Greetings, Comrades! Welcome to the final season of The Americans posts here at NGN! I’m so excited to analyze every last detail of this last season with all of you, and if this episode was any indication, we’ll have much to discuss! So please share your thoughts in the comments because if any show begs for deep conversations, it’s this one, and I need some people to talk to if I’m going to get through this season without having a complete mental and emotional breakdown.
Title: Dead Hand
Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
I’m going to write this into being: This will be the year Keri Russell wins her long-overdue Emmy for playing Elizabeth Jennings. I’ve been beating that drum for years now, but if this episode is any indication of the work she’s going to be doing this season, I can’t imagine a world where she doesn’t win.
The thing that has always made Russell’s acting in this role so compelling is also the thing that I think makes it so underrated: It’s all about her body language. Of course she delivers her lines with a sharpness that makes them feel even more deadly than that knife to the security guard’s neck. (Her “I know you love to talk” to Philip was one of those moments that literally knocked the wind out me with how biting it was. It was reminiscent of her legendary work in Season Four’s “The Magic of David Copperfield V.”) But she also brings a uniquely purposeful physicality to the role that lives in the silences that make this show so special. I’ve always believed there is a connection between Russell’s history as a dancer and her ability to use her body as one of the strongest tools in her acting arsenal, and this episode may have featured the best use of those tools yet. So much of what’s going on with Elizabeth is happening under the surface—even more than it usually is because she can’t even let her guard down completely with Philip anymore—so Russell has to use her posture and her movements to let us see inside this character.
And what’s happening inside Elizabeth Jennings is like a car accident—you can’t look away, even though you know you’re staring at utter destruction. Elizabeth is broken, perhaps even more than Philip was at his lowest point. But Russell lets us see the effort she uses to try to hide that from everyone except her husband at the very end—when she’s too tired to be anything but herself. Exhaustion is a hard thing to play convincingly, but Russell makes Elizabeth’s burnout feel painfully tangible because it’s in every physical detail of her performance. It’s in the slump of her usually straight shoulders when she’s alone, it’s in the slower steps she takes, and it’s in the unfocused look in her eyes at times.
Elizabeth isn’t just tired, she’s crumbling from the inside out, and she has no one to lean on. Her isolation is a major visual motif in this episode—she’s by herself a lot. And when she’s alone, she’s often physically curled in on herself, hunched over and looking much smaller than she usually does. It’s been days, and I’m still haunted by one shot in particular: Elizabeth, having just murdered someone to protect Paige’s identity, standing in the rain and smoking a cigarette, shivering with her arms crossed over her body and staring out into the night. This is Elizabeth at the end of her rope, somehow both completely drained and a live wire at the same time. It’s the personification of an exposed nerve—completely frayed by her circumstances. And in that moment, I was both moved by Russell’s performance and terrified by it. Elizabeth at wit’s end could do anything, which was also reflected in that final shot of her with the cyanide necklace. The complete emptiness in her expression and the way Russell let us feel the weight of that necklace like it was a thousand pounds made my whole body tense up as I wondered just how much more she could take of the demands of this lonely life.
The Americans has always excelled at following the “Show, don’t tell,” maxim, and it’s because it has a cast that can tell entire stories without dialogue. This season, I can already see that the story Russell is telling us about Elizabeth—her isolation, her exhaustion, and her desperation—is going to destroy me.
Favorite Scene: “Don’t Dream It’s Over”
It’s a bold move to start a season off with a 6-minute musical montage featuring basically no dialogue, but that’s exactly what this episode did, opening with a look at Philip and Elizabeth’s lives years after she told him to quit the world of espionage set to the perfectly chosen “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House. The way the montage brought us from the end of Season Five to this place—years in the future—on both a plot level and an emotional one was brilliant. It gave us a sense not just of what these characters lives are like now but also how they feel about those lives, and it did so just by relying on the nuances Russell and Matthew Rhys bring to each step they take, each breath, and each flicker of some deeper emotion in their eyes.
The most obvious thing we learn from this montage is that the suggestion Elizabeth made at the end of Season Five has done wonders for Philip. It was nice to see Rhys get to play something other than completely miserable for the first time in years. Just like Russell, he does so much with his posture, and in this opening montage, his straight shoulders and powerful stride say it all: Philip finally feels good about his life. In many ways, he’s living the dream we’ve seen him wrestle with since the pilot: He gets to be an American without having to defect. He gets to wear nice suits and run a business and have a fancy watch and smile as his sunroof opens. And for a moment, I found myself genuinely happy to see him out of the spy business.
However, that happiness was short-lived. Elizabeth has now become the one being crushed under the weight of being asked to do too much for her country—that’s obvious from the opening shot of her sleeping on the job. And then the sequence in the hotel room only further illustrates that point as she methodically washes herself clean from another offering of her body for the cause. Afterward, as we see that perfect shot of her staring at the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, it becomes clear that this is all Elizabeth truly has left: her mission and the hatred for America she clings to like a security blanket.
