After a brief departure from the normal format of these posts (You can check out last week’s deep dive into my thoughts on humanity and nihilism on The Americans if you’re looking for some light reading.), we’re back with our typical post-episode rundown this week! However, for the next two weeks, NGN will be on hiatus as I take the vacation the Jennings family never took to EPCOT. Posts around here should be back up and running following the May 8th episode and will continue for the remainder of the season—hopefully with a few fun wrap-up posts celebrating the show as a whole before it’s all done!
Title: Mr. and Mrs. Teacup
Episode M.V.P.: Matthew Rhys
No one plays conflicted and downtrodden like Matthew Rhys. At the very beginning of the season, it was nice to see him looking lighter and more confident than perhaps we’ve ever seen him, and even as it became clear that he was dealing with plenty of problems of his own, his inner struggles seemed to pale in comparison to what Elizabeth has been going through. However, in “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup,” Rhys brought such nuance and depth to Philip’s scenes that I found myself feeling more drawn into his story than I have been so far this season.
Rhys played what felt like 100 different variations on the theme of disappointment in this episode, and each one managed to break my heart more than the one before it. There was his disappointment with Elizabeth over how she’s handled the fallout of Paige seeing Rennhull’s death, which came out in a burst of angry skepticism that was clearly influenced by all Oleg has told him about what Elizabeth might be up to. There was his disappointment with the young woman Paige is becoming, which came out in frustration over her acting as if she knew more about the world of spying than he does (another great use of a universal experience—a child trying to act as if they know more than a parent—made incredibly specific to this universe). There was his disappointment with the “American Dream,” which was laid out so well in that scene with Stan at the bar, with Philip’s communist background coming through in a subtle but very pointed way. There was his disappointment with Elizabeth’s lack of openness, which was played on two levels: disappointment as a husband that his wife doesn’t desire the same level of intimacy they once had and disappointment as a spy that he couldn’t get more information out of her.
And then there was the saddest scene in the episode, in which a father and a son both faced the disappointment of not being able to afford his boarding school education anymore. Watching Philip try to break the news to Henry as gently as possible broke my heart because Rhys is so good at being so achingly sincere. It felt so grounded in reality—a conversation I’m sure many parents have had and will continue to have—that it made me uncomfortable to watch it unfold. This was a kind of vulnerability and disappointment that many people can relate to, and Rhys brings such a human touch to everything he does that he made what could have felt like a mundane plot point resonate with genuine sadness. Watching Elizabeth deal with the strain of high body counts, high-stress missions, and the constant presence of a suicide pill around her neck is upsetting but it’s not something that’s easy to empathize with. However, watching Philip deal with financial problems and a family that’s falling apart is painfully relatable. And Rhys gives his scenes enough weight that what could have been boring deviations from Elizabeth’s missions have begun to resonate in powerful ways.
Favorite Scene: Elizabeth and Philip talk in bed
I’ve been asking for it for weeks, and it finally happened in this episode: After an agonizing three weeks of physical tension, Philip and Elizabeth finally touched (and kissed)! But don’t for one second think that means things are going well for them. Like every moment on this show, this moment had about 800 layers to unpack.
Let’s start with perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of all: Elizabeth telling Philip that Henry is his “department.” That was shockingly cruel and uncaring—even for Elizabeth. The way Keri Russell delivered that line was so brilliant. In the seconds before she tells Philip that, you can see her genuinely trying to think of what to do or say to make it better. It does seem to bother her for a moment, but it’s almost as if her compartmentalizing training takes over and it clicks in her mind that she can’t handle another thing. So she shuts down. But no matter how exhausted Elizabeth is, Henry is still her son, and to see her push away the desire to take care of her children that has always been a part of her personality was tough to take. No matter what Elizabeth did in the past, I always felt that her love for her children and her husband kept her from being a monster. But that line made me question what amount of humanity is left in her. She treats Paige more as an apprentice now and less as a daughter, she’s shut Philip out, and now she’s pushing away any concern she might feel for Henry. We’re witnessing the deterioration of what’s left of Elizabeth Jennings as a human being, and we can only hope it’s not too late for her to come back from this dark, detached place.
Speaking of hope, before I start sounding too depressing, this scene actually gave me some hope for perhaps the first time this season that Philip and Elizabeth might find their way back to each other before all is said and done. In the darkness of their bedroom, they had a fleeting moment of intimacy that was softer than anything else they’ve experienced together all season. Like most things on this show, the moment played on multiple levels, and they were all devastating: Philip was both a husband and a spy in this scene, trying to get her to open up to him both because he misses the honesty they once shared and because he needs to know more about what she’s doing so he can pass it on to Oleg.
