TV Time: The Americans 4.03

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Title: Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow

Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
“Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” made me think a lot about the pilot of The Americans and how things have changed for its characters since that first episode. And no character has changed more since her first appearance than Elizabeth Jennings. When we first met her, she was a woman who put her mission above everything else, and Keri Russell was so good at showing Elizabeth as steel personified—protecting herself from the inside out. But time changes people, and so does love. Elizabeth isn’t who she was when we first met her, but she’s not unrecognizable like she could have been if a lesser actor had been tasked with her transformation. Instead, Russell has showed us—in this episode perhaps better than any other—that the change in Elizabeth has come from letting herself have emotions and reactions that she would have previously compartmentalized to focus on the best way to serve her cause. They’ve always been a part of her, but she’s showing them now, and it’s added a wonderful layer of depth to Russell’s already nuanced performance.

Elizabeth has previously used her missions as ways to let hidden parts of her see the light (like when she opened up to her mark in Season Two about being raped), but this episode was the first time we saw her genuinely have fun while on a mission. And it wasn’t Patty the potential Mary Kay salesperson having fun. It was Elizabeth having fun. It was Elizabeth bonding with Young Hee (who I already love) and forming what felt like a sincere connection and not just a front for whatever Elizabeth’s endgame is. Russell did a masterful job of making me wonder how much of that dynamic is forced and how much is the beginning of a real friendship between two women who connect with each other as immigrants (even if Elizabeth can’t tell Young Hee she’s also an immigrant)? My gut reaction is that Young Hee has the potential to be Elizabeth’s Martha—there was something about the instant kinship Russell projected in the scenes between them that has me thinking it won’t be easy for Elizabeth to do something terrible to this woman for her job.

I loved seeing the sincerity in some of Elizabeth’s interactions with Young Hee contrasted with her interactions with Pastor Tim. Russell was brilliant in that confrontation, allowing us to feel how hard it was for Elizabeth to interact with him. It was uncomfortable, and it was supposed to be. And so much of that pitch-perfect uneasiness came from Russell’s fake smile and forced tone of voice. It takes a great actor to show someone struggling to give a good performance, and luckily, Russell is truly one of the greatest actors on television right now.

As the episode went on and Elizabeth wrestled with the lose-lose situation she and Philip were in, I found myself more and more captivated by Russell’s silent reactions to everything happening around her. Where there once would have been firm conviction in her eyes, there was sadness. Where she once would have pushed Philip away, she reached for his hand. In this episode, Elizabeth showed her feelings as she felt them—her uncertainty, her love, and her fear. They still may not be worn on her sleeve, but they’re visible if you know where to look (her facial expressions, her tone of voice, her body language). And that’s what makes them all the more affecting.

Favorite Scene: Philip and Elizabeth talk at the travel agency
I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: My favorite episodes of The Americans are episodes that focus on Philip and Elizabeth as partners. I love exploring their dynamic—as parents, as spouses, and as agents. All of those aspects of their partnership came together in the scene between the two of them in the travel agency, when Philip tells Elizabeth one last time that they could run.

In Season One, these two characters would have never had this conversation. It would have been a fight, or one character would have made the call without consulting the other. But Philip and Elizabeth have been allowed to grow. We’ve watched them take every awkward, shaky step along the way to get to the point where they can talk to each other honestly about what they both really want.

My heart broke at the simple beauty of Philip softly telling Elizabeth, “You always dreamed of Odessa.” That kind of line hinted at a thousand intimate conversations we never got to see, a life for these characters that exists even when we’re not watching them—a life where they share their dreams with each other. It was such a powerful “show, don’t tell” moment, building the reality of their marriage with one line and Elizabeth’s stunning reaction to it. Because for one moment, she closed her eyes and let herself believe in the fantasy, picturing herself and her family in a little house by the sea back home. Russell was nothing short of brilliant in that tiny moment of imagined bliss.

But Russell was equally brilliant in the aftermath of that moment, when Elizabeth opened her eyes and faced reality once again. There was no real anger in her discussion with Philip about their priorities. There was simply open, sincere communication, which is a rare and lovely thing to see on television. It was a scene between two adults who love each other, respect each other, and want to understand each other—even when they’re disagreeing.

