TV Time: The Americans 4.08

the americans 408

Source: spoilertv.com

Title: The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears

Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
In a just world, this would be the episode that earns Keri Russell an overdue Emmy for playing one of the most complex, compelling female characters on television. (But since this is not a just world, I’m already preparing the post I’ll write when she and the show are once again so rudely snubbed.) In one hour, Russell was given the opportunity to unleash her entire arsenal of acting skills in a way most actresses are unable to do in the course of their entire career. Masterfully shifting from understanding to frustration to rage to numb shock, Russell was able to take the reins off this characters whose emotions are so often compartmentalized and shown only in the tiniest reactions. And what happened when she showed the full extent of Elizabeth’s power was a thing of terrifying beauty.

Russell’s performance in this episode will be remembered (and, mark my words, it will be remembered) because of two volcanic eruptions of emotion. But what shouldn’t be lost when talking about her brilliance is the way she—much like Matthew Rhys in his similarly astounding performance in Season Two’s “Martial Eagle”—showed the mounting stress that pushed Elizabeth to her breaking point.

What amazed me about Elizabeth in this episode was how much I felt for her at the beginning of it—especially considering how terrified I was of her by the end of it. Russell did such a great job of showing how hard Elizabeth was trying to be there for Philip, and her reactions to Philip shutting her out felt so uncomfortably realistic. I felt her frustration, her desire to understand her husband, and her jealousy on a level that surprised me. I never expected to be angry with Philip for being sad about Martha leaving, but something about Russell’s understatedly vulnerable performance in those early scenes resonated so strongly with me that I found myself wanting Philip to stop moping around and talk to his wife.

As the episode went on, Russell’s performance kept building like a symphony. For so much of this season, we’ve seen the cracks in Philip, but Elizabeth is cracking, too. Her flippant tone when responding to Philip’s statement that Martha wasn’t simple was so human and relatable. But then her flippant attitude about Martha turned into deep-rooted anger, and it was like the wrath of a vengeful god raining down on Philip. Watching Russell in that fight scene with Rhys was like watching a prize fighter in her glory, fearless and fierce. And the way Russell showed Elizabeth still holding on to that anger even in Gabriel’s presence was perfect. She was petty and snarky and decidedly un-Elizabeth, and it worked so well to show us her deteriorating control over her emotions.

Elizabeth’s lack of control culminated in that downright frightening takedown of Paige in the kitchen. If I was being even more specific with my M.V.P. award, I’d give it to the veins in Russell’s face, which were on full display as she made Elizabeth’s fury something real and physical, which made it all the more frightening. This is how Elizabeth falls apart—not crumbling from the inside like Philip but exploding with a force that destroys everyone around her, and Russell made sure we all felt the force of that explosion.

It felt right that this acting tour de force by Russell happened under Rhys’s direction. The two are partners, and you could feel his respect for her talent and her trust in his direction in every scene. They always create magic together onscreen, so it’s nice to know that they can continue to create something special together from opposite sides of the camera, too.

Favorite Scene: Gabriel finally gets it
I seem to have a “type” when it comes to favorite scenes on The Americans: They’re usually moments of sincere emotion in a world where artifice is the norm, moments of genuine warmth in the trenches of the Cold War. And that was certainly the case in this episode. While the opening scene, Philip and Elizabeth’s big fight, Elizabeth’s tirade against Paige, and the big time jump were the most immediately impactful and potentially memorable moments in the episode, my favorite scene was quieter (because we all know how much I love the way this show handles quiet moments): Gabriel’s realization that things need to change for Philip and Elizabeth.

Since about midway through last season, it’s felt like Philip and Elizabeth were juggling too many high-stakes, high-stress missions. And each week, the pressure seemed to increase until it reached almost unbearable levels during the last few episodes, with Martha’s extraction taking center stage. On some other shows, the characters would continue to handle this inhuman workload without it ever being directly addressed. But on The Americans, stories are allowed to progress and play out in an honest way, and the honest way for this story to play out was to show that no one—not even two accomplished agents—could handle everything thrown at Philip and Elizabeth.

For as intense as the scene between Elizabeth and Paige was and for how brutal the scene between Elizabeth and Lisa was, neither of them upset me like the start of this scene did—with Elizabeth walking in with her cigarette in her mouth, bleeding from a wound on her neck and clearly in shock. It was chilling to see the normally hyper-aware Elizabeth reduced to being unable to detect if her cigarette was still in her hand, to hear her mumbling to Philip, and to see her basically dead on her feet. Russell’s performance in that moment was truly haunting. After seeing so much fire and violent force in Elizabeth throughout the hour, it was actually far scarier to see her in such a broken state.

In that moment, the audience and Gabriel were on the same page. We’ve gotten used to seeing Philip struggle with all the pressure he’s facing, but seeing Elizabeth like that made the overwhelming reality of their situation hit home. If it’s too much for her, it’s too much for anyone.

Frank Langella proved once again in this scene why he was a perfect addition to this cast: He’s another masterful reactor. It was beautiful to see his stoic façade fade away as he watched two agents he’s come to care about try to find their footing on the thin ice they’re constantly walking on. You could see it hit him in that moment that Philip and Elizabeth aren’t just agents; they’re human beings. And even the strongest humans can only take so much.

Gabriel also realized that Philip and Elizabeth need each other to survive. All of this pressure was destroying their marriage, and you could see Gabriel finally understand in this moment that their marriage is something very real for both of them, something that needs to be protected for both their sakes. I was moved beyond words at the way Philip was tending to Elizabeth’s wound so gently and the way he guided her with the softest touch on her back. This was a hard episode for this couple, but they found their way back to each other. And that’s what a marriage is. You can fight and dredge up old dirt and open old wounds, but when the other person needs you, you will let go of your anger to be their rock. And when you need them, you’ll let go of your pride and let them take care of you.

