Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
I’m sure there will come a day when I choose someone else as the M.V.P., but I honestly can’t imagine it right now. To turn in a career performance every episode for six years is something special, and to elevate that work to even higher heights of brilliance (by taking her character to even lower depths of pain and desperation) in its final season is even more astounding. There’s nothing phoned-in about Russell’s work, and it’s amazing to see how many variations on “exhausted” can be played by one person. What could be one-dimensional has instead become a performance not unlike the paintings Elizabeth is surrounded by—haunting and heartbreaking, showing new layers each time you look at it.
This episode was once again intensely focused on Elizabeth’s isolation. She’s not telling the whole truth to anyone, and that weighs on a person in a million little ways. I went into great detail last week about the physical manifestation of Elizabeth’s loneliness and exhaustion, so I’ll save you the same spiel this week, but you could apply every word I wrote to her work again. I continue to marvel at how small she’s made Elizabeth feel—how fragile she seems in those big sweaters with her arms crossed over her chest and her shoulders hunched over like she’s literally being compressed by the weight of all she has to carry on her own. But then when she’s on her missions, that ramrod straight posture and confident walk return, and that only makes me marvel more at Russell’s criminally underrated ability to devote every inch of her body to the story she’s telling.
Russell’s knack for bringing complexity and nuance to every moment she’s onscreen was used perfectly in the episode’s closing moments. The fact that her confession of having two children was both a moment of truth and a blatant attempt at manipulating a deadly situation played to Russell’s strengths. Elizabeth was both completely vulnerable and searching for a way to regain power, and Russell sold Elizabeth’s desperation in a way that made me genuinely afraid for her and also genuinely impressed with her ability to get out of that situation alive.
I know this won’t be the last time this season that I worry about Elizabeth’s fate, and so much of that sheer terror I feel when I think about it comes from the way Russell plays the sense that even Elizabeth thinks she’s not going to survive much longer. It adds not only an intensity to heightened moments like this episode’s conclusion, but also a lingering sense of impending doom in nearly every scene that has made this final season feel even more like a tragedy waiting to happen than I expected going into it.
Favorite Scene: Elizabeth and Claudia Talk
Elizabeth and Claudia’s relationship is fascinating to me. I’d love to get an episode (or a movie…or a detailed piece of well-written fan fiction…) that details the years we never got to see and how those years led to the current state of every dynamic on the show, but more than anything, I want to see how Elizabeth and Claudia got from where they once were to where they are now. The softness between them now—especially from Claudia toward Elizabeth—might even be described as jarring if it wasn’t played with such nuance by both Russell and Margo Martindale. There’s still a little hesitation between them, a little distance—but it’s a distance that’s closing right before our eyes. Watching Claudia and Elizabeth talk about art was such a fascinating moment, because we were able to see a contrast between these two strong, battle hardened women—these two “true believers.” Martindale’s reactions to Elizabeth questioning how anyone could be an artist were so telling; there was something very close to pity in her eyes. You could see her looking at Elizabeth as if for the first time, fully understanding what living for the cause and only the cause for so long has done to her. (And I’m sure it played a big part in Claudia playing Tchaikovsky for Elizabeth and Paige later on—almost as if she was reminding Elizabeth that art isn’t something to look down on or turn your back on.) Art is such an important part of humanity, and it’s very telling that Elizabeth seems both angry with it and afraid of it.
Martindale continued to meet Russell every step of the way as Elizabeth asked her to continue training Paige if something were to happen to her. Elizabeth’s growing belief in her own impending doom is clearly weighing on her, and it’s clearly weighing on Claudia, too. Martindale and Russell said so much with just the sparsest dialogue in this scene. The lingering sadness in Claudia’s eyes genuinely moved me and reminded me in no small way of the sense of regret the great Frank Langella brought to his episodes last season. Is the weight of all this starting to affect Claudia, too? It certainly seems like it.