Both characters were so painfully resigned to the fact that, no matter what choice they made, their children—especially Paige—would be hurt. (I was gutted by Matthew Rhys’s hopeless, lost delivery of “It all matters.”) And that’s a fact of adult life: There are no easy answers or simple solutions to big problems. When it all matters, you have to decide what you can live with and what you can’t.

And for Philip, that answer is easy: “I’ve had an alarm going off inside of me. Run. Run. Run. But it’s not going off inside of you, so we stay.” Rhys said those lines with such unforced honesty that it took my breath away. It’s a basic fact for Philip: He’s not going anywhere without Elizabeth. At the end of the day, the only choice he can live with is the choice she can live with, too. So they stay. Just like in the show’s pilot episode when he chose not to defect and to kill Elizabeth’s rapist, he chose their partnership over everything else.

And Elizabeth’s reaction to that line was as beautiful as the line reading itself. Instead of getting mad that he still wanted to run, she reached for his hand. And he covered her hand with his. From the first episode, holding hands has always been a way for these two characters to show the other that they’re not alone. Even now—when they’re both struggling with choices that feel impossible and gray areas that get murkier every day—they’re not alone. And just like last week’s closing shot was important to establish that they’re in this together, this shot strengthened our sense of their partnership right before another huge test: their possible exposure to Glanders.

Extra Thoughts:
• The title of this episode was much more than just a reference to the planned Jennings Family Vacation to EPCOT. Walt Disney’s vision for EPCOT was to create a model city, a kind of utopia. But after his death, his dream was never fully realized; EPCOT became a theme park because Walt’s plan wasn’t realistic at the time. And in this episode, a lot of characters were faced with the fact that their fantasies—their utopias—can’t become a reality. Philip can’t take his family to Russia, Elizabeth can’t have a life in Odessa, Nina can’t go back to the safe house with Stan, Martha’s dream marriage isn’t real, and Paige’s naïve belief that Pastor Tim wouldn’t tell anyone came back to haunt her.
• EPCOT also seemed to represent innocence—hence the focus on Henry’s excitement. I loved the shot of Paige watching Henry with a sad smile on her face, wishing she could go back to the time when she was as innocent as her brother. It was one of those reaction shots that reminded me that Holly Taylor is learning from the best actors on television when it comes to her performances in silent moments.
• Speaking of EPCOT, I know the show probably couldn’t get the rights to Disney promotional materials from that time, but those brochures were so obviously not from EPCOT that it took me out of the scene in which they talk about the trip.
• After a few episodes that focused heavily on Paige and Elizabeth’s relationship, it was nice to see Philip’s relationship with his daughter back in the spotlight. His impassioned defense of her intelligence was wonderful. But it was so sad to see him teaching her how to work an asset, especially knowing that so much of what he’s teaching her is what he uses with Martha, which would answer Paige’s very astute question of where her father goes on the nights he’s not home.
• As far as assets go, it seems Philip is also working another one: Sandra. I was initially nervous about her coming into their house when Elizabeth wasn’t home, but I liked that Philip used their conversation to plant the seeds for her to talk to Stan, which might patch things up with Stan for him. It was a subtle bit of manipulation (with some sincerity because I think Philip does care about both of them), and I always find it fascinating to see that side of their training in action.
• The Mail Robot returned this week! And with a very important message: The FBI does not feel, and no one should say it does. That certainly seems applicable to more than just the FBI on this show. So many characters seem to be feeling when they’re not supposed to—from Philip and Elizabeth to Nina.
• Nina’s story is the least interesting thing about this show right now. Still, I did find it telling that her dream looked a lot like a funeral parlor with all the flowers. I also loved Annet Mahendru’s small smile when reading Anton’s statement, showing us that Nina doesn’t regret her choice. I just want her to get back to America, but I have no idea how that’s going to happen.
• In the middle of the brutal tension of the episode’s last few scenes, I was thankful for Dylan Baker’s dry and dark brand of comedy. His sprint away from Philip and Elizabeth actually made me laugh out loud. (But then my laughter turned to awe at how smart it was for Philip to spit on him, ensuring that he treated them all the same.) But Baker also managed to make this character sympathetic. I think we all would be bitter if our jobs caused us to lose our sense of smell and natural lubricants.
• The end of this episode sincerely shocked me. I didn’t think Chekov’s gun was going to go off so early in the season, with the vial seemingly infecting Gabriel. I loved the parallel between Gabriel telling Elizabeth and Philip to “get out” of his apartment and his statement to Claudia (always nice to see her!) that maybe it was time to get them out of the country. Seeing Gabriel have doubts reinforced how bad this situation is for everyone, and now it’s only going to get worse. It’s like seeing your parents worried; that’s when you know things are serious.