This was such an intensely vulnerable moment, the kind these two agents wouldn’t normally let anyone else see. But Gabriel saw, and it changed something inside of him. Their fragility awakened his desire to protect them, so he promised them that he would give them a break. When he told them that he would make the Center understand their situation, it reminded me that this is a show about the people and the emotions behind seemingly cold, impersonal agencies like the FBI and KGB. Philip, Elizabeth, and Gabriel are agents, but they’re also people who have developed real, human relationships with one another. And in relationships, you help each other; you take care of each other. That’s what Philip did for Elizabeth, and it’s what Gabriel did for them. And once Gabriel told them his plan, I nearly cried at the look of relief on Philip’s face. It was the very definition of an “earned moment.”

Extra Thoughts:
• This was a high point for the entire series, which is saying something because every episode feels like a high point. I can only hope that all the well deserved praise being heaped upon this episode by viewers and TV critics will inspire more people to watch this incredible show.
• The opening sequence was a mini masterpiece of filmmaking. It used silence to capture the stark reality of early morning interactions before doing something you don’t want to do.
• “Don’t be alone, Clark.” Martha is one hell of a woman, who is a thousand times more forgiving than I would ever be. The bravery Alison Wright put into her performance in this moment created something transcendent. When she gathered herself before replying, “Me too,” I was struck by the fact that Martha might be the strongest character of all. If this is the last we see of her, it was the perfect way to say goodbye.
• I’m not sure I’ve ever squirmed more than I did during the kitchen conversation with Philip and Elizabeth debating Martha’s simplicity. While Philip could only see it as Elizabeth insulting a woman he cared about, I saw it as Elizabeth expressing more of her insecurities but failing miserably to articulate her feelings well. I think she worries that she’s not open enough and is too complicated to be someone her husband can confide in. She sees Martha as everything she’s not, as someone who could give Philip everything she can’t. Martha’s presence was like another character for much of the beginning of this episode, and I thought that was handled perfectly.
• I was so happy Philip and Elizabeth brought up Gregory and Irina during their fight. Those were demons that needed to be exorcised, ghosts that needed to finally be addressed in order for both of them to let go and find a deeper connection with each other. It felt like such a real fight, with both parties bringing up things long buried that had nothing to do with their initial argument. It was ugly, but it was necessary.
• I thought it was smart to also address Philip’s insecurities after a few episodes dealing mainly with Elizabeth’s. Philip still thinks Elizabeth feels stuck with him, but I loved that her response was that she chose to take him back—even after he hurt her. He’s not a default option or someone she’s forced to tolerate; he’s the man she’s chosen.
• I still really love Young Hee, and I’m glad that was the one mission Elizabeth had to keep, even if I know it’s just going to break my heart in the end.
• Elizabeth telling Paige that she and Philip tried to be nice to her was just as chilling as the shot of her coming at Lisa with the broken bottle. In that moment, she was an agent talking to a failed asset, not a mother talking to her daughter. And that set the scene so perfectly for the blows she was about to inflict on her daughter.
• Even though I love Paige, I don’t think Elizabeth was entirely wrong. Paige put her whole family in jeopardy by acting on her emotions and telling Pastor Tim, so she needed to be told that emotions can’t have a place in this situation anymore. Paige needed to be told what is now one of my favorite lessons to come out of this show: You can’t control your emotions, but you can control what you do. And you could feel in Russell’s pointed delivery of that line that she wasn’t just talking about Paige. Her frustration with Philip and his “precious” handling of his moods informed so much of that speech.
• Gabriel and Claudia need more scenes together, if only so I can continue to hear Claudia tell Gabriel to suck it up. I loved the parallel between their dynamic in that scene and Elizabeth’s frustrations with Philip.
• I still think Tatiana is up to something.
• The transition from the disappearing Statue of Liberty to the disappearing seven months was brilliant.
• If we’re giving Russell an Emmy for this episode, can we also at least get Holly Taylor a nomination for the emotionless way she delivered Paige’s report on Pastor Tim? Elizabeth and Philip got a break (Yay EPCOT!), but Paige never stopped working Pator Tim and Alice. And the cost of that is her soul. She’s so far from the bright, inquisitive, passionate girl we first met that it breaks my heart. And the tragic change in Paige was played so perfectly by Taylor.

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5 thoughts on “TV Time: The Americans 4.08

  1. This show continues to be a bright spot in a TV season that I’ve largely not enjoyed for the past two months. The amount of care that goes into the construction of the show is incredible and it brings out truly amazing things from the actors.

    If that is in fact the last time we see Martha, what a way to go. Alison Wright has been incredible all season but her “Me too” was such a powerful moment and that’s how I’ll want to remember her. She allowed herself to be vulnerable and think she found what she was looking for only for it to be taken away in a particularly cruel manner but she’s faced everything with such strength, even as she falls apart.

    In other assets I’ve gotten too attached too, there are no words to express the depths of my love for Young Hee. There is a lightness to her that hasn’t been present in many of the other assets this show has shown us and her dynamic with Elizabeth is so warm. It makes me want more of them but I’m also terrified of whatever is to come.

    Keri Russell needs every acting award possible in the next year because she was incredible. I loved seeing this very tightly controlled character let out all the feelings she’s been carrying around and burying in such an explosive manner. Everything you said about her performance in this episode was perfect.

    Finally, I love that this is ultimately a show about consequences. Characters don’t get a pass on their flawed actions just because we care about them and want good things. It creates tangled, messy situations for them and the effects of their choices ripple through everything that comes after. It’s brilliantly done even when it breaks my heart, like it did this week with Paige.

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