Sometimes I start to wonder about The Americans. I wonder whether plot threads have been dropped. I wonder whether characters are ignored. Episodes pass where a character won’t show up, and I worry everything they were part of was for nothing.
Then episodes like this one come along, and I’m reminded that everything on this show matters. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve seen that character, but they were always around. Bless you, The Americans. And thank you for being such a great show.
Spoilers for 5×09 “IHOP” below
“IHOP” starts with Kimmy’s father receiving a report we only hear vague details about. Remember Kimmy? Turns out she’s 17 now and Philip celebrates with her. No, Philip, it’s still weird so don’t even think about it. They talk about her birthday celebrations with her family and Philip’s “son” he lost. He talks about wishing he could start over and do things right.
Oh boy, the subtext is strong from the start.
Philip returns to the travel agency the next day and talks briefly with Elizabeth about their children, both real and undercover. Elizabeth decides to spend the night with Tuan, because she thinks he is lonely. A coded call comes through setting up a meeting with one of Gabriel’s agents. Over at the FBI, Stan’s boss tells him Frank Gaad’s murderers have been identified. He offers revenge in exchange for making another run at Oleg.
That night, Elizabeth goes to spend the night with Tuan but finds him gone. While Philip listens to the latest tape of Kimmy’s father, Elizabeth searches the house for anything suspicious. Philip’s tape completes the info from the opening scene. Turns out Afghani soldiers were killed by hemorrhagic fever. He returns home and learns Tuan never came home by 3 in the morning. They speculate about his whereabouts, and Philip tells Elizabeth about the Afghani soldiers.
He thinks the Soviets used the sample they took from William as a weapon, while Elizabeth denies it. Of course she does.
Next, Philip meets with Gabriel’s agent, who turns out to be a priest reporting on other priests. He was given equipment to make the reports himself but doesn’t know how to use it. While he hopes for regular meetings, Philip says he can’t make such meetings. Meanwhile Stan visits Gaad’s wife. They talk about their lives and how she is coping. Stan uses her as a sounding board about Gaad’s murderers and Oleg. She tells him her husband would want revenge against his murderers.
Duh, remember what he did after Amador’s death? Come on Stan, you know what Gaad would do here.
Elizabeth and Philip come home to find Henry waiting in the kitchen, very reminiscent of Paige’s confrontation when they confessed to being Russian spies. He wants to attend a boarding school in New Hampshire with his friend Chris and has already sent in an application. His parents are resistant but he asks them to consider it.
Time for more reunions, this time with Martha! She is just about to eat dinner when Gabriel comes calling, having returned home by this point. They talk about her difficulties adjusting and personal life, which is basically nonexistent. Gabriel tries to comfort her with kind words about Clark, but she rejects the fake kindness. She says she understands everything that happened now and tells him to never come back.
Elizabeth and Philip talk and disagree about Henry, then get a call from their team tailing Tuan. He boards a bus to Pennsylvania and ends up going into an IHOP. Back over in Moscow, Oleg is again questioned by Directorate K. They ask him about his time in America, the attempt to recruit Stan Beeman, and Nina. He tells them what they want and admits to lingering anger about Nina.
He returns home to find his parents debating one of his father’s subordinates. After his mother leaves, Oleg and his father talk about her time in the prison camp and how it changed her. He then visits the grocery head he arrested earlier this season. This prisoner repeats his earlier warnings about the power of those controlling the food. Oleg uses his feelings about his family to convince the man to give up a name.
When Tuan returns home, Philip and Elizabeth are waiting. They use physical violence to question him, and he says he leaves the state to make calls to his foster family in Seattle. His little brother has leukemia and he wanted to check up on them. He noticed them tailing him and that’s why he went in the IHOP. He begs them not to report him.
During the car ride home, Philip and Elizabeth discuss whether to believe him. Philip thinks Tuan might want to go home and start over. Elizabeth says that’s not who Tuan is.
Holy projection, Batman!
“IHOP” was filled with projection the same way last week was filled with insecurity. It started with Philip telling Kimmy about wanting a second chance with his “son” and never looked back. Hell, it even showed Kimmy celebrating her birthday with her father figure rather than her father, and projecting her own hopes about her father reentering her life.
