Title: The Midges
Episode M.V.P.: Matthew Rhys
The Americans is famously economical with its dialogue, so when an actor gets multiple great line readings in one episode, it’s worthy of being singled out. When most people think of Matthew Rhys’s dialogue in “Midges,” they probably think of the episode’s last line: his sardonic “Should we tell Paige about this?” after loading a body into the trunk of a car. And there’s a reason for that—The Americans doesn’t often allow its characters to have a sense of humor, so when it does, it’s memorable. But when I think of Philip’s great lines and Rhys’s great delivery in this episode, two more emotional moments come to mind.
The first was when Paige asked Philip and Elizabeth if it was hard pretending to be other people and Philip replied, “Yeah, sometimes it’s really hard.” The honesty Rhys gave that line put tears in my eyes because it made me think about the fact that Philip was the perfect parent to answer that question that way. He still carries the weight of what happened with Martha (which was a nice reminder of that storyline before that surprise later in the episode), and Rhys allowed that weight—not crippling anymore but still present—to seep into that single line brilliantly. And then, of course, there was Philip’s devastating question about why Russia can’t grow its own grain. Rhys’s ability to make Philip’s inner conflict almost suffocating in its intensity came through in every beat of his layered speech about home—his longing for the open fields of Russia, his subconscious acknowledgement that the United States isn’t so different from home, his anger that people are still starving so many years after he was a starving child, and his skepticism about the better nation being the one that can’t feed its own people.
Rhys got to deliver some great lines in this episode, but that doesn’t mean his quieter moments should go unnoticed. Whether he was looking into the bathroom mirror, looking at the road while Tuan ranted from the backseat, or looking at his wife as she danced with him, Philip’s eyes were worth following throughout this episode because Rhys said so much with them. He’s always been a master of reacting with realism and saying just enough with his expressions to suggest that Philip’s head and heart are so full of conflicting thoughts and emotions that he could fall apart under the strain at any moment. As Philip’s doubts continue to rise to the surface, I can only imagine that Rhys is going to continue to break my heart.
Favorite Scene: Philip and Elizabeth’s dance
Generally, my favorite scene in an episode will fall into one of two categories: a Paige-centric scene or a scene that focuses on Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. So this episode was an embarrassment of riches for me in terms of scenes that hit on my favorite elements of the show. However, for as much as I love Paige, as soon as Philip and Elizabeth started dancing, I knew I wouldn’t be able to think about—much less write about—anything else this week. In fact, I’ve watched this scene seven times since Tuesday and will probably watch it again after I finish writing this. (Side note: I paused my writing just to watch it again. I have a problem, and I’m totally okay with admitting that.)
My favorite thing about The Americans from the very beginning has been watching Elizabeth and Philip find something real in a world and a life defined by artifice. So this moment—with the two of them in disguise but showing their true hearts to each other—felt like it was made for me to enjoy. This was a scene that began with Philip talking about home as it related to Russia, but it ended with the two of them in each other’s arms, which has become the only real home they have now. Surrounded by symbols of America—the cowboy clothes, the seedy Midwestern motel, the country music (Who doesn’t love Alabama?)—this moment symbolized their ability to carve out a space, a home, for themselves in the middle of a foreign world. They’re not Americans, but they’re not quite Russians anymore, either. Even Elizabeth didn’t sneer at the cowboy hat the way she might have back in Season One. Instead, she tried it on and seductively talked about being a rodeo queen, showing a kind of playful, flirtatious side that we don’t often see but looks great on her (much like that blonde wig looked great on Keri Russell).
Cowboy accessories have been important symbols for Philip since the pilot, so the moment Elizabeth put the cowboy hat on him, I was struck by the symbolism of her acknowledging his doubts and his wavering nationalism but not punishing him for it anymore. Instead, she can see how heavy this wears on him, and I saw this moment as her genuinely trying to help ease that burden for at least a little while. Of course, because it’s The Americans, nothing is ever simple. There’s always a question to be asked about whether or not Elizabeth is working Philip, using physical intimacy to keep him from straying too far. And maybe to some degree she is, but I saw her actions in this scene as being motivated less by a desire to control than by a desire to comfort (as opposed to last season’s “Under Pressure” scene, which I saw as being more about control).
