Title: A Roy Rogers in Franconia
Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell and Holly Taylor
For those of you who don’t know, in addition to being a writer and editor, I’m also a dance teacher, and this weekend was my students’ big recital (which is one of the main reasons why this post is so late). As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about dance lately. So maybe I just have dance on the brain, but every time I watch Keri Russell and Holly Taylor share a scene together, I think about them not just as the actors they are but as the trained ballet dancers they are as well. Their dance training has not only given them both beautiful posture (which makes them feel related even when they’re just sitting next to each other); it’s also given them a unique ability to naturally convey emotion through their body. And that shared ability to say so much through movement and expression—to make the emotional something physical—was put on prominent display in this episode. The placement of their bodies in a scene—the way they responded to each other’s touch or lack thereof, the angle of their body and head as the other spoke—took what was already stellar writing and made it feel grounded in a very physical reality.
Russell has been on a hot streak the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen from an actor in a weekly series before. Each week she’s been turning in career performances, and this week was no exception. The most astounding thing about Russell’s work in this episode was the way she followed up Elizabeth’s violent actions at the end of last week’s episode with such soft, sincere uncertainty. That’s Elizabeth in a nutshell; she is supremely confident when it comes to disarming enemies, but she is so unsure of herself when it comes to connecting with the people she loves. And what’s been so beautiful about Russell’s performance is the way she believably lets us see both sides of this complex character. My favorite thing about her work in this episode was the cautious, almost frightened way she carried herself in the early scenes with Paige. You could feel her fear that she’d become a monster in her daughter’s eyes, and it was amazing to see that this was the one thing that could scare the seemingly unshakeable Elizabeth Jennings.
Russell is a master of nuance, and it seems Taylor is taking her apprenticeship under her seriously. Paige feels like a real teenager thrust into a heightened reality, and one of the best things about Taylor’s performance is that she imbues it with a genuine sense of confusion and uncertainty without ever making Paige feel like an idiot. It was a true joy to watch Taylor in this episode because she made Paige’s actions feel just as layered in their intentions as her parents’ actions always feel. She showed us that Paige was both terrified of what she witnessed her mother do and intrigued by what motivated her to learn to do it. She was both sincerely connecting with Matthew and using that connection to help her family. She was both eager for more answers about what her parents really do and immediately regretful that she asked. (Her wonderfully sarcastic “Great…” might have been one of the show’s most perfect conclusions to an episode.) Every time Paige is in the spotlight, Taylor shows that she’s not just a great young actor; she’s a great actor. And this episode was another example of her holding her own alongside the best actors on television.
Favorite Scene: Elizabeth tells Paige about Smolensk
I have such a soft spot for scenes when either Philip or Elizabeth (but especially the latter) talk about their lives in Russia. Every time it happens, I’m like Paige on the bed in this scene, devouring whatever tiny bits of information I’m given about what life was like for young Mischa and Nadezhda before they became Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. And in this instance, the insight Elizabeth gave Paige into where she came from allowed us to finally understand why this woman is still so dedicated to serving her country after all this time and why she does truly believe the work she’s doing will make a positive difference.
The way Elizabeth spoke of Smolensk was filled with not just love, but a deep admiration for the spirit her hometown represents. There was such pride in Russell’s delivery of this monologue, but it wasn’t an overbearingly nationalistic or preachy kind of pride; it was the deeply personal kind of reverence a person feels for the home that made them who they are. And in this case, Smolensk made Elizabeth a fighter. It made her unafraid of danger because she believes she’s fighting for Smolensk and everything the people who live there stand for. It felt as if she was still trying to prove herself worthy of being from such a resilient place.
The brilliant thing about this speech was the way it humanized Elizabeth’s devotion to her cause. Before, it always felt like she was fighting for an untouchable ideal, but now we can see that she’s fighting for a real place filled with real people who have seen destruction and shouldn’t have to see any more of it. It’s easy to understand why joining the KGB would appeal to someone who grew up in such horrible circumstances and was surrounded by such a strong desire to fight back against those circumstances. And Russell’s performance during this speech also humanized Elizabeth in a way we’ve never really seen before. She didn’t speak of her desire to fight with the zeal of a soldier; she spoke with the gentle nostalgia of a woman who misses home.
