Title: The World Council of Churches
Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
“The World Council of Churches” wasn’t a particularly Elizabeth-centric episode, but it still allowed Keri Russell to show the many facets she’s given to this character over the years. When I think about the complexity of Russell’s work in this episode and in the course of this show as a whole, I keep coming back to the final 10 minutes of this episode, which showcased her brilliant ability to seamlessly transition between soft and hard, warm and cold, certain and conflicted.
I think I’ve watched the moment Philip and Elizabeth talk about the names they and their children will take back in Russia about 100 times, and I still can’t get enough of it. The matter-of-fact way Elizabeth tells him that Paige and Henry will take his name was sweet, but it was the beat after—when Philip asked her what name she’d take—that was most affecting. Without any words—with only the softest smile and nod—Russell conveyed so much about Elizabeth’s commitment to her husband and to making their marriage something real no matter where they are. Once again, this scene reminded us that when Elizabeth commits herself to something, she does so with everything she is. And now she’s chosen to commit herself to Philip. The most beautiful thing about that is how happy it makes her. This isn’t Elizabeth choosing him because she has no other options or because someone else forced her to be with him; she’s so happy with her choice that it makes her glow in the darkness. The way Russell has slowly allowed us to see the warmth Elizabeth has hidden underneath compartmentalized trauma and a devotion to her mission made this moment feel believable and realistic. A smile and a nod are not often monumental moments for a character, but for this character, they are. For one moment, Russell allowed us to see what a truly content Elizabeth looks like, and it was a beautiful sight to see.
On the heels of this moment of unguarded happiness and warmth, though, came a reminder that Elizabeth Jennings is still not a woman to mess with. The complexity of emotions that crossed her face upon hearing Tuan’s awful plan was brilliant—Russell showed in a brief flash that Elizabeth understood that Tuan’s plan could work, but her emotions as a mother were stronger than her emotions as an agent. When Elizabeth decides to do something, there’s no hesitation—no waffling. That was my favorite thing about the beat immediately after Philip told her the plan could work, but Pasha could also end up dead—they silently, definitively came to the same conclusion (a lovely reminder of the power of the partnership between Russell and Matthew Rhys and what they can convey without words), and then Elizabeth went into “badass agent mode.” Russell has a very specific tone to her voice when Elizabeth is giving orders, and it was wonderful to see it used to try to save a life this time. The cold, harsh way she shoved the phone at Tuan and the deliberate way she seemed to use all the force she had to press the numbers on the phone conveyed the kind of complete authority that Russell projects with effortless confidence.
Elizabeth Jennings is one of the most complex female characters I’ve ever seen on television. She can smile with such genuine affection that it’ll make you melt in one scene, and then she can immediately follow that with a reminder that she is also a force to be reckoned with and a terror for anyone who stands in the way of her getting what she wants. That dichotomy may have rang false in the hands of a lesser actress, but luckily, Russell has always been more than up to the task of showing us that Elizabeth—like all women—can’t be made to fix into one nice little box.
Favorite Scene: Oleg and his father talk
“The World Council of Churches” was largely an episode about parents and children (in the same way this whole season has largely been about parents and children). It focused on parents trying to do the right thing for their kids but struggling to figure out exactly what the right thing is and ultimately coming the realization that no matter how much you want to protect your child from any kind of struggle, there are some situations in which you can’t avoid watching them go through hardships. In this way, this episode did what The Americans does best; it took a universal truth about family life and applied to the heightened lives of spies and those who are caught up in their world.
This episode was designed to hurt, but I never expected the one scene that actually made me cry as I was watching to be between Oleg and his father. However, that was the scene that ultimately moved me to tears because of the overwhelming love present between parent and child in it. If you would have told me last year that I would grow to care so deeply about Igor Burov that he would make me cry, I would never have believed you. But that’s the beauty of this show; it makes you care even when you think you never will.
In this scene, it became so heartbreakingly clear that Igor’s political power was never about making himself look good; it was about protecting his family. The moment he revealed to Oleg that he couldn’t save Oleg’s mother but now he could crush anyone who wanted to hurt him was so powerful because reminded us that every character on this show is more than they appear on the surface. The man who once seemed like a bullying bureaucrat is actually motivated by the strongest force on this show: love. Political systems and ideologies are ultimately no match for human connection in this universe; Igor wanted to rise in power not to serve his country better or to have a higher social standing—he wanted to be able to keep his family safe and to never feel powerless in the face of their suffering again.
But what moved me the most in this scene wasn’t the revelation that Igor would use his power to help Oleg because he was his son; it was the revelation that he wanted to crush anyone who would hurt him because he’s good. Oleg is one of the good ones; he is driven by a desire to do the right thing, and Costa Ronin plays that so well it’ll break your heart into a million pieces. So to have his father acknowledge that was incredibly moving, especially when looked at as foreshadowing for the end of this episode. Philip and Elizabeth are moved to save Pasha not because he’s their own son but because he’s good—he’s innocent.
