TV Time: The Americans 5.05
Title: Lotus 1-2-3
Episode M.V.P.: Matthew Rhys
It’s a basic fact of The Americans: As Philip’s mental and emotional state gets even worse, Matthew Rhys’s performance gets even better. And since “Lotus 1-2-3” was basically an hour-long meditation on Philip’s inner deterioration, it was basically an Emmy reel for Rhys. Every beat of Rhys’s work in this episode—from the first moments of the episode to the last—was a thing of devastating brilliance, and the way each of his reactions built on those that came before painted a clear picture of a man crumbling from the inside out under the constant strain of so much guilt coming from so many places.
The tone of the entire episode was set in its first few minutes, with Philip’s inability to seem even remotely interested in the sex he just had with Deirdre. But in typical fashion for this show and this actor, Rhys didn’t oversell Philip’s lack of enthusiasm, he played it with just the right amount of emptiness to show rather than tell us how completely checked-out Philip is and how little he cares anymore about “making it real” beyond the barest necessities of this kind of work. Small, silent moments like that one made his confession to Elizabeth at the end ring true: We believe him when he says this work has been hard for a long time because we’ve seen it slowly eat away at his soul. By showing us that inner devastation so skillfully for so long, Rhys made that last scene less about Philip telling the audience something important and more about him telling Elizabeth something important, which kept the storytelling as intimate as possible.
In a thousand little details, Rhys showed the ways Philip came to that confession—the point in which he needed to unburden himself because he physically couldn’t handle carrying the weight alone anymore. It was in the way his cheerful, joking tone faltered when it became clear that Henry feels neglected by his parents. It was in the way he stared at Paige as she told him she was so damaged by what he and Elizabeth told her that she might never be able to form a healthy relationship—with the guilt of a thousand failures as a father pressing down on him and making his features actually seem to sag under the weight of it all. It was in the tension in his shoulders and back as he thought of the information he provided potentially placing Stan in the middle of a honeytrap.
And, of course, it was in the way his rapid nodding and swallowing betrayed the complete inner breakdown he had upon discovering that he and Elizabeth killed a man for essentially no reason—only because the people they were supposed to trust were wrong. Those few moments after Elizabeth told Philip the truth about Ben were some of the saddest seconds of television I have ever watched. It felt as if I was watching Philip simultaneously prepare to faint, vomit, and break down crying, but, instead, he physically seemed to swallow down all those reactions and went on autopilot, the final traces of his will to fight seeping out of his exhausted body.
What we saw in the scene that followed was Philip at perhaps his lowest point, and Rhys did an amazing job of showing that in his body language—the hunched shoulders, the way he picked at his food, even the simple gesture of taking of his glasses was filled with such heaviness that my chest actually hurt watching it. In order for that final scene to resonate the way it did, Philip’s journey to fall to that low had to be so heartbreakingly sincere that it would hurt not just us to watch it, but it would also convince us that it hurt Elizabeth to watch it, too. His pain had to be so palpable that her desire to ease that pain however she could would feel believable. Luckily for this show, they have found a master of restrained emotional devastation in Rhys. I have never been more in awe while having my heart broken.
Favorite Scene: “It’s us, Elizabeth. It’s us.”
The Americans is a show about marriage, and marriages generally begin with vows—promises made to stand by each other for better or worse. But what’s always been fascinating about Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage is that it started out as something fake; it started not with vows they made to each other, but with vows they made to their country—promises to fight for it and to keep fighting for better or worse. All the way back in Season One, when Philip—as Clark—has his wedding ceremony with Martha, Elizabeth herself commented on the fact that they never made vows to each other, wondering if things would have been different had they done so.
Both characters have come a long way since the beginning of their marriage and also a long way since Elizabeth made that observation in Season One. This season especially has been about showcasing the marriage between Elizabeth and Philip as something strong, healthy, and committed—they seem more in love and in sync than ever. (In this episode alone we were shown that beautiful phone call when Elizabeth reached out to Philip because she missed him and both of their relieved, happy reactions to her returning home from Topeka.) So it seems fitting that this season would finally feature Philip and Elizabeth saying vows to one another, but, like everything on this show, those vows were anything but traditional and predictable. They were unique to their characters and, as such, were even more intimate and emotional than any wedding ceremony for them could have ever been.