I was deeply moved watching the nonverbal interplay between Russell and Taylor in this scene. This was Elizabeth at her most vulnerable, and Russell made it feel that way, with her soft smiles and downcast eyes. And Elizabeth’s vulnerability was met with beautiful openness from Paige, which Taylor showed without saying a word. Just the sight of her leaning in closer to her mother as she began to speak of her home was enough to put tears in my eyes. This was one of those moments where a universal truth was found in the middle of a very specific situation for these characters: As we grow up, we come to discover that our parents were also young once—with motivations, hopes, dreams, and fears that weren’t that different from ours. Elizabeth grew up wanting to fight for what mattered to her, and Paige inherited that fighting spirit from her mother, that desire to help in whatever way she could and to fight against injustices around her. It was such a powerful moment of connection and honesty, and it reminded me that this is one of the only (if not the only) “prestige drama” to care so deeply about the relationship between a mother and daughter—to put women and at the center of the storytelling. And maybe that’s why it’s one of the only “prestige dramas” I’ve been compelled to watch and keep watching.
• If you ever want to have fun unpacking about a billion unspoken conversations in one scene, watch the few minutes right after Paige and Elizabeth come home again. Between Philip trying to gauge from Elizabeth’s expression exactly what happened, Elizabeth trying to get Paige on board with the story they’ll be selling to Henry, and Henry’s obvious worry for his mother and sister, there was so much going on underneath that one conversation that it’s deserving of more than one re-watch.
• Is it just me, or does it feel like we’re getting closer to Henry figuring something out about his family or at least questioning things more openly like Paige did in Season Two? He clearly seemed to sense that he wasn’t being told the whole story about what happened to Elizabeth and Paige.
• I loved the tiny moment between Philip and Henry when Philip was going back to Paige’s room with the water. The solemn nod between the two said so much about their own connection in an episode so heavily focused on the dynamic between Elizabeth and Paige. Henry seems to have inherited his father’s desire to take care of his loved ones. I thought Keidrich Sellati was excellent in this episode, and I’m excited to see him grow as an actor as Henry grows as a character.
• Paige and Matthew’s first kiss was so realistically awkward that I found myself smiling even though another part of me was screaming at Paige to stop. It killed me to see her trying to balance this sincere connection with her role as the daughter of two spies. Philip and Elizabeth both struggle when their emotions get tangled up in their work and they begin to care for those they report on, so the last thing I think either of them wants is for Paige—who isn’t trained and has no idea how to separate emotion from gathering intelligence—to have to carry that kind of burden.
• Another A+ moment for Russell: The scene between Philip and Elizabeth on the couch, when Elizabeth tells him about Paige reporting to her about Matthew and Stan. The conflict between shock, pride, and sadness warring in Elizabeth was a sight to behold.
• I’m not sure which moment broke my heart more: Elizabeth desperately trying to convince Philip that she had no choice except to kill their attacker or Paige asking Elizabeth if she was scared.
• Another guaranteed heartbreaker: the moment after Oleg called his mother and the camera lingered on Costa Ronin wiping his eyes.
• Ronin was a close runner-up for my Episode M.V.P. this week. The scene between Oleg and Stan in the car was incredible, and so much of its power came from the anxiety Ronin brought to it. His rushed delivery of his lines and the way he stared straight ahead made my heart race right along with the character’s.
• The writers did such an amazing job of slowly building to Oleg telling Stan about the bioweapons. We’ve seen Oleg lose people he loved, we’ve seen him question the reasons behind those losses, and we’ve seen him worry about the incompetence of his fellow Russians and how that could plunge the world into war. (That scene where he told Tatiana about the man who didn’t follow orders and prevented World War III was so important.) All of those small moments of doubt—coupled with Tatiana’s cavalier comment to him about destroying the eastern seaboard—came together to make his decision to go to Stan feel believable even as it surprised me.
• Once again, the theme of connections and their importance played a huge role in this episode. Gabriel’s monologue about learning that being alone doesn’t make you stronger was an incredible bit of writing. “You go to shit anyway, and you’re still alone” might be the best thing Gabriel has ever said. While Philip and Elizabeth’s love for each other and their kids might have seemed to be a weakness at first, it’s turned out to be one of the reasons they’re still so strong. They know they’re not alone, and that knowledge has saved them more than once and given them plenty of reasons to keep fighting. As Philip so poignantly said, “The Center made a good match.” But it’s what Philip and Elizabeth built from that initial match that’s become the one “good” thing in a sea of darkness.