Rhys played Philip’s internal conflict between those two roles brilliantly—with just the touch of his hand. That hesitant hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder said so much about what’s broken—but not completely destroyed—between them. Their relationship is not what it used to be—and it may never be that way again (especially with Philip essentially working against her now)—but there’s still some level of intimacy there. It’s there in that gentle kiss and in Elizabeth’s honest admission that she’s tired all the time. That may not seem like a big moment of truth, but given how often we’ve seen Elizabeth shrug off her exhaustion when others bring it up to her, the fact that she confides in Philip that it’s wearing on her is incredibly important.
In the end, though, Elizabeth turns away from him and leaves Philip staring up at the ceiling—both of them facing different directions, looking at things from completely different angles. But for one brief moment, there was something between them that looked a little like tenderness. It may be frayed and halting and barely perceptible, but Rhys and Russell are so good at what they do that they can show us in the smallest ways that it’s not completely gone.
- I couldn’t choose any other moment for my favorite scene given how intensely I’d been waiting to see Philip and Elizabeth touch again, but I almost chose the scene where Erica Haskgard talks to Elizabeth about her work. Her speech about believing her work would be her legacy after her death was painful in the obvious way (I really like her as a character and her relationship with her husband, and I don’t want her to die.), but also brutally poignant given the path Elizabeth is on. Elizabeth has always clung to her work, believing it was the best part of her—in the same way Erica seems to have done. However, when Erica told her she’d wished she’d spent that time with her husband instead, Elizabeth’s entire arc was set out before us. She has a choice to make: Love or work—family or mission. And I still believe that when her back is up against the wall, she’ll choose her family. Otherwise, her character will be no more evolved than she was at the start of the pilot, and that’s not the kind of good writing this show is known for.
- Another line that really resonated with me as far as Elizabeth’s character arc is concerned was when she told Paige that Philip loves them both but something got lost along the way. Although part of Philip’s relationship with both of them got lost when he left the work behind, that line could easily describe Elizabeth, too. She loves her daughter independent of her use to the cause and she loves her husband for that as well, but some of that has gotten lost in her crazed fervor and determination to deal with the summit.
- I was wondering how Sofia and Gennady would ultimately connect to Philip and/or Elizabeth, and this episode gave us our answer: Elizabeth has been tasked with possibly eliminating him. Given his connection to Stan (and the fact that Stan has been told they want to meet with him), I’m thinking this might be the thing that finally tips Stan off to the fact that his instinct about his neighbors in the pilot was right.
- Was it just me, or was the opening of the episode annoyingly dark? On Slate’s podcast about the show (which I highly recommend), the creators said they wanted it to be realistically dark, but this was a case where going for realism might not have been the right choice. On the bright side, it was harder to see Elizabeth’s kills this week.
- I have to give a lot of credit to Keidrich Sellati, who was absolutely heartbreaking in his one scene in this episode. He’s always played Henry as such a relatable character, a normal teenager in the middle of a crazy world he knows nothing about. And I can’t help but think that he’s about to be dragged back into that crazy world, and he won’t be able to ignore it this time. (Do you think Henry is going to find out the truth before the season is done?)
- Holly Taylor also deserves a special shout-out this week for her perfect reaction after she slept with the intern. She’s never seemed more like her mother’s daughter than she did in that moment, with a million different emotions crossing her face after realizing her body is a tool that can be used for the cause. Paige always had a kind of innocence about her, and watching that slowly disappear has been one of many tragic parts of this season. I also can’t help but think that Elizabeth (and maybe Philip) is going to find out, and that could go a long way toward taking her blinders off about what this life is going to do to her daughter.
- I was really happy to see Kimberly again because Julia Garner is such a natural actor, but I don’t think this storyline can end well for anyone—especially not Philip.
- I loved the fun bit of tradecraft with Oleg getting a coded message to his father, who passed it on to Arkady. Oleg’s relationship with his father was one of my favorite things that was explored in Season Five, and it’s nice to see them on the same side here. I’m definitely going to spend every episode terrified for Oleg’s life, though.
- The continuing motif of Elizabeth looking at her own reflection in the mirror, which looks a lot like Erica’s paintings, has been a painfully beautiful visual thread tying every episode together so far. The same can be said for the island in the Jennings family kitchen acting as a visual barrier between Philip and Elizabeth. This season has had some really excellent direction, and I’m excited to see it continue.