Episode M.V.P.: Frank Langella
Frank Langella has been a scene-stealer for years on The Americans, but “Crossbreed” put him in the spotlight as Gabriel’s own crisis of conscience and fatigue with the work he’s been doing joined the chorus of the rest of the characters this season who’ve been beaten down by orders that feel less like work assignments and more like prisons. Langella was a perfect addition to this cast because he’s able to convey so much emotion through the smallest changes in his facial expressions and tone of voice, and that was put to use perhaps better than ever before in this episode.
Gabriel is tired—he’s tired of lying to Philip, he’s tired of assigning Philip and Elizabeth to missions that are breaking their spirit and testing their partnership, and he’s tired of having to swallow his own doubts and concerns because of his job. Langella has played that exhaustion perfectly, slowly allowing it to develop each season (especially after his near-death experience last season) so we truly believe that he wants to go home because the weight of everything he’s had to carry—especially the weight of this latest, major lie to Philip about Mischa—is too much for him to bear any longer.
What resonated most deeply to me in this episode was the sense that Gabriel’s exhaustion with this line of work stems mainly from the fact that he cares about Philip and Elizabeth, and he doesn’t like watching them suffer because of his orders. The first scene of the episode between Elizabeth and Gabriel said so much about both characters’ changing states of mind. As Elizabeth—the closest thing he’s ever had to a daughter—struggled with the fact that he was telling her to continue her honeytrap, Langella moved me with his paternal affection for this woman who he clearly cares about even more as a person than he does as an asset at this point. When Elizabeth asked if there was something wrong with her because she was having so much trouble sleeping with someone who wasn’t her husband, my heart broke for her—for the woman who was trained to see emotional connection as weakness and is having a hard time dealing with the way her love for her husband is affecting her work—but it broke for Gabriel just as much. Langella’s warm, gentle assertion that there’s nothing wrong with her said so much about Gabriel’s relationship with Elizabeth and with his own emotions. There was a small look of knowing pride in his eyes, making it clear that Gabriel isn’t a typical KGB handler; he’s happy that his agents have fallen in love, and he’s proud of Elizabeth for allowing herself to feel so deeply about her husband. Gabriel is so much like Philip—they both see genuine connection as something to cherish—and it’s both lifting his spirit and breaking his heart that his most prized asset is finally learning to open her heart.
Like Elizabeth and Philip, Gabriel can’t shut down his feelings for the sake of his work; he can’t completely convince himself that he’s doing the right thing anymore. And that means it’s time to leave. The scene with him at the Lincoln Memorial was such a gorgeous piece of wordless acting by Langella, a thousand conflicting emotions and the weight of too many lives impacted by his orders and secrets—including the lives of the two people he loves as children—evident in every step he took and every blink of his weary eyes.
Gabriel has always been a fascinating character because he clearly cares about Philip and Elizabeth, but he’s also had to manipulate them to get the job done. He loves them as children, but they’re ultimately not his children; they’re his agents. But it was especially clear in this episode that his concern for them outweighs his desire to put the Center first at this point. His warning to Philip about the Center watching him wasn’t something he should have told him as a handler, but it was something he had to reveal because he cares about Philip and is concerned about him—not as an agent but as a person. It was delivered with a sense of genuine concern that betrayed how much trouble Philip is actually in, which made it even more frightening than if it had been delivered in a purely professional manner.
The professional pitfalls of love—the way our innate desire to connect on a real level as humans conflicts with a career that is supposed to be composed of only fabricated connections—is one of the biggest themes of The Americans, and this episode extended that beautifully into Gabriel’s story. Gabriel loves Philip and Elizabeth; I have never believed that more strongly than in this episode. And he loves that they love each other. But love is testing everyone this season, and Gabriel was one of the first to break under the strain of having to hurt someone you care about for the job. Langella found the sweet spot in that struggle so brilliantly, making me care about Gabriel in this episode more than I ever have. And it all culminated in that beautiful moment he saw Paige—the closest thing he’ll ever have to a granddaughter—for the first (and most likely the last) time. The tears in his eyes and the smile on his face said everything about Gabriel’s humanity even after years of doing such a soul-sucking job, and that humanity moved me to tears right before the credits rolled.