At the end of “Lotus 1-2-3,” Philip has nothing left to give—he is broken and defeated, completely at a loss for how to continue down this path that has left a trail of ruined lives behind him. The only thing he could still give is the truth, and that’s what he gives Elizabeth when he tells her that this has been hard for him for a long time. It’s a truth we’ve known since the pilot, and it’s a truth Elizabeth has known for perhaps even longer, but it still means a lot for him to voice out loud the thing that has been eating away at him for years. It shows either complete trust in his wife or a complete lack of concern about what happens to him for confessing (or, most likely, a little of both). That open admission was like the last piece of their fake marriage—born out of deception and duty—falling away and the last piece of their real marriage—born out of trust and openness—falling into place.
Although Philip’s admission might not have been surprising, Elizabeth’s reaction to it certainly was. Instead of trying to defend the Center or distract him, she responded to his question of whether or not she knew he was struggling with two simple words that mean a lot for a marriage: “I do.” With those words, Elizabeth revealed that she has known for a long time that Philip has been struggling with his devotion to the cause, and yet she has still stuck by his side. That said so much about her feelings for him and how they have changed from the time she went behind his back to tell the Center he was wavering in his devotion. And when Philip raised his eyes to her, clearly expecting her to continue with some kind of lecture or explanation of how he needs to handle his doubts (a great bit of nonverbal interplay between Rhys and Keri Russell, whose eye-contact game was even more on-point than usual this week), she proved just how far she has come by offering to take on the operations that could weigh heaviest on him on her own.
In terms of who Elizabeth is and what she can realistically offer, those words meant everything. This was Elizabeth acting as a wife first instead of a soldier, offering to put herself in more danger by acting alone if it meant that Philip would be in less pain. This was Elizabeth—beautifully broken Elizabeth—offering the only thing she really could, offering to put him above their orders. This was Elizabeth’s “for better or worse,” moment; she is seeing Philip at his lowest point, and instead of chastising him for it or ignoring it (like she did at the end of Season Three, when she physically turned away from him to focus on Reagan’s speech during a similar moment of crisis), she tries to help. This was Elizabeth’s promise to him that she is taking his doubts seriously and that while she may not share them (or at least share the same intensity of doubts), she is not going to use them against him or think less of him for them. There was no pity in Russell’s performance; instead, I felt for the first time that Elizabeth sincerely understood where Philip was coming from. She wasn’t offering to do the dirty work alone because she thought he was weak; she was offering to do it alone because she loves him. The softness in Russell’s voice showed that vulnerability beautifully.
That moment represented Elizabeth at her most selfless, and it was met with selflessness in return from Philip. The mixture of sadness and affection in Rhys’s delivery of “No…No…” was enough on its own to take my breath away—he knows how monumental and selfless an offer that was for Elizabeth to make, but he loves her too much to take her up on it. Because, in the end, Philip only knows one thing to be absolutely true: “It us.” That one sentence—said with such love the first time and such conviction the second time—was Philip’s vow to Elizabeth. He might doubt everything else, but the one thing he does not doubt is that they are partners; they are in this together. Philip has been defined by the choices he makes time and again to stay with Elizabeth when other options are presented—defection in the pilot, leaving her side to go home to the kids after she was shot in the Season One finale, and Elizabeth’s hypothetical scenario in which he could leave with Martha. My favorite example of this came last season when he told Elizabeth that something inside of him had been like an alarm going off, telling him to run, “But it’s not going off inside of you, so we stay.” When faced with the choice between leaving Elizabeth and saving whatever is left of his own soul and sanity, he would doom himself to hell a billion times over if it meant staying by her side.
And that’s because, for Philip, loving Elizabeth is perhaps the only thing left that makes him feel good. Philip’s earlier conversation with Paige echoed a lot in my mind during this final scene. Philip may think he has it bad, but he still has a partner—someone who makes him feel like maybe he’s not meant to be alone. And that’s what he’ll keep fighting for. Elizabeth is the reason he keeps going—the only reason at this point. And “It’s us” was his way of letting her know that; they’re in this together—for better or worse, as long as they both shall live.