As The Americans reaches the end of its brilliant run, these characters have reached breaking points where their future will depend on the decisions they make. This episode gave us a glimpse of the futures those characters would like. No one can simply continue on as things have been to date. Not even the children can keep this life up. While some may read Henry’s desire to go to boarding school as a way to write him off the show (and I highly doubt that’s the intent), it speaks to the larger direction the show is taking.
Philip wants a fresh start while Elizabeth remains firmly entrenched. Their children are deciding their own lives. Martha struggles to adjust to the USSR. Oleg faces government suspicion and the return of the FBI’s blackmailing attempt, while trying to place himself on the side of his family above all else. Stan is struggling between the person he used to be and the person he has become. Everywhere you look, you see transition.
The struggle born of this transition has everyone projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto the world around them. Philip projects his desires for a fresh start onto Tuan. Elizabeth projects her staunch loyalty onto him. Stan projects his loss of heart for the FBI’s immoral practices onto his boss, despite a clear history on The Americans telling us Gaad would definitely seek revenge. Oleg projected his own priorities onto his prisoner in order to draw out a confession. Gabriel projects his love for Philip and Elizabeth onto Martha, while she projects Clark and everything he did to her onto Gabriel.
The Americans has always been good at tying its characters together with common themes, but this one extends beyond a specific episode and speaks to the direction of the show as a whole. The Cold War is coming to an end. The Soviet Union ends with it. All of these characters have lived their lives only knowing this conflict. Most are directly involved. With its end comes an end to the lives they built, and a need to either find something new or struggle to hold onto the familiar.
I don’t know where these characters will eventually land in the aftermath. Too much can still happen, seismic events which drastically change opinions and values. All I’m sure of is that The Americans will handle it spectacularly. All the callbacks in this episode again proved just how everything and everyone matters.
To be honest, I thought Kimmy’s subplot dropped. And despite Martha’s appearance earlier this season, I didn’t expect to see her again this season. Now both have returned in perfect fashion. I don’t expect them to appear in every episode or become major characters again, but this was enough for now. They still matter and they will matter in the end. Nothing gets forgotten and dropped. Not Henry, not Kimmy, not Martha, not Nina, not Gaad, no one.
This skill, and the style of this season overall, reminds me of another excellent show I never thought I’d see replicated again: The Wire. To be clear, The Americans is not as good as The Wire. Nothing is. It’s the best drama ever made and the closest damn thing you’ll ever get to novel-style complexity and detail on television. What The Americans is doing this season is highly reminiscent, though. The pacing, the attention to detail, the callbacks, the way every little thing matters and every conversation informs the characters and/or the world…I’ve only seen this pulled off once before.
Again, The Americans has always been skilled at this style, but season 5 has embraced it closely and begun perfecting it. It is also a style which alienates viewers due to the investment demanded of them. Since every scene packs so much meaning and development, you have to pay close attention to everything. You have to remember who these characters are and why they matter. Understanding the many layers within these scenes often takes multiple viewings or context lacking at the time.
Most people don’t wish to put this kind of time into a television show. They prefer something more easily digested which they can tune in or out of at their leisure, or provides them something exciting to talk about around the water cooler. As such, shows like The Americans struggle to bring in ratings.
I hope Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields know just how incredible their show is, and I hope they will find the acclaim in years to come. What they have done and continue to do with The Americans is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever watched.
- I loved the shot of Elizabeth’s watch as she watches TV, showing the passing of time as she waited for Tuan. Also love the ruler trick while searching Tuan’s room. It’s the kind of small detail which makes this show so good.
- Kimmy’s father angrily puts off celebrating his daughter’s birthday. I feel awful for her, and I love that her relationship with Philip strayed into father/daughter rather than lovers.
- “I’ll pray for you. You should try it.” “Yeah, I keep hearing that.” Those Jenningses, always taking shots at religion.
- Speaking of, of course Elizabeth’s first priority for Henry’s boarding school is whether it’s a religious school.
- No one from the FBI visiting Gaad’s wife is awful. I know he left in less than ideal circumstances, but come on.
- Poor Martha. She looked relatively okay in her first appearance this season, but we saw just how miserable she is this week. And of course the KGB tries to distract her with relationships.
- Oleg’s father comes across as an iron-fisted person most of the time, but he seems to at least try at being the husband and father his family deserves. Life has simply hammered them all too much, it seems.
- Oleg and Philip have both transitioned from serving out of loyalty to serving to protect their loved ones. If not for those close to them, they’d both be chilling on a beach somewhere. Or dead after betraying the Soviets.