Episode M.V.P.: Irina Dubova
What has always made The Americans resonate with me is the way it makes you care about basically every character—from Philip, Elizabeth, and Stan to the various men, women, and even children who find themselves caught up in the tangled web they’re weaving. The casting department for this show consistently manages to find actors who are able to break my heart in even the smallest roles. That was certainly true in this episode, as Irina Dubova (who only has 11 acting credits to her name dating back to just 2013, according to IMDB) made me feel physically sick over a soon-to-be victim’s fate in a way I haven’t felt since Lois Smith’s incredible work as Betty in Season Three’s “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”
What I found most impressive about Dubova’s work in this episode was the way she embodied the very core of The Americans—the concepts of truth, identity, and reality versus artifice—in such a short amount of time onscreen. The fact that I spent most of her scene truly wondering whether or not “Natalie” was who the Center believed she was is a credit to Dubova. In order for the scene to work, we had to be unsure, we had to doubt the Center at first, and then we also had to ask the same question Philip asks: Does it even matter if she really is who she the Center claims she is? Does she deserve to die?
That question can be asked of every one of Philip and Elizabeth’s victims over the years, but for some reason, it weighed heavier on me during this scene than perhaps any other. So much of the horror of this episode’s final minutes came from the absolutely heartbreaking performance Dubova gave as the truth came out. Dubova made every word, every pause, and every breath feel deeply personal. When she begged Philip and Elizabeth not to let her husband know because “He thinks I’m wonderful,” I felt absolutely gutted. It was such a simple line, but Dubova’s delivery of it was devastating. The fact that what mattered most to her was not her own life but her husband’s belief that she was a good person made every second that came afterward even more painful.
When “Natalie” and her husband were killed, I found myself more horrified than I have ever been over one of Philip and Elizabeth’s kills on this show. Part of that was because her husband was completely innocent, but the main reason I was so viscerally upset was because Dubova made me care about her character despite my own best instincts. Did she do terrible things to survive? Yes. Was she perhaps “more deserving” (if that can ever be said) of the violence that befell her than Betty or the lab worker from earlier this season or the man Philip killed on the bus in that infamous “Tainted Love” scene? Yes. But the whole point of this scene was to put us in Philip’s shoes, asking if that matters at all. She might have done the Nazis’ dirty work, but she is still a human being who feels, who loves, and who has a family she wants to protect. And Dubova made all of that so horribly clear in that scene, making me feel every bit as broken as Philip over the idea of this woman having to die. “Natalie” wasn’t just a target; she was a person, and for the ending of this episode to hit as heavily as it did, she needed to feel like a fully realized, complex person, which Dubova did with heartbreaking honesty as her character’s true story began to unfold.
Favorite Scene: “Let’s go home.”
When we look back on The Americans when all is said and done, the turning point of the whole series might be this moment—Elizabeth sitting in the car after having to kill two people because Philip physically couldn’t pull the trigger, choosing not to lecture him or to ignore what just happened but instead choosing to put his needs and his emotional state first by suggesting that they abandon their work and go home.
I honestly never expected this moment to come this season, if it came at all. It was such an incredible shock, a reminder that this show still has so many surprises up its sleeve. However, when looked at in context, it makes perfect sense that this would be the moment the shift in Elizabeth’s priorities becomes clear. I didn’t get a chance to talk about Mikhal and Nadezhda’s wedding because I was on vacation when it happened, but that moment informs this one so beautifully. By choosing to marry the man she was only supposed to see as a business partner, Elizabeth chose to put love above work—she chose to make a commitment to her husband over their commitment to the Center. Together, they built something the Center never wanted them to build, and their marriage signified a deliberate choice on both their parts to pledge their fidelity to each other—their true selves and not the selves the Center created—and to keep that a secret from the Center, which makes their love and their marriage perhaps the first thing that is theirs and theirs alone since they started working for the KGB.
On most shows, a wedding is a romantic moment, but it doesn’t change the entire makeup of the show and its characters going forward. However, The Americans is not “most shows.” Instead, this episode allowed us to see how making that commitment to her husband—and to the self she was supposed to forget—in defiance of the Center’s orders has changed Elizabeth. She is not a woman who makes promises lightly, and when she commits herself to something (or someone), she does so with everything she has and is. She promised to walk a new path together with Philip, and in this episode, we saw the first steps taken on that new path.
