Title: Pastor Tim
Episode M.V.P: Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell
While I liked last week’s season premiere, it didn’t grab me emotionally the same way “Pastor Tim” did, and I know exactly why: I’m always more interested in Philip and Elizabeth’s partnership than I am in their separate endeavors. Their marriage is what got me invested in this show in the first place, so I’m partial to episodes in which they spend the majority of the hour together—or at least working through parallel storylines. And so much of the reason I love those episodes is because they revolve around the best scene partners on television: Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.
“Pastor Tim” was an episode that took Philip another step closer to his breaking point, and Rhys is doing such masterful work as his character gets pushed to the edge. You can feel the exhaustion in his body language, and you can hear the uncertainty and anxiety in the long pauses as he searches for the right words when he speaks. Philip is a man coming apart at the seams, and Rhys makes you believe that any moment could be the moment he breaks beyond repair. But what this episode showed is that Philip isn’t the only one struggling. Elizabeth is starting to question things, too—things she’d never questioned before. The tension in her posture when she met with Gabriel was pointed; in just the set of her shoulders and the steely look in her eyes she showed that Philip isn’t the only one doubting the Center now. Russell’s ballet training made her an actor who can effortlessly make the emotional something physical, and she used that ability brilliantly in the scene in which Paige hugged Elizabeth. The conflict in her between the loving mother and the agent who’d been betrayed was evident in every moment without her needing to say anything or project anything too obviously.
Russell and Rhys are the kind of actors who are so good at playing everything small that when they do have big moments, they matter. When Elizabeth lost her composure with Paige after she confessed, it reminded me of the moment when Philip yelled at Paige in Season Two’s “Martial Eagle.” We get so used to these characters speaking in controlled tones that when they yell, they make it count. They show the cracks in their steely façade in those moments, and this scene was especially powerful because Elizabeth hardly ever shows that kind of uncontrolled emotion. But that’s how high the stakes are right now—and how much stress she’s under.
Russell and Rhys are also the kind of actors that are great individually but even better together. In this episode, their interactions ranged from all-too-realistic fights to gorgeously tentative moments of vulnerability. They project such honest sincerity in their scenes together, and I love that it comes through in the smallest gestures: a shaky inhale before sharing a truth, turning toward the other in bed, or physically reaching out to the other when they can tell their partner is falling apart. It’s those small gestures that make this marriage feel real, and it’s all because of the two actors who’ve been tasked with bringing it to life.
Favorite Scene: “We’re in trouble.”
“Pastor Tim” served as a reminder that—no matter what else is going on in their lives or what they’re dealing with individually—Philip and Elizabeth are a “We.” They’re partners not just on missions but in life. And by the end of this episode, they needed that sense of partnership more than ever.
Chris Long’s direction of this final scene was brilliant. The shot of Elizabeth standing outside the house smoking said so much. Smoking has always represented Elizabeth’s moments of rebellion from the façade she wears—especially the façade she shows her kids. And the tension in Russell’s body as Elizabeth waited for Philip said so much, harkening back to the earlier moment when she told him to come home on the phone with an uncharacteristic waver in her voice. Elizabeth can’t do this alone. When everything starts to fall apart, she needs her partner.
It was such a smart choice to stage that final moment in their car—the bridge between their home and their missions, their life as parents and their life as spies. They’re not just spies and they’re not just parents when it comes to Paige, and the intersection between those two lives when it comes to their daughter has never been more obvious or more dangerous.
Like the best scenes on this show, this moment was about two parents dealing with something universal: a daughter who confessed to making a huge mistake and the various ways they could deal with that mistake. But it was also about how that universal problem has heightened stakes because everyone involved is wrapped up in the world of espionage.