Favorite Scene: Gabriel and Philip talk about Philip’s father
For this entire season, the question of what was being revealed in Philip’s memories weighed on both the characters and viewers. I loved seeing Philip be so open with Elizabeth about his past, but what I loved even more was that Elizabeth responded with such empathy and genuine concern, going so far as to make the connection between the boys who used to beat up Philip and the men who hated him and his brother. It showed that they have become partners on so many levels, with her filling in gaps he had never thought to connect. Elizabeth also suggested to Philip that he talk to Gabriel about his questions, which is something she never would have done a few years before—she would have told him to suck it up and push it down like she’s done. But between her “blocked chi” discussion with Ben, her visit to the psychologist, and her deepening emotional connection to her husband, she has come to understand that maybe repressing your feelings isn’t the best way to deal with them. She knew Philip’s past trauma was eating away at him, and she actually offered good, helpful advice.
However, going to Gabriel turned to out to cause Philip even more pain. The entire scene—set at that bare table with the camera only focusing on their faces—felt like a scene in a play. It was just two people talking, and yet it contained some of the most potent suspense and painful drama I’ve seen on television this season. When Philip asked if his father really was a logger and Gabriel took that long pause before responding, I could feel myself holding my breath. And that continued throughout the scene, with the pauses and silent beats lasting just long enough to create maximum emotional impact, heightened by the look of complete loss and emptiness on the face of Matthew Rhys (who I will be campaigning even harder than usual for come Emmy season).
Rhys’s haunted performance conveyed the sheer devastation Philip felt upon learning one of the most horribly ironic twists in the series: Philip isn’t the first man in his family to hide his true identity from his son. He’s also not the first man in his family to kill people for the KGB. Learning his father was a prison guard was a huge blow for Philip, who now feels as if his whole life was determined before he ever had a chance to choose to serve his country the way he did. No matter what Gabriel told him about the possibility that his father was a kind guard, Philip is now always going to believe that killing people for the cause—for his country—is the only inheritance he ever received from his father, and it’s also an inheritance he might be passing on to his own daughter.
That scene was such a powerful thematic moment for the show, especially followed by Philip’s admission to Elizabeth that he never knew his father at all. Philip never knew the horrible job his father did for a living, just as Henry has no idea. And Philip also doesn’t know his own son, Mischa, another relationship stunted by the secrets of the KGB without Philip even knowing it.
By telling Philip his father was a nobody, I think Gabriel was trying to console him, to remind him that his father wasn’t a murderer; he was a soldier following orders. But that is little comfort for Philip, who has always seen himself as a nobody whose only job was to follow the Center’s orders. I also think Gabriel was trying to console himself in that moment; you could sense in Langella’s performance Gabriel’s own painful memories of what he had to do for his country long before he became a handler.
But neither Philip nor Gabriel are truly nobodies; they’re not cogs in the KGB machine. They care and feel and have shared truths and made connections that have made their jobs harder but have made their lives better. And it’s my hope that we might discover that the same could be said of Philip’s father. We still don’t know how he died. Did he refuse to kill someone or follow orders in some way and had to pay the price for that? (It would be cool if that someone was Oleg’s mother, but that might be too much of a clichéd coincidence for this show.) I think it would be wonderfully poetic if Philip’s biggest connection to his father wasn’t that they both killed for the KGB, but that their humanity was ultimately stronger than their desire to follow orders.
• My runner-up for favorite scene was Elizabeth and Gabriel’s initial talk because Keri Russell was saying so much in the silent moments of that scene. Her frustrated sigh when Gabriel told her to continue with Ben reminded me so much of Paige, and my heart was at once warmed and broken by her fear that not wanting to sleep with another man for work meant something was wrong with her. Elizabeth’s relationship with sex and intimacy is so damaged by what this job has put her through, but I like that she’s starting to question it instead of just pushing through.