What that montage did better than any dialogue-laden scene could have was established the divide and the lack of intimacy between Philip and Elizabeth now. After five seasons spent seeing them together almost all the time, it was jarring in an effective way to see them living such separate lives. In fact, I half expected to see Philip meet up with Elizabeth in one of her many disguises, and it broke my heart every time that didn’t happen. But nothing compared to the heartbreak I felt when Elizabeth got home. For five seasons, we’ve watched these characters talk to each other about everything, but now they have nothing to say. The things that kept them connected—their shared work and their kids—are gone now. What’s left are the questions that are universal for empty nesters but also painfully specific for these two characters (aka The Americans at its best): What keeps us together now that the thing we were partners in for so long is basically over? What do we talk about? What do we do?
The tentative softness in their expressions in that moment was the saddest part of it all for me because it’s still there—the love that made their marriage real and led Elizabeth to put his needs above their mission is still there. But instead of walking toward him, she walks up the stairs and instead of walking toward her, he stays in the kitchen, leaving them both alone again. It felt as uncomfortable having them not touch after so many seasons of building physical intimacy as it did having them not speak after so many seasons of building emotional intimacy, but that discomfort serves the tone of this season so well. It’s tragic: The act that symbolized the epitome of Elizabeth’s awakening sense of humanity ultimately led to this place where that humanity seems all but gone. Their emotional connection led her to make a choice that ultimately destroyed that connection. At the end of Season Five, we all knew Elizabeth was basically signing her own death certificate by choosing to work alone to save what was left of her husband’s sanity and soul. But what I’m not sure I expected to see so early on was the loss of her own sanity and soul (if you’re someone like me who believed she had both) as a direct result of saving his.
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” features these lyrics that set the stage for this upcoming season so well I get goosebumps thinking about it:
They come, they come
To build a wall between us
We know they won’t win
That’s the entire conflict of this season summed up in a few lines, but from the start, we can see that the foundations for that wall have already been laid over the years since Season Five ended. And all we can do is hope that the damaging, draining divide between them doesn’t win
• This season is going to be heaven for Paige fans like me. Seeing her grow up into an outspoken, independent little spy shouldn’t make me as proud as it does, but here I am. (I am worried, though, about the fact that Elizabeth is keeping their true relationship a secret from the people they work with.) I love that Paige’s relationship with Elizabeth is going to be a seemingly crucial component of this last season because no other “prestige drama” has put a mother-daughter dynamic at the center of so much of its storytelling.
• I’m also very intrigued by Claudia’s role in the action going forward. Who does she get her orders from? How does she feel about the rogue elements in the KGB, if she knows about them? How will her emotional connection to Paige (and also, seemingly, Elizabeth) affect the rest of the story?
• Is it just me, or is it really interesting that the female characters on the show are written as the ones engaging in darker acts and adhering more rigorously to their cause, while the male characters are the more emotionally conflicted ones who are trying to stop them from doing something terrible? It’s always been the case with Elizabeth and Philip, but this episode seemed to set up a divide between Arkady/Oleg/Philip and Claudia/Paige/Elizabeth that would definitely be the other way around on most other shows, and I love it.
• I know I shouldn’t say anyone had a neck stabbing coming, but that security guard was incredibly creepy with his “holding Paige’s ID hostage” dating technique. It made my skin crawl, and I thought Holly Taylor played Paige’s reaction perfectly to heighten the tension to a fever pitch.
• Henry got out! I’m not sure anything in this episode made me feel better than the sight of him playing hockey at his boarding school. I know nothing is what it seems on this show and Henry could very easily be brought into the fold or become his parents’ (and sister’s) downfall, but for now, it’s nice to imagine him living a happy life away from the secrets and abandonment he always felt.
• It’s fascinating to see how many secrets Elizabeth has to keep and how many people she’s lying to (even just something as small as telling Claudia she’s sleeping when she’s clearly not). She can’t be completely honest with anyone anymore, and on a show where intimacy and honesty have become such an important theme, I think that lack of true connection with anyone is going to be a major factor in her arc this season.
• I know the show has subverted the idea of Chekov’s gun before (with Martha’s gun never being used), but I can’t help but think Chekov’s cyanide will actually be used by someone. Any predictions for what will happen? If nothing else, I call Philip figuring out what it is in the next few episodes and giving us a killer Rhys reaction shot.
• Speaking of Rhys breaking my heart, I don’t think I’ll ever be over his pained delivery of “She’s my wife” when Philip is talking to Oleg. Philip and Elizabeth may be pitted against each other now, but he still loves her. I can’t imagine that he’d ever be able to actually “stop her” like Oleg wants when push comes to shove.
• After going almost the entire episode without a real conversation between Philip and Elizabeth, that final scene was like a punch to the gut. I loved the realism of it; Elizabeth started genuinely trying to be gentle, but then her exhaustion won out, and she finally let herself be nothing more than her tired, frustrated, frayed self. I also feel like she has to resent him a little bit, and the pressing way he tried to get her to admit the job was getting to her was not the way to get her on his side. It was a fight where I really understood both sides—he did have something important to tell her, but she didn’t know how important—and that made it even harder to watch that gap between them grow.
• Knowing what we know about current Russian leadership, I love the choice to have this season centered on the very real threat of people in the KGB who hate the idea of a progressive, more modern Russian government and way of life.
• One last question: Do we still think Renee could be a spy? I still don’t trust her.