8 thoughts on “TV Time: The Americans 4.03

  1. I’m interested to see where this storyline with the virus goes and hope that the Nina storyline does go somewhere of instead of being locked in stasis.

    I loved that scene between Philip and Elizabeth at the travel agency. I agree with you how it shows how much these two have changed from the first season, especially Elizabeth. She seems less hard with Philip about the idea of running than she would have been in the past. I wonder it’s just a matter of time before she gives into the idea completely or consider severing her loyalty to the Centre which she is starting to have doubts about. I wonder the same about Stan eventually knowing the truth about Philip and Elizabeth since he is already suspecting Martha of hiding something and wants to get to the bottom of it which could lead to Clark/Philip. If that happens, I don’t think it would be as simple as Stan throwing Philip and Elizabeth into prison. I can imagine a scenario in which he convinces them to be triple agents, continuing their work for the Centre while sharing their intel with their FBI handler. It would be interesting if that handler is Stan.

    • I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of Philip and Elizabeth somehow really becoming “The Americans” by turning their backs on the Center somehow. Their backs are already up against the wall this season, and both of them are growing more and more disillusioned. It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.

  2. Great write up on this one Katie!

    I also really enjoyed the scenes with Elizabeth and Young Hee. I wasnt even thinking about their secret connection as Immigrants. It was just so nice to see Elizabeth enjoying herself. And how Keri Russell manages to project the difference between “fake happiness to trick a mark” and genuine happiness is masterful.

    I think what struck me the hardest in this episode is how much I think Elizabeth has actually grown attached to the US. Despite their jobs and their loyalties, a part of Elizabeth doesnt want to let go of her life in the US that they have built. Thats the biggest contrast for me from the beginning of the show. To Elizabeth in the pilot, it did feel like their family and life was nothing more than a cover. Now its all too real and I think a part of her is questioning that allegiance. I think Elizabeth’s growing friendship with Young Hee is just heightening that feeling. That America is more than “the enemy”. It is a place of immigrants and opportunities and maybe not the worst place in the world. Its pretty easy to hate the government. Its a lot harder to hate the overall spirit of a country and its people.

    And as a random final note, I was just so sad when their EPCOT vacation got ruined. I wanted that happy moment for them so badly. But again, it was a perfect tragic reminder that doing normal family things is a luxury the Jennings dont get to have.

    • Thanks, Shauna!

      I think you’re so right about Elizabeth realizing she’s not ready to let go of the life she has in the U.S. It’s not just a cover anymore. America is where she built a life, and she can’t hate it the way she tried to when we first met her. It’s a really amazing change, and I love that it happened so naturally that this episode’s shift in her reactions feels both revelatory and completely believable.

  3. I love that you got into a full blown EPCOT discussion here. This is an amazing review and I mostly love the way you discuss marriage and the fact that it’s so rare on television. I’m pretty sure the only other show that handles real, adult marriages as beautifully is Madam Secretary. And as per usual, you always manage to give me more feels than I did whilst watching. The way you broke down the Odessa scene was absolute perfection. I’m in awe of the way you love this show and how gorgeously you write about it every week.

    • Thank you so much, Giss! I really love writing about this show, and I always hope that my posts about it can do it justice because I think it’s the most brilliant show on television and Philip and Elizabeth are one of the best married couples I’ve ever seen on TV.

      Also, I’m glad you appreciated my EPCOT discussion! It’s about time my extensive knowledge of Disney World history paid off. 😉

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