What struck me the most about Elizabeth’s request concerning Paige’s future is how starkly different it was from previous conversations she’s had about who should care for her children if she died. In Season One’s “The Colonel,” she tells Philip that if it came down to the two of them, he should be the one to raise the kids, and in Season Four’s “Chloramphenicol,” Elizabeth once again gives Philip her blessing to raise the kids how he’d want to if she died—even going so far as to tell him to raise them as Americans. Those days are long gone now; instead, Elizabeth is instructing Claudia to, in essence, raise Paige as a Russian spy should she die. That contrast broke my heart because it speaks to how deep the divide has become between Philip and Elizabeth without ever hitting us over the head with it. Once again, it’s “show don’t tell” at its finest.
Another heartbreaking moment came when Elizabeth shared her hopes for Paige with Claudia. In visualizing a future where Paige has it better than she does, Elizabeth is finally acknowledging—in some small way—how hard this life has been for her. And Claudia’s reaction once again says so much—the sadness in her eyes betraying both an empathetic connection with Elizabeth and the honest but unspoken reality that Paige’s life will never be as “easy” as Elizabeth thinks it will be. There’s no “easy” in this line of work, and Claudia seems to be figuring out just how much Elizabeth has had to delude herself to bring Paige into this life. As it always does, the show took a conversation about a universal concept in families—a parent hoping their child will have a better life than they did—and made it even more emotionally challenging by tying it into this very specific world.
- The contrast between Philip and Elizabeth’s lives was even starker in this episode. Watching Elizabeth continue to face life and death situations while Philip worried about losing a client would be comical if it was on a different show. Instead, it underscored just how isolated from each other they’ve become, which continued to break my heart.
- Another detail that underscores the divide between Philip and Elizabeth is the fact that they haven’t touched at all in two episodes. That lack of physical intimacy is incredibly effective, but it also has me hoping that changes at some point because the thing that initially drew me to the show was the chemistry between Russell and Matthew Rhys. While that chemistry is also evident in their brilliance as dramatic scene partners (and their ability to make that physical separation really resonate), this show (which has always been about a marriage) feels like it’s lacking something when they’re so literally separated. I have no doubt, though, that this will change soon, but I’m also terrified that it will change because Philip and Elizabeth will end up fighting each other.
- Philip’s struggles at the travel agency and his loneliness (as evidenced in his phone call with Henry) seem to suggest that the “American dream” he’d been wanting to live isn’t quite so dreamy, just like Elizabeth seems to be discovering that living for the cause is starting to wear on her. Could this lead them back to each other, or is it just an interesting parallel?
- Elizabeth’s mission at the State Department was suspense at its finest, and I have to give so many kudos to Rhys, who directed the episode, for shooting it in a way that never felt forced but still managed to get my heart racing.
- Rhys also showed his deft touch for directing in the Tchaikovsky scene. He let his actors do the heavy lifting, with their facial expressions showing how three generations of women—mother and daughter figures—responded to the music made by a man without a mother.
- The problems between Sofia and Gennady don’t interest me (I never really liked Sofia.), but they did show how problems in personal partnerships can affect professional partnerships—just as Philip and Elizabeth are showing how division in the professional part of a partnership can affect the personal part. And the spy craft shown in that bathroom scene made the espionage geek in me downright giddy.
- I can’t wait to see Oleg and Stan interact again, even if part of me is terrified that this dynamic—coupled with Oleg’s work with Philip and against Elizabeth—will finally be the thing that exposes the Jenningses to Stan.
- The mentions of assisted suicide are making me very worried about Elizabeth and that cyanide capsule.Elizabeth is also dealing with chronic pain that is becoming almost unbearable, and I can’t help but think these parallels—including the loving husband—exist for a reason. Is she going to take her own life? Is she going to give it to someone else who wants to die?
- What’s your take on the episode’s final moments: Did Elizabeth kill the general, or did he kill himself? No matter how it happened, poor Paige was just given a very brutal lesson in the realities of the path she has chosen to follow. She obviously knows that sex is involved on some level (She was clearly trying to get Elizabeth to admit it in that earlier scene, and Elizabeth’s lie is definitely going to come back to bite her.), but now she also knows that brain splatter is another occupational hazard.