TV Time: The Americans 5.04

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Title: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Episode M.V.P.: Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell
“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” was an episode that focused intensely on Philip and Elizabeth as partners in marriage, so I couldn’t separate Rhys and Russell when it came to their performances this week; what made their work resonate so deeply in this episode was the strength of their connection. In order for this episode to work on an emotional level, we needed to believe that Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage has become so strong and secure that they don’t want anything to jeopardize it. And Rhys and Russell are nothing if not masters at making us believe whatever they’re selling when it comes to their relationship.

What I loved most about Rhys and Russell in this episode was the way they seemed to live in the details and unspoken moments, creating a truly believable and realistic portrayal of a marriage on strong footing. Building off last week’s romantic dance scene, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” made great use of the nuances and layers in their chemistry; it’s so much more than a one-note kind of heat or sexual tension.

From the very first scene, Rhys and Russell made it clear that these two characters have reached a place where they are completely on the same page without having to talk about it. With simple sideways glances at each other, they both understood that neither wanted to hurt their marriage with another honey trap, and that allowed both of them to push back when Gabriel suggested it. There was no scene before showing them come to this conclusion together; it was something understood simply through their eyes and body language. And on a show that refuses to hold audiences’ hands, that ability to convey so much without spelling out it is an invaluable asset.

Another invaluable asset Rhys and Russell have in their acting arsenal is their ability to make these characters genuinely feel married. When Philip and Elizabeth talked about Henry in the travel agency office, it felt like two real parents talking about their kid—easy and unforced. The same could be said of the moment when Elizabeth came home after her first solo trip to Kansas. The comfort in Russell’s performance with Rhys in that scene was lovely. It was such a different look for Elizabeth—relaxed and clearly relishing in being back by Philip’s side after having to pretend to fall for someone else. It’s a level of vulnerability she doesn’t often get to show—we don’t typically get to see what a content version of Elizabeth looks like—and I adored it. There was a beat toward the end of the scene when she closed her eyes and pressed herself against him more tightly, and I was struck by how natural that moment felt. And that made it even harder to see that Philip was still so clearly struggling with the idea of Elizabeth having another date set up. (The shot of him staring at the TV, jaw clenched tightly, as she nestled in beside him was stunning in terms of how much it said without words.) The idea of her having a moment like that with another man has become physically hard for Philip to swallow, and Rhys played that with typically perfect restraint.

But Elizabeth is never going to have a moment like that with another man. That was Elizabeth with her guard down more than it’s ever been because she feels at ease with her husband, and that’s made their marriage feel so much easier, even as it’s made their work so much harder. Elizabeth told Paige that her job is all about confidence, and somewhere along the way, the thing both she and Philip developed the most confidence in is the marriage that began because of their job. The same can be said for Rhys and Russell; their confidence in their partnership is clearly visible at this point. But instead of making it harder for them to do their jobs, it’s made them even better at their jobs.

Favorite Scene: Philip and Elizabeth try to get out of their mission
“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” was an episode that featured nearly every character pushing back against authority figures in some way, and it started immediately with Philip and Elizabeth trying to get out of honey trapping agricultural employees in Topeka. This was the perfect way to set the tone of the episode in terms of what it foreshadowed about every character reaching breaking points, defying expectations, and making choices to protect what matters most to them.

Frank Langella was fascinating  in this scene because there was a tension in his performance that shows how seriously Gabriel is taking this latest threat. Last season, when Philip and Elizabeth were under too much strain, Gabriel made the call to ease back on their workload, seeming to understand that their mental state and their relationship needed to be in the right place in order for them to do their best work. This time, however, Gabriel seems to have no patience for their hesitation, and I’m intrigued to find out if we’re going to get more insight into Gabriel’s state of mind this season.

Perhaps Gabriel was so quick to brush off Philip and Elizabeth’s concerns because he knew that their complaint of having too much on their plate wasn’t the whole story. I could watch this scene 100 times and find new ways Rhys and Russell telegraphed Philip and Elizabeth’s frustration with being tasked with new honey pot operations, especially after the way the Martha operation almost destroyed their marriage. I was especially struck by the slight exhale Elizabeth gave after Gabriel said they’re both single, with Russell’s blank stare and lack of visible reaction being enough to both convey to the audience her annoyance with still having to do these kinds of operations and cause Philip to immediately jump in with his request to get someone else to take on the mission. (The way he looks toward her as if sensing her reaction before seeing it was perfect.) And then, just when you think Elizabeth is going to swallow her concerns and be a good soldier, she defies expectations and backs up her husband instead of her superior. It was a huge moment for this character, and it happened in the kind of surprisingly subtle way this show does best.

