The Americans: Your country or your wife
“Dead Hand”, the perfectly scored final season premiere of The Americans begins with a montage that wordlessly (except for the lyrics) shows us everything we need to know about the state of the Jennings’s marriage.
Philip has renovated the dingy travel agency, letting in light, while his wife continues to live in the shadows. He shows up in a suit every day, ready to work and inspire his staff. Elizabeth runs several operations in several different disguises. He looks happier and more relaxed than we’ve ever seen him. She looks tired and burnt out. And when she comes home, they don’t talk about her day.
Remember how she warned last year’s protege that he needed a partner because this work was too difficult to do alone? Wiser words….
Where’s Henry? He hasn’t started Microsoft yet, or joined the CIA. He’s in high school, possibly at boarding school, because when Philip goes to watch him play ice hockey, he has to travel there, and though he offers, Elizabeth can’t come with—she’s too busy. And thank you writers for showing us his absence rather than giving us a “catch up” scene explaining it. The entire episode could be used to school other TV writers in the art of avoiding awkward backstory conversations by giving viewers visuals.
Even when Elizabeth’s bonding with Paige, who’s in college and has her own place, it’s about the work. She and Paige are hanging at Claudia’s safe house and watching a modern Russian film (with subtitles).
Afterwards, Paige has many questions. Claudia and Elizabeth paint the rosiest picture possible of life in the USSR, especially when it comes to equal rights for women. This is also where we first hear about the US/USSR summit, which thanks to Gorbachev, could lead to the end of weapons build up on both sides, which of course Elizabeth is skeptical about.
Remember poor Arkady, who became a persona non grata after a serious of unfortunate incidents? He stops by to visit Oleg. Looks like Oleg has finally moved out of his parents’ house and has his own not too shabby place in Moscow. (It’s good to be the son of the Minister of Transportation.) They haven’t seen each other in years. From what Arkady says, we learn that Oleg was never punished for whatever he did, which was never proven, but probably being his father’s son helped him not get a bullet to the back of the head. He’s out of all of it now, working at the Ministry. Arkady, who’s Deputy Chief of Directorate S, wants to recruit him for a mission. Oleg is wary because he’s probably seen some stories about what happens when you reluctantly accept one final mission.
Arkady needs him to go to America and have a chat with Philip about his wife. It seems there’s a split within the KGB. There are people like Arkady who want Gorbachev to succeed and want an end to the arms race with the US, and then there are people who have a different view: namely, the leaders of the KGB, and Gorbachev can’t get rid of them. It looks like Elizabeth has been recruited by them to do something, and not even Arkady can figure out what that is. Arkady thinks Philip will be open to them, that Philip can find out what Elizabeth is doing, and if necessary stop her. (Good luck with that! We know who the better spy is.) Oleg resists. He’s got a wife and a baby boy, but Arkady makes an impassioned case.
While Philip is busy being the best boss ever, Elizabeth meets with a Russian general in Mexico City. He explains that Dead Hand is a Soviet weapons strategy still being developed, that could wipe out America in the event of an American first strike against the Soviet Union. They think Gorbachev told one of his negotiators it would be okay to tell the Americans about it, and trade stopping it for ending America’s strategic defense (“Star Wars”) program. She has to find out from her American contact if Dead Hand is being offered in exchange for the Star Wars plan. If Dead Hand is on the table, she has to get word, and Gorbachev will be gone within a day. Also, she can’t tell anyone about this. Not Claudia, and certainly not her husband.
On her flight home, the consequences of her potential action are sinking in. We see it on her face. She goes to the bathroom to check out the jewelry box. It’s a pendant, with a single pill inside. Is it a suicide pill in case she’s caught? We can’t help thinking of poor William and his sacrifice. But maybe it’s a make-them-talk pill. Let’s hope Elizabeth understands its purpose better than your recapper.
It’s dinner at Stan and Renee’s house. If Renee is a spy, she’s playing the long game and is very good at her job, because these two are together like vodka and caviar. The Jennings are here with Paige, and Stan’s partner Dennis is here with his wife and baby. Weren’t the Jennings’ avoiding him because he might have seen Elizabeth (in disguise, but still) that time she decked his boss?