“The World Council of Churches” shined a light on the fact that so many of the children on this show—Mischa, Paige, Henry, Pasha, and even Oleg—are good. In this world of corruption, coldness, secrets, and violence, goodness can still exist. And in that revelation is hope for the next generation, if only they can escape the dark clouds swirling around them. For Oleg, however, it may be too late. Oleg knows he’s in trouble; the KGB is getting too close to the truth about his betrayal. But he loves his father too much to let him get caught up in the mess he’s in by trying to save him. There are some messes our parents can’t help us out of; it’s one of the hard truths we face growing up. And there are limits to what parents can do to help their children; it’s one of the hard truths parents face as their children grow. Watching Oleg and Igor come to these difficult realization was profoundly sad but also profoundly beautiful in the way only The Americans can be.
• The end of this episode was the very definition of “harrowing.” I don’t think I took a full breath from the time Tuan began describing his plan until after the credits rolled. I always thought there was a chance that Pasha might kill himself because of the bullying he was facing, but I never expected Tuan to be the one to coach him through it for the sake of the mission. I always knew Tuan was a loose cannon who was prone to violent solutions to problems, but I never saw this coming. Ivan Mok did such a great job of making it clear that Tuan was so focused on this mission that he had no concern for human life; he wasn’t doing this sadistically, but he thought it was the best way to get results. Unfortunately, he didn’t think about the fact that a suicide attempt by Pasha would probably make his mother less interested in her affair, which she needs to keep up for the mission to be successful.
• The parallels between who Tuan is and who Elizabeth was could not be clearer. Tuan puts the mission above everything and believes losses are sometimes necessary to achieve objectives, which we’ve certainly seen before with Elizabeth. However, Elizabeth has her limits now. Love, especially loving her children, has changed her. And when Tuan detailed his plan, she reacted not as an agent but as a mother—not as a machine but as a human being.
• The moments on the street as Elizabeth and Tuan raced to catch up to Philip and present a happy façade for the American agent watching them in the car were so tense it was difficult to watch them unfold. It’s a sign of how damaged and done Philip is that he walked out without thinking about how he could blow not just his own cover but also Elizabeth’s if he made one wrong move.
• I loved the different layers that could be read into Elizabeth grabbing Philip’s hand as they approached the house. On the surface, she needed to hold his hand to maintain their cover as a family walking to their friends’ house. However, it was also a way to show that Elizabeth is with him; they’re in this together. No matter what happens, they’re partners in work and in life, and whatever they’re about to face, they’re going to face it together.
• The theme of potential suicides weighed heavily in the episode’s final act. Not only did we hear about Pasha’s impending suicide attempt, we also saw Oleg leaning on the bridge with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and I couldn’t have been the only one who initially feared for the worst when Paige started stringing up that rope in the garage.
• Paige, however, faced a different kind of death in this episode—the death of her old self. By throwing out her cross, she showed her parents that she was letting go of who she once was and what she once believed. And I was captivated and more than a little disturbed by the deep interest in Holly Taylor’s voice when Paige was talking to her parents about their power to get Pastor Tim to move. It seems Paige is growing closer to completely embracing the “family business” at a time when her parents are looking to get out of it. That final scene with her expertly dodging and beating up on the laundry bag showed her doing what Elizabeth suggested—training to take control of her life. And while part of me is happy to see her feeling stronger, part of me is devastated that the strength she’s found is coming from a world I never wanted her to be a part of. The moment she threw the cross away crushed me because religion gave Paige something to believe in and a pathway to do good for others, and it felt like she was throwing away her belief in that for a new belief in what her parents do (which we all know is not doing much good for others), which is profoundly tragic.
• Pastor Tim gave Philip and Elizabeth some sound parenting advice, but did anyone else find it kind of unrealistic that they would go to him with their plans to leave the country? It was one of the few times I didn’t buy a writing decision on this show.
• I don’t know what to think of Sofia and her hockey player fiancé at this point, except that this storyline shows in a very overt way the fact that loving someone makes espionage much harder and that agencies like the FBI and KGB can’t control human emotions. The only thing I know for sure is that it led to some classic reactions from Stan and Aderholt. The way they tried to hide their confusion and frustration under a thin veneer of happiness was hilarious.
• Henry’s boarding school is the new EPCOT, right? He’s never going to get to go there, and it breaks my heart. This episode did such a great job of reminding us how genuinely good and kind Henry is. Philip and Elizabeth have done terrible things for their country, but they raised some great kids.