My favorite thing about this scene was watching Philip’s face after Elizabeth put the hat on him. The small, soft smile on Rhys’s face added a whole new layer to the scene that I never expected it to have. Of course there was serious heat between Rhys and Russell (The way his eyes never leave her face when he stands up from the bed will forever be my undoing.), but what struck me more than anything in that scene was the warmth that radiated from them during it. The Americans is often a harsh and cold show—cold weather, dark lighting, stark sets—but everything about this scene was soft and warm—the lighting, the music, and especially the actors. There was so much genuine affection on Rhys and Russell’s faces during that dance, and it made for one of the most romantic moments I’ve seen on television in a long time. It was a moment to slow things down and remind viewers that this show caught lightning in a bottle with those two actors and their chemistry, and it was a moment to put the focus back on the relationship that makes the entire show work.
• One more little detail I have to point out about that dance scene: Russell was as far up on her tiptoes as she could go during the kiss at the end, which means nothing symbolically; I just found it adorable. (I’m a sucker for height differences.)
• Who else, upon seeing a certain headscarf-wearing former FBI secretary in the Russian supermarket screamed, “MARTHA!” at their TV? It was the most genuinely happy surprise television has given me in months. It was nice to know that Martha is alive and even getting out of the house in Russia (at one of the better markets, too). I hope that little moment will lead to more check-ins with her, maybe that will happen more next season than this season, as Alison Wright is acting on Broadway and in the excellent Feud: Bette and Joan right now. Also, having her pop up in a scene about Oleg just furthered my irrational hope that the two of them will meet and fall in love because they both deserve good things.
• Speaking of Oleg, Costa Ronin is doing great work so far this season—from his charm with the woman in the grocery store to the defeated sigh when he heard the tape of him talking to Stan. I’m excited to see where Oleg’s story goes because I know that whatever happens, Ronin will do amazing things with it.
• I’m not totally sure what’s going on with Stan and Aderholt right now, but I did love the moment when Aderholt ate the guy’s fries after he left.
• Frank Langella also had a great line reading in this episode with his “How did that go?” when Philip and Elizabeth said they told Paige about the mission.
• I thought Philip’s speech to Tuan about losing his father and not having food was wonderfully layered: On one hand, he was empathizing with the teenager, but on the other hand, he was letting him know that he’s not the only one who had a hard childhood.
• Does Tuan know what Elizabeth and Philip really look like? I thought it was interesting that they took off their disguises away from him—reinforcing the intimacy of them being truly themselves with only each other. I also thought that moment was a nice spy-life/real-life moment that felt like two spouses talking about work and their kid while changing after a long day—just with more wigs and colored contacts!
• I can’t say enough good things about Holly Taylor. The moment Paige cautiously asked her parents if it was hard for them to pretend to be other people was played with the kind of nuance not many teenage actors can get right. Every time Paige wants to know more about her parents’ work, I die a little inside because she gets a little closer to becoming a spy. And I think Paige herself feels the same way. Her disgust with herself for lying easily was so painful but also so true to her character. Paige is becoming such a complex character, and each week I find myself more impressed with how Taylor is handling that complexity.
• Elizabeth asking Paige if it is fair to put the burden of the truth on Matthew made me so angry. That’s exactly what she wanted to do and ultimately did to her daughter, which made that statement feel very hypocritical.
• Who else thinks Matthew Beeman is so not worth all of this stress for Paige? I was already on the fence because of his awful hair, but the moment his apathy came out in this episode, I was ready for Paige to run away and never look back. Paige is someone who cares deeply about the world and wants to take action to do the right thing (which is why the grain plot is a genius way to get her to believe her parents work to help people), and she deserves better than a boy who doesn’t care about making the world a better place.
• The entire end sequence in the lab preyed on my intense fear of bugs. But even the biggest bugs will never be as scary as Russell when she looks at someone and you can tell Elizabeth’s already decided they have to die. In one shot of her walking behind the lab director, I was struck by both how small she is and how scary she can be at the same time (life goals for me, basically).
• I know I should not have loved watching Philip and Elizabeth break that lab director’s neck, but that moment was such a testament to their marriage. With one look, they got on the same page and worked together to get the job done. It was a brutal look into how strong their partnership is.
• So what does everyone think will be the outcome of this grain plot? I think it’s going to come to light that the United States is testing pesticides and has no intention of harming the Soviet crops. Nothing on this show is ever what it seems to be, and it’s certainly never as straightforward as this plot seems to be right now. There has to be a curveball coming, and I think that’s going to come in the form of a revelation to Philip and Elizabeth that the real thing starving the Soviet people is the corruption in the Soviet Union itself.