Aug 14, 2020
The Americans: Smoke gets in your eyes
The title of the penultimate episode, “Jennings, Elizabeth” had half the fans convinced it foretold a death. It did. By the episode’s end, Nadezhda and Mischa, those two young idealists now grown into weary middle age, are hitting the road. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings no longer exist.
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We open with a bewigged Elizabeth watching Nesterenko from a distance. Are her perfect smokey eyes a meta reference to Michelle Wolf’s take on Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Does she too, get the effect from the ashes of burning her many lies? That would make sense in an episode where lies have the power to destroy lives and relationships.
Philip leaves a drop for Oleg, while over at the FBI, Stan looks in his old time computer machine.
He can’t find anything on Elizabeth, or Philip, or DuPont Circle Travel. And from the look on his face, and context, he still can’t decide whether he’s right about what his gut is telling him, or whether he’s losing his mind. Maybe it’s time to ask a friend.
Strangely, the friend he visits is Philip, and he doesn’t ask him straight up or any other way, “You a spy, bro?” But he seems to be seeing the travel agency for the first time, and not just because they renovated. It’s empty and quiet and there’s an air of doom. Nobody would be trying this hard for a mere front, so bonus points for desperation! Philip asks awkwardly about handling all the bureau’s travel needs, and then takes it back in the same breath. Maybe he thought about the security clearance.
Stan notices Elizabeth’s absence. That’s easy. A fight! Stan offers Philip a loan, but Philip tells him he can’t take his money. And what is this even about? Is this a trap Stan is setting? Or is Stan just acting from the heart, suspicions be damned?
And then because there’s got to be an end game to the Renee teasing, Stan mentions that Renee is jealous of how Philip and Elizabeth work together and is herself coming to work at the bureau. There’s a flash of panic in Philip’s eyes when he tells him to “Be careful.”
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is waiting for Nesterenko, and smoking, and begins a flashback which stretches into a story she tells herself over the day, which is how flashbacks work on TV but not in real life. It begins with a digitally enhanced young Nadezhda, on a field trip from Spy Academy. She’s supposed to practice dead drops in Moscow.
Then present-tense Elizabeth follows Nesterenko and the other Russians, and you’d think she might have worn something a little more blendy because how do they not notice the smoking hot brunette with the legs? And wouldn’t they have body guards?
Oleg picks up what Philip left for him: that important coded message confirming the KGB is out to sabotage the summit and oust Gorbachev.
Stan calls Pastor Tim in Buenos Aires to ask him if there’s anything he needs to know “as an FBI agent” about the Jennings. He also warns him to keep the conversation on the down low, presumably so nobody gets killed. Tim’s face perfectly captures a look that says he’s been dreading this call for a long time. He’s probably also rehearsed for it. He’s cool and doesn’t mess up. He damns the Jennings with faint praise, “they love Paige”, and mentions they weren’t members of his church.
In other words, he didn’t know them that well, and definitely isn’t an accessory after the fact. Good thing Stan didn’t reach out to Tim’s blabbermouth wife.
More flashback as Elizabeth smokes and watches. Young Nadezhda passes by the scene of an accident and sees a dying horse, and a dying policeman. But she doesn’t stop because she’s on a mission, even if it’s only a training exercise. So much for we’re all in this together!
Stan confides his suspicions about his neighbors to Dennis, who tells him firmly that Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are not Soviet agents, then he gives him some serious side-eye before heading for a meeting. Is he thinking of Stan’s “What if?”
Oleg picks up the package left for him by Philip, while Father Victor, whose name was dropped previously by Father Andre, rats out Andre much to the delight of Dennis and his boss. Dennis is interrupted by a colleague with the news that Acrobat, known to us as Oleg, went “into the black” for a couple of minutes. Dennis tells his guys to pick him up and see if he has anything on him.
Surrounded by feds, Oleg looks like a man who knows he’s royally screwed, and has been expecting this fate for some time. Because if we’ve learned anything after six seasons of this show, it’s that to be Russian is to know suffering.
Speaking of suffering, back in the early 1960s, young Nadezhda tells her trainer, in her still not quite perfect English, how she ignored the dying policeman because she was taught than in a “real” operation that’s what she’d need to do. The trainer isn’t pleased, lectures her like a common Philip about not losing her humanity, and tells her, “You don’t leave a comrade to die on the street in Moscow.”
We’ve seen more flashbacks of Philip’s childhood than Elizabeth’s, so this story helps fill in some missing pieces that make her recent decisions more plausible. It’s clear why Philip’s words about her acting like an automaton stung. Helping Nesterenko, a comrade, is a way for her to make amends.
Stan is in an interrogation room with Oleg, who isn’t a talking.