Elizabeth is helping in the kitchen and overhears Renee and Dennis’ wife talking. They’re bonding over being FBI wives who know a little, but not too much about what their husbands are doing. They mention a “couple” the husbands are working, and how this couple’s marriage may be in trouble. While it sounds like a Greek chorus telling us about Philip and Elizabeth, they’re probably talking about Irena Kovelenko and her soccer star boyfriend. Uh-oh, will Elizabeth mention this conversation to Claudia, and could it lead to the FBI’s most adorable assets getting into big trouble? And is Renee just chitchatting, or is she working Dennis’s wife? Will we ever know?
Speaking of wives, Oleg says good-bye to his, who’s angry at him for taking this one final mission, probably because she’s seen a few spy stories too. And yes, she is one of the troika his parents tried to set him up with.
Hassert turns out not to be the mark Elizabeth is sexing up, but the husband of Erica, a dying woman. Elizabeth as Stephanie is one of her health aides, though she and Erica don’t seem to have the greatest rapport. Erica is an artist, who sketches at a frantic pace because she doesn’t have much time left and art is the only thing that matters. As we’ve long suspected, Elizabeth under any name doesn’t get art, and yet, when she goes to comfort Erica, she glimpses something in a painting, and maybe it speaks to her. (For more about those paintings, check out this story.)
Philip gets a signal and leaves the office early. His most loyal employee tells him not to worry, “We won’t burn down.” Ah, the irony! There were years this guy never even saw his boss!
Meantime, Elizabeth’s band of irregulars—the blendy blonde no one ever notices, the older African-American man with glasses, and now Paige replacing the late not-lamented Hans—are doing some surveillance on the negotiators. Paige, who’s alone in a car waiting for a shift to end, is approached by a young military officer who wants to see some ID. She explains that she’s just waiting for a friend, but then complies. It’s a weird request, but he tells her there’s a lot of secure sites in the area and he has to check, which is probably a lie. He gives her back her fake license, but not her fake college ID, and tells her she’ll have to meet him for a date that Saturday night to get it back. She tries telling him she needs it. She even flirts, trying to convince him she’ll come even if he doesn’t force her to, but he doesn’t buy it. He’s probably done this before. A lot.
Elizabeth is with Blendy Blonde in a car trying to shadow Hassert and a negotiator, but they’re only making small talk. She gets a signal and goes to Paige, who’s upset about her encounter, and maybe a little afraid her Mom is going to be mad. Not to worry! Mom is mad, but not at her. Elizabeth assures her it’s no big deal and she maintained her cover under pressure which is awesome, and all he has is a fake ID. He’s not the police. No big.
Later, Blendy Blonde tells Elizabeth that “Julie” seems too young for this kind of work. Poor useful idiot doesn’t know she’s not in the inner circle.
Philip in a blond wig and pornstache meets Oleg on a park bench. They exchange coded pleasantries, and Oleg drops Arkady’s name. Philip insists he’s “out of it.” But Oleg, the right man for this job, makes it clear to Philip that his country needs him to find out what Elizabeth is up to, and if necessary stop her. He explains the stakes: all the good things that are happening in the Soviet Union could stop if Elizabeth completes her mysterious mission.
Philip is home before Elizabeth. Elizabeth sees a newspaper and mentions “this summit crap.” Philip suggests it might be a good thing, and lead to fewer weapons. Elizabeth says bitterly that it would be “fewer weapons for us.” Philip tells her that the work is finally getting to her. He mentions that maybe she needs to quit, and she bristles. He tells her he needs to talk to her about something, but she doesn’t even want to hear what it is. She just wants sleep, and when he pushes, she uses sarcasm on him, “I know you love to talk….”
Give him credit; he doesn’t react with anger. He really tries, and he fails. She goes upstairs and takes a look at the pill in the pendant. He stays downstairs.
And there you have it, dear readers, the beginning of the end, and certainly the end of the honeymoon. With the Jennings now playing for opposing teams, it feels like the outcome is inevitable. One way or another, only one of them is getting out of this marriage alive.