That scene wasn’t just about the fallout from Paige’s confession, though. Philip and Elizabeth are in trouble for a whole host of reasons. And one of the biggest reasons is because they’re both becoming more and more vulnerable and less and less implicitly trusting of the people who control their missions and their lives. There was a really lovely contrast between Elizabeth’s body language when revealing her mother’s death to Philip and what happened when Gabriel told her. She was stiff and clearly not receptive to Gabriel’s attempt to comfort her, but she sought comfort in Philip’s embrace, leaning on him after he wordlessly wrapped his arm around her. That one gesture was a powerful symbol of Elizabeth’s shifting priorities and sense of trust—away from the Center and toward her husband. And it was because she could sense Philip’s sincerity in that moment, which made her feel safe to be vulnerable with him.
Both Philip and Elizabeth are more vulnerable now than ever before. They’re doubting everything, and that’s an even bigger reason why they’re in trouble than what’s going on with Paige. The walls are closing in around them as surely as the garage door closed behind them as they sat in the car. But even as that door closed behind them, they leaned on each other. They may be in trouble, but at least they’re in it together.
• This episode’s final scene made me cry, and it wasn’t the only moment this week to do that. In fact, I was crying before the first commercial break. (What can I say; I’m a crier.) I was moved to tears by Elizabeth asking Philip if he’d like her to go to EST with him. That scene was a perfect example of how The Americans creates suspense even when it’s not dealing with actual espionage. I found myself holding my breath when Philip told Elizabeth about EST, because it was certainly believable that she would be upset with him for doing something that could jeopardize his secrets or belittle his involvement with it like she did with Paige’s involvement with the church. Instead, it became a moment of major character growth for Elizabeth. The halting, tentative line delivery and fleeting eye contact between Rhys and Russell made this moment feel almost painfully vulnerable for both of them, and that gave it a kind of sincere beauty that left me in tears.
• The runner-up for my favorite scene was the scene in the bathroom when Philip told Elizabeth about killing his childhood bully. Once again, Rhys and Russell showed just how hard genuine honesty and vulnerability are for these characters, which makes moments like this one so affecting. Philip told the whole truth to Elizabeth—unlike what he did at EST and with Martha—and she didn’t judge him. Instead, she reached out to him. It was exactly the reaction Philip needed, and it added another layer of trust and truth to their dynamic.
• Costa Ronin’s performance in the scene in which Oleg learned of his brother’s death was a great example of why watching an actor try not to cry is often much more powerful than watching them let the tears flow.
• I thought it was perfectly true to Paige’s character to have her confess to her mother that she told Pastor Tim. Her inability to lie is something beautiful and pure about her, but it’s also something incredibly dangerous. And that complexity is what makes her just as fascinating a character as the adults around her.
• Elizabeth’s nightmare gave us so much insight into her changing state of mind. At first, I actually thought it was real, and she’d actually killed Pastor Tim. But the moment he turned into her former commanding officer and rapist, my heart broke for Elizabeth. It became clear that she’s questioning if her daughter should be a part of something that caused her so much trauma when she was not much older than Paige. (I’m continually impressed with the way this show addresses the fact that a person never “gets over” being raped. It haunts them and stays with them forever, and that’s certainly true for Elizabeth.) I also loved that Elizabeth turned toward Philip afterward, seeking comfort from him even if he was asleep.
• The use of “Tainted Love” as Philip killed the security guard was another pitch-perfect musical choice for this show. I had a lot of trouble watching that brutal scene, and it was even worse after discovering that it was all for nothing since the vial was left behind. But the vial going back into their house was a great symbol for the fact that they can’t seem to get rid of Pastor Tim either.
• In an episode that featured some lovely moments of humanity in a cold world, I was also struck by the growth Nina showed when she tried to get that letter to Anton’s son. As she said, she’s not who she once was. She cares more now and is more open about it, and just like Philip and Elizabeth, that change puts her in a lot of trouble.
• “Pastor Tim” had some beautiful single shots. The shot through of Paige doing her homework but not being able to concentrate and the shot of Paige in the hallway and Elizabeth in the kitchen, separated by the doorframe, were particular standouts.