Elizabeth sees a woman in an overcoat and an obvious wig, holding a newspaper coming toward Nesterenko. She springs into action, shooting her before she can get to Nesterenko. Nesterenko stares in amazement at the scene: the dying woman, the fallen wig, the cyanide gun by her side. He looks up as Elizabeth disappears into the crowd of pedestrians. Did he see her? Did she remind him of anyone? (He got a good look at Stephanie when they were both helping Erica at the party.)
And who did the KGB send for assassination duty? Nope, it wasn’t Paige, which would have been preposterous. It was Oleg’s old squeeze Tatiyana. Oh, the irony! She would have been station chief in Mozambique if only he hadn’t betrayed her! Instead, she’s dead in a wig she couldn’t really pull off, shot by Elizabeth who but for a simple twist of faith (and Oleg) would have been her.
Oleg is now in a cell, where Stan stops by for a chat. He shows Oleg a photo of Elizabeth and Philip, but Oleg isn’t going to betray them. Oleg whispers the crux of his mission to Stan: stop the KGB from ousting Gorbachev and save the future, but unfortunately, Stan can’t get it through his thick head that the problems of two agents on opposing sides of the Cold War don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. He’s not going to pass Oleg’s message to his contacts because that’s even crazier than believing the people across the streets are spies.
And so we leave poor Oleg in a cell, which sucks, but it could be worse. He could be dead. At least with prison, there’s always a chance of an exchange, isn’t there? Let’s hope we get to see it.
Elizabeth stops by Claudia’s Safe House of Blintzes, Blini, and Russian Film, but doesn’t join her for lunch. She tells Claudia that she stopped the attack on Nesterenko though she omits the detail of shooting an agent to do it. She also tells her she “contacted Gorbachev’s people” and “told them everything.”
Unfortunately, it’s doubtful she meant she stopped by Gorbachev’s hotel and left him a note. Most likely, she’s referring to Philip’s message to Oleg. She’s protecting her husband (and Oleg) by putting it all on herself. With Oleg unable to transmit the message, will Tati’s body and the smoking cyanide gun be enough to stop a plot?
Claudia is very disappointed that Elizabeth’s action will probably lead to prison for most of the people involved in Directorate S, but Russians expect disappointment. She’ll go back to face the music, and keep fighting. She tells Elizabeth she thought she knew her, but she was wrong. Elizabeth tells her if she knew her she would have known not to lie to her, which is kind of rich coming from someone who constantly lies.
Philip in his final final disguise goes to the meet with Father Andre, as a favor to Elizabeth who asked him to take care of it while she watched Nesterenko. There’s some informal marriage counseling, and finally Philip gets back to asking why Andre signaled the meeting. Oh yeah, that. Andre mentions that by the way Father Victor who hates him and suspects he has contacts is meeting with the FBI, possibly as they speak.
Philip says an abrupt goodbye and tells Andre to get a flight home ASAP. Maybe he should suggest he stop by DuPont Circle Travel where they could use the business. He looks around, walks away, and at some point breaks into a run. Yup, he’s being followed, but even after three years, he still manages to outrun the FBI and escape into a cab.
Paige drops by to tell Elizabeth that Brian the intern she’s sleeping with, whom she likes by the way, told her a story about this drunk guy at an intern party whose life was ruined by some older blonde he slept with who tricked him into doing something, and now he’s going back home. “Was it you, Mom?” Elizabeth makes the exact expression and uses the same tone we’ve seen before to dismiss and gaslight Paige at the same time, and it just isn’t working anymore. Paige, like mother like daughter, is sick of the lies which started the day she was born and have continued until now. In addition to calling her mother a whore, she says the lying is another reason that Philip can’t stand to be in the same room as her. Elizabeth does some truth-telling with three forehead veins popping, and she’s loud enough for the neighbors to hear, because who cares by this point? She explains that she (and Philip) didn’t have the luxury of giving a shit about sex because they had to sacrifice for their country. Paige is not impressed, and leaves.
Over at the FBI, Dennis is talking about watching all the garages and safe houses, and how they figure the guy talking to the priest is probably heading for one of them.
At home where she’s now smoking (inside the house, because it’s all going to hell), Elizabeth finishes her flashback. Her trainer tells her not to lose who she is. But after all this time, who is she? The phone rings. It’s Philip and he has just one thing to say. “Hi. I was hoping to make it home for dinner but things are very topsy-turvy at the office.” Which is apparently spy code for: The shit has hit the fan and we’ve got to get out of here.
Elizabeth goes downstairs, into those places that Stan didn’t: behind the dryer vent, and the circuit breakers. She grabs cash, passports, license plates, weapons, and those two wedding bands, stuffs them into a go bag, and twenty something years as Elizabeth Jenkins is gone.
Hard to believe they can wrap this up in an hour or even a double episode. Speculation welcome. I’m still betting a Homeland style fade-out and time jump based on the finale title, “START”, which was a treaty signed four years after the events in this episode.