• I also loved Elizabeth lying to Gabriel about Philip being fine. They’ve come a long way from the moment when she told the Center he liked America too much. Connected to that moment was the look of complete guilt and fear on her face when Gabriel warned Philip about the Center watching him. Elizabeth knows it was her report all those years ago that put him on their radar in this first place, and now that she has accepted how much she loves him, it’s killing her that she’s one of the reasons he’s in trouble.
• I enjoyed the way the slow realization that Elizabeth was actually getting something out of the tai chi contrasted with her perfect eye roll upon leaving the therapy session. Elizabeth is definitely a more physical person than a verbal one when it comes to dealing with her emotions. However, all this talk of trauma and emotional repression is definitely having an effect on her. Her inability to stay cool when the Mary Kay lady was at the door followed by her visit to Young Hee’s house (where she no longer lives) showed that Elizabeth is having more and more trouble pushing down her feelings about what she’s had to do for her country.
• I can’t tell if I’m growing more skeptical of Ben or if I just don’t like him being someone besides Philip that Elizabeth could come to care for.
• I loved the moment Elizabeth discovered Paige was reading Marx. It was a nice reminder that even though Elizabeth is starting to feel some conflicted emotions about her work, she is still a true believer. And that was paralleled really wonderfully with Paige admitting her baptism was the happiest day of her life—both women have always been looking for something to believe in.
• The end of the episode was like another baptism for Paige—fully immersing her in her parent’s world by introducing her to Gabriel. I know I should have hated that they’re bringing her deeper into the fold, but I think Philip and Elizabeth felt it was a kindness shown to both Paige and Gabriel to allow them to meet the closest thing either has to family.
• I shouldn’t love how pragmatically cold Claudia is, but I do. I feel like she’s exactly who Elizabeth would have grown up to be had she not fallen in love with Philip.
• Philip hoping that Gabriel wasn’t leaving because of him felt like a son asking his father if he’d disappointed him, and it absolutely gutted me.
• Was anyone else terrified that Oleg was going to jump off the roof in that last scene? I spent the entire scene begging him not to jump. Instead, though, he burned the tape, which could have landed him in a jail similar to the one the grocery distributor found himself in. This was an episode about people feeling imprisoned by their past: Gabriel lying to Philip, Philip not knowing the truth about his father, Oleg talking to Stan. And two of those men ended the episode by choosing to free themselves—Gabriel leaving and Oleg burning the tape—but Philip can’t find a way to be free of his prison. Once again, the truth didn’t set him free; it made him feel like the walls had closed in even more tightly around him.
• I still think Henry might be the downfall of the entire Jennings family. One day he’s going to let something seemingly minor slip to Stan, and everything is going to fall apart. Either that or the Center has already been working him through the computer he’s always on, and that’s going to be the last straw for Philip. This whole “fathers and sons” theme is leading somewhere, and I think it’s to Henry.
“This whole father and sons theme” leading to Henry. I agree and The Americans continues to be masterful in how the writing, directing, and acting is building a sense of impending retribution. I think Gabriel could sense it too and wanted out as it’s going to be more than he wants to bear witness to.
Thanks for the comment! The impending sense of doom has been really intensifying since last season, and it’s been brilliant and stressful to watch. I agree that Gabriel knows more than he’s letting on about just how much trouble Philip may be in and he wants no part of it. Langella made that come across so perfectly in that scene in which he warned him.
And Elizabeth’s fear and recognition as it is likely her initial observations about Philip that first raised the Centre’s concerns. Such complexity/layers of meaning, masterful.
I just caught up with this episode last night. In an episode with a lot of different stuff going on and great acting from everyone, the scene with the Mary Kay lady was the one that is going to stick with me. It was a great reminder in an episode focusing largely on Philip’s unraveling that Elizabeth has things that haunt her too. I was really hoping that Elizabeth was going to open up to Paige about her going undercover as a Mary Kay lady once, but I understand her keeping the more negative aspects of the job from Paige when Paige is barely holding it together.
I still think Henry is going to be their downfall, especially the more Stan becomes the father figure to him that Philip isnt.
I think it is possible that Henry is going to express an interest in becoming a FBI agent. One of P&E’s strongly and frequently expressed goals has always been they would do anything to protect their family. Having children on “opposing” sides” would be a dramatic and very interesting narrative.