrade?

Over at the FBI, John-Boy Gaad hasn’t shot himself yet. He’s on his way up to see the director. Stan tries to be kind, and that’s when you know you’re done when the employee you gleefully screwed over feels sorry for you.

Gaad suicide watch. Week three.

Gaad suicide watch. Week three.

Gabe and Claudia agree their charges are children. Gabe talks about how back in the day you had to betray your best friends and drag them off to the gulag, but these knuckleheads think it’s the end of the world when they lose an agent. Claudia thinks Gabe is the one who needs to get over it and stop his bellyaching.

On the whole it's a pretty cushy assignment for both of them.

On the whole it’s a pretty cushy assignment for both of them.

Hey remember Lisa, the alcoholic lady whose life Elizabeth was in the process of ruining last season? She’s still there even though we haven’t seen her yet this season, and she’s not doing so well. Her husband took the money “Jack” got her and ran off to Florida with a floozy. The kids are at her sisters. She’s drinking again. In fact she’s drunk, and she’s blaming everything on her decision to hand over government secrets for cash. She tells her bestie “Michelle” that she’s going to the cops. Elizabeth/Michelle tries to get her to go to an AA meeting instead, and points out that going to the police will mean prison, and they might take her kids away, but these arguments don’t work, so she cracks a bottle over Lisa’s head and then does some more very bad things that we don’t get to see.

Could Elizabeth have been taking things out on Lisa just a little bit?

Could Elizabeth have been taking things out on Lisa just a little bit?

If she needed any help with the crime scene she must have gotten it from Hans because Philip is hanging out with Gabe. She tells them Lisa is “done.” Elizabeth has a cut, maybe some glass shard, and Philip helps clean her up. It was a tough day at work and no matter what they’re still a team. Gabe tells them he’s going to talk to the Center and get them a break. No new assignments. Philip has to keep up the bug at the Breland house, and Elizabeth will have to go on being Yung He’s best friend for whatever as yet undisclosed reason, and that’s it. Gabe says it’s as close to a vacation as they’re ever going to get.

Great. Philip will just have to go on pretending to be a sleazebag and sleeping with a troubled teen, and Elizabeth could wind up smashing a bottle over Yung He’s head someday.


When they get into the car, Elizabeth tells Philip they should take the kids to Epcot because what better place to chill after putting your second favorite faux-wife on a plane and murderizing your least favorite faux friend – the one you never mentioned to your kids who was way too needy.

The Jennings get home just in time to watch David Copperfield’s illusion with the kids.

Honestly, the cool kids were out getting high. They could make the Statue of Liberty disappear on their own.

Honestly, the cool kids were out getting high. They could make the Statue of Liberty disappear on their own.

Let’s go to the video tape which includes Copperfield’s schmaltz about how he did the trick for freedom, and honestly including it might have been brilliant if the show were just a tad more even handed – and no I’m not suggesting that the Soviet Union wasn’t a terrible place trying to force feed a bankrupt ideology down people’s throats – but I am suggesting that some of us alive at the time found David Copperfield’s shtick a bit tiresome given that the US government was making plenty of mischief in many corners of the world itself, and supporting governments that regularly massacred their own citizens.

This would have been a fine ending to a mostly excellent episode, but wait there’s more. We get a time jump! It’s seven months later. Paige is out playing mini-gold with a couple of olds, one of whom is preggers, but if you thought we were going to get a good look at Keri Russell’s baby bump, and the Jennings were going to be blessed by a new arrival, you thought wrong. Paige is out with Pastor Tim and Alice because what teenage girl wouldn’t want to spend her weekend playing mini-gold with her spiritual adviser and his blabbermouth wife?

If Paige could go back in time she would have let her parents kill them.

If Paige could go back in time she would have let her parents kill them.

Henry who is now nine feet tall (Keri Russell wasn’t the only person hiding a physical change this season!) is playing hockey with his dad. Paige gets dropped off by her inappropriately old besties and we catch a glimpse of her face as she walks past her parents. She’s as much a prisoner as the hypothetical moke the EST-dude was speaking of.

Stan stops by John-Boy Gaad’s house. John-Boy is going to Thailand with the wife on what sounds like a very extended visit to her family. They joke about Stan’s new boss and drink beers like men do, but there’s a purpose to this visit, some unfinished business of Gaad’s, something he meant to say. He tells Stan not to let his bosses push him into working Oleg, but not to avoid it either. He suspects that Stan is holding back because he feels bad about what happened to Nina, but he warns Stan not to let friendship or guilt or anything get in his way. Basically, he’s making the same case Elizabeth was – feelings bad. He tells Stan not to lose sight “of who these people are.”


Then we cut to the Jennings again, your typical American family. Elizabeth and Paige gives her parents a robotic report. She sounds like an assimilated drone who long ago realized that resistance was futile.

The promos for next week hint at more bio-warfare stuff, but let’s look at that time jump again. We’re in early November 1983. While the Jennings were at home enjoying the weekend, somewhere in Europe, NATO was running a little military training exercise called Able Archer, which the Soviet Union believed was ruse to cover a planned first strike. If not for the efforts of a young unsung hero of East German intelligence it would have been the day after for realzies before the television movie (and next week’s episode title) ever aired. Looks like the Jenning’s staycation is coming to end.

Hard to believe we’re barely halfway through the season given the intensity of recent episodes. How will the rest play out? Your thoughts and theories are always welcome in the comments below.


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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