Elizabeth’s decision at the end of this episode felt so surprising because it came on the heels of her shooting two people point-blank in the head on the Center’s orders. Elizabeth might be feeling more conflicted than ever about what she’s being asked to do, but she still did it. When Philip asked so pointedly if it even mattered if “Natalie” was guilty, Elizabeth seemed frustrated and disappointed that he was having these doubts about a woman who helped the Nazis. When Philip hesitated, unable to kill “Natalie” and her husband, and Elizabeth pulled the trigger instead, her motivations for doing so reflected this show’s belief that people can act on multiple motivations and emotional responses at once.
Did she pull the trigger out of frustration because her husband had lost his nerve? Did she do it to reflect her offer of being the one to take on these kinds of missions? Did she do it with disappointment motivating her or with a twisted kind of compassion? The look on Keri Russell’s face as Elizabeth watched Philip struggle with carrying out the mission made it clear: It was all those things at once. Nothing is easy on this show; nothing has a simple answer. Elizabeth may have made the execution look easy, but between the blank stares on their faces after the deed was done and the tension radiating off both Philip and Elizabeth in the car, it was clear that there was nothing easy about it.
So when Elizabeth finally broke the strained silence, I had no idea what she was going to say. I certainly wasn’t prepared for her to have reached her “last straw” moment after killing someone she seemed to consider a justified target. But when looking at this scene in the context of the previous episode’s wedding, it was clear that this wasn’t her “last straw” moment so much as it was her acknowledging Philip’s “last straw” moment and choosing to protect their marriage over their mission. She finally saw how broken her husband has become; she finally saw that he can no longer do the work they’re assigned to do. And while the Elizabeth we met in the pilot would have stayed silent in the car (or reprimanded him) and then most likely reported on him to the Center, the Elizabeth we know now decided to put his sanity, his emotions, and his humanity ahead of their work.
Last season, when Philip told Elizabeth he wanted to go home, she asked him to think of their work and the life they built, doubting it would survive in Russia. But now she believes what they built together can survive and that protecting that is more important than continuing their work. But what is home for them at this point? I think we all know they’re not going to be able to go back to Russia easily, so what happens now that Elizabeth has made such a monumental choice? This season has largely been about what “home” is for these characters, and Philip and Elizabeth’s home is with each other more than it is any particular place. I can’t wait to see how that idea unfolds going forward and how this moment—this choice of marriage over mission—informs the show as it approaches its final season.
• The last 15 minutes of this episode were some of the tensest moments in the history of this painfully tense show. From the way it was shot to the performances of all involved, I was on edge throughout as I waited to find out not if “Natalie” and her husband were going to die (a given since they saw Philip and Elizabeth’s faces) but who would kill them and what the fallout would be. It was absolutely brilliant television and The Americans at its most brutally compelling.
• I’m trying not to see that harrowing shot of Philip and Elizabeth standing over the dead bodies of a married couple as foreshadowing, but it’s hard not to see it that way—especially given the choices they’ve made recently that defy the Center’s objectives.
• “Natalie’s” story showed that no matter how much you try to run from your past and change for the better, it can still catch up to you in the end, and that was devastating for Philip, who wants so badly to believe he doesn’t have to be a monster forever. However, “Natalie’s” husband saying that he still believes she’s a good person may represent the most any character can ask for in this world—to die knowing that someone knows your darkest truths and yet has chosen to still see the good in you anyway.
• The side plot involving Henry visiting the FBI was excellent for two reasons: It brought the Mail Robot back(!) and it led to that fantastic scene in which Stan revealed that his job has left him unable to trust anyone, even his own family members (and Henry, which unbeknownst to Stan, is actually really smart). All the adults on this show are messed up because of their work, but this reminded me that at least Philip and Elizabeth have come to trust each other.
• Philip asking Elizabeth if Paige wanted them to see the photos of Pastor Tim’s diary to make them face what they’ve done to her shows just how spot-on his instincts are when it comes to his daughter, since that is exactly what I thought at the end of the last episode.
• Speaking of instincts, how can Claudia’s be so bad? How could she not realize that telling Philip and Elizabeth that the motherland weaponized the virus that killed William would upset rather than uplift them? And did anyone else get a dark chuckle out of imagining William’s reaction to the bioweapon being named after him?