Now that they’ve said the words—made their own vows—will it change things, as Elizabeth once wondered? The shot of them at the conclusion of the episode was wonderfully ambiguous on that front—looking into each other’s eyes without running away but a space filled with symbols of American excess still between them. They’re at the same table now, but it’s still going to take some time before Elizabeth reaches his side—if she ever gets there. That’s the real question now. We know where Philip stands: He’ll keep fighting by her side for as long as she wants to fight. But the biggest unknown has always been the second part of that statement: Will Elizabeth always want to keep fighting, or will this be just the start of her putting Philip’s needs (and her own) ahead of Mother Russia’s? What vows are more important to her: the ones she made to her country so long ago, or the ones she and her husband keep making to each other?
• This was my favorite episode of the season so far and one of my favorite episodes in the show’s illustrious history. It was a work of heartbreaking brilliance, and everyone involved—from the writers and actors to director Noah Emmerich—deserves as much acclaim as possible for making me feel more deeply than anything on television has made me feel in a long time.
• I loved the reveal that Henry is much smarter than anyone—including his parents—thought. Rhys and Russell played that shock so perfectly, but I was genuinely moved by the way the tone shifted from funny incredulity about Henry’s aptitude for math to sincere frustration and sadness on Henry’s part that no one in his family pays attention to him. It was a great way to turn a running joke (“Where’s Henry?”) into something deeper.
• Paige’s frustration over working so hard and not ending up as the “smart one” felt incredibly realistic. Holly Taylor actually had numerous believable beats in her one scene in this episode—from the pointed way she said “garbage” just to make sure Philip knows they ruined her life to how small and vulnerable her voice sounded when she opened up about being afraid she’s too messed up to form any real relationship.
• What was not believable in that conversation was Paige saying Matthew’s hair was one of the reasons she first developed a crush on him. I mean, I wasn’t alive in the early 1980s, but really? That look was a hit with the ladies back then?
• In other “strange romance” news, Renee is probably not a KGB spy (too obvious at this point), but I still think she’s spying on Stan for someone. CIA? Internal Affairs?
• The subtle expression of a million conflicting emotions—from horror to relief—on Elizabeth’s face as she realized that Ben was trying to destroy famine and not cause it was another thing to add to the unending Russell highlight reel.
• It certainly seems as if Philip’s flashbacks from his childhood are leading up to a big reveal, but I still can’t guess what it is yet. I didn’t think there was a pattern until Elizabeth brought it up in this episode by asking if his father brought home anything besides food and clothes, but now I can’t stop wondering what else he brought home.
• Remember when I was having trouble caring about Mischa? Well that apathy is totally gone now. The scene between him and Gabriel in the park made me cry. He traveled so far and risked so much to see his father, and the naked vulnerability on his face when he discovered that wasn’t going to happen was almost too much to take. But what really moved me was Frank Langella’s work in that scene, especially the way his voice broke when he told Mischa not to forget his father while touching his heart, instructing him to remember him there. Gabriel cares so much about Philip, and in a season so heavily focused on parents and children, I think their father-son dynamic is going to become even more important.
• I adore scenes between Claudia and Gabriel because of the way their dynamic seems to mimic Elizabeth and Philip’s: She is a true believer who is guarded with her feelings, while he cares more openly about people and his work’s affect on them.
• I was really hoping for one of the women being set up with Oleg to be Martha. That scene was so wonderfully awkward, and Costa Ronin played his character’s righteous indignation perfectly. I was also excited to see Oleg go to his secret meeting, but I wonder if the fact that no one else showed up means Stan’s threat worked.
• I’m still nervous about Tuan (and I think it wasn’t wise for Philip to voice his doubts in a place Tuan might have heard him), but his seemingly sincere happiness when Elizabeth came to the house betrayed a longing for family that really adds to his character.
• I’ll end this on a happy note. Which was cuter: The way Elizabeth’s face lit up when she saw Philip after coming home from Topeka or the way he threw the laundry basket aside to hug her?