Throughout the scene, I found it interesting that Philip took the lead, but always only after getting a nonverbal cue of some kind from Elizabeth. From his original protest to his explanation about Paige, every excuse came after a glance at Elizabeth, judging her reaction, checking to see if they were together on this. And for one of the first times when it came to defying their superiors, she was. I was surprised by just how angry Elizabeth was by the end of the scene; her stiff body language when Gabriel slid the files to her reminded me so much of an adult version of Paige’s petulant reactions at times. She didn’t want to touch them, didn’t want to acknowledge that this was their new mission—and that Gabriel wouldn’t listen to her. The detail of Philip picking up the files instead was a nice touch; he’s used to swallowing his anger and going along with a mission despite his reservations. But if this scene showed us anything, it’s that both he and his wife might not be able to swallow their anger or push it down under the cover of patriotism much longer, especially not if it keeps interfering with their family.

Extra Thoughts:
• Let’s break down all the other characters defying orders from superiors and standing up for things that mattered to them, shall we? The best way to start is with the most dramatic: Stan’s decision to blackmail the FBI with the confession that he killed Vlad back in Season One. I should have known it was coming after his conversation with Aderholt about blackmail, but it still surprised me. Noah Emmerich was a pillar of strength in that scene, and I have loved watching Stan find his spine this season.
• On the other side of the world, we had Oleg standing up against his superiors, who wanted to use a soldier’s service in Afghanistan to threaten his family. Oleg knows perhaps more than anyone the ways families were affected by that war, so it made perfect sense for that to be more than he could handle. His plea to do the decent thing—and his superior’s suggestion that the decent thing is the best thing for your country—gets to the very heart of The Americans. As the show has gone on, more and more characters are starting to see that the decent thing and the thing your country demands of you aren’t always the same.
• And, of course, Paige also defied authority in a very open way in this episode. When Elizabeth told her that it was too dangerous for her to read Pastor Tim’s diary, I loved the strong, confident tone of Holly Taylor’s assertion that she was the one who was there—not her mother—so she did what she felt was best. And even more than that, I loved the conflicted mixture of fear and pride in Russell’s reaction. (Welcome back, Russell’s Emmy-caliber ocular vein!)
• The decision to cut between Paige sneaking around Pastor Tim’s house and Elizabeth seducing her mark was an example of The Americans at its very best.
• It was interesting to note that Elizabeth had such great luck with her mark while Philip totally struck with out with his. But I’m not sure anyone would turn down Russell in that adorable wig.
• Did anyone else find it interesting that they made a point of showing the condoms in Pastor Tim’s drawer? Was it just a random 80s reference, or could it mean something more? What is the good pastor up to? (A fantastic line reading by Russell)
• Another important question: What’s the matter with Henry? Does anyone have a theory? No matter what’s going on, it was nice to finally see him again, even if it was almost impossible to recognize him because Keidrich Sellati has grown so much.
• In a season where food is so important, Henry wasting his toast (which, of course, is made using wheat) and Paige yelling at him for it was such a great symbol of where those kids stand in terms of knowing the truth about where they come from.
• Speaking of food, I liked that Alexei said exactly the same thing Philip did about Russia not being able to grow its own wheat. That friendship is certainly not going to help Philip’s doubts.
• The confession Oleg’s mother made about being in the gulag was a brilliant revelation. The idea of doing what you have to do to survive has always been a theme on this show, and to hear it come from such an unexpected character was amazing and another example of this show dealing often with the strength of mothers.
• I may be slightly obsessed with the amazingly incredulous reaction Elizabeth had to Philip suggesting she likes her mark. Russell’s facial expressions in this episode were golden.
• I thought it was interesting that Elizabeth made it clear that she didn’t like her mark—not because he’s not her husband, but because he’s an enemy of her cause. She may be growing by leaps and bounds as a character, but in some ways, she’s still exactly who she’s always been.
• Mischa finally made it to the United States! And yet, I still don’t really care. I’m sure that will change in the coming weeks, though. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens if (and when, judging by the promo) Gabriel and Claudia get to him.


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