After a little hiatus, I’m back and ready (but also completely NOT READY) to discuss this final run of episodes with all of you! And because I feel these last episodes of such a deep and complex show deserve a little more attention, the format for these posts will be changing slightly to accommodate even more analysis. I’ll be taking one major theme/discussion point each week and developing it into an essay, but please feel free to bring up other discussion points, too. I hope you all find the change to be a welcome one, and I also hope to see your thoughts, hopes, fears, and favorite moments in the comments section!
This Week’s Discussion Topic: Epiphanies, Emotional Connections, and the Truths We Try to Bury
“Harvest” was an episode that lived up to its name. So many moments in the episode harkened back to similar moments in the pilot, and it was both thrilling and gut-wrenching to watch those seeds planted so many years ago—in both the show’s timeline and our own—begin to finally sprout into something fruitful for the plot. But where this episode truly excelled was in using the time that’s passed and the emotional connections that have developed between these characters to turn those parallels to the pilot into explorations of how far these characters have come and how much higher the stakes are because of those emotional connections.
This episode was anchored by three key epiphanies for its three major players—Stan, Elizabeth, and Philip. But, in typical The Americans fashion, these moments didn’t lead to huge shifts in plot momentum or dramatic “Aha!” scenes. Instead, they were quiet moments of shifting understanding, handled with no dialogue or in the spaces between words where so much of the emotional weight of this show has always existed. These moments were less about propelling the plot forward into the final stretch of episodes than they were about reminding us what this show has always been and will always be about: the connections between people. While this episode certainly moved the characters closer to the endgame, it did so in a way that prioritized the interpersonal consequences of those moves and, in doing so, ensured that absolutely no one (including those of us watching) will be able to escape the coming carnage unscathed.
The first pivotal moment in the episode happened before the opening credits. If this season of The Americans has a defining characteristic, it’s been its ability to set the tone, move the plot forward, and create total emotional devastation before the 10-minute mark. In this week’s case, all of that happened in one conversation between Philip and Stan that made me feel sicker than anything else that happened in this episode (which is saying something in an episode that featured a dead body having its head and hands chopped off in a parking garage).
There are times when the idea that a successful FBI agent like Stan wouldn’t know he lives across the street from the very same deep-cover KGB operatives he’s been hunting for years has seemed like a lot to swallow, but this episode did two things to put that point of view in perspective: It reminded us that if Philip and Elizabeth weren’t as good at their jobs as they have been, Stan would have most likely figured something out long ago, and it also hinted that maybe some part of Stan has had it all figured out from the start—but his emotional attachment to Philip has kept that instinctive sense of something being wrong buried for years. A theme in this episode—and in the show as a whole—is that our need to connect with other people often overrides any other driving force in our lives, and that certainly seems to be the case when it comes to Stan and his suspicions about his neighbors.
Watching the wheels turn for Stan throughout the episode’s opening scene reminded me just how good Noah Emmerich is in this role. So much of Stan’s character exists below a stoic surface, and Emmerich has always brilliantly allowed us to see just enough under that surface to allow the humanity to come through a character who could have been written off as a one-dimensional G-man.
It all started when Stan watched Philip say goodbye to Henry, and Philip let his guard down just enough for Stan to see that something deeper was going on. Just as Elizabeth’s phone call to Henry said too much for Henry not to notice that something was wrong, Philip’s talk with his son also let perhaps a little too much truth out. Philip and Elizabeth are both far from the top of their game (him because he’s rusty; her because she’s being asked to do too much), and this provided an opening for Stan’s long-buried concerns to rise out from whatever mental floorboard he shoved them under for years.
The tension in the conversation between Philip and Stan was almost unbearable, and that’s when this show is at its best—when it’s raising emotional stakes perhaps even higher than plot ones. In any situation, watching an FBI agent try to casually but determinedly dig for the truth from a spy would be tense, but making those two opposing forces genuine friends turned a stressful scene into a downright nauseating one. Stan wasn’t lying when he said he and Philip are best friends. On a show about fake relationships turning into real ones, this is perhaps the most tragic example of all. And because there is such a blurred line between reality and artifice in this dynamic, it makes perfect sense that Philip mixes the two so expertly in his response to Stan’s increasingly pointed questions. (Did anyone else’s stomach drop when Stan asked Philip if he was involved in something because of the weird hours they’ve always kept?)
By telling a truth—the travel agency could go under—but not the truth—Elizabeth (and now Philip, by virtue of him joining her)—could die or at least be discovered, Philip masterfully shifted Stan’s focus. But he also finally was able to share a truth with him about his failure at the travel agency that he hasn’t really shared with anyone else—even Elizabeth. When he told Stan that “It’s terrible,” Matthew Rhys gutted me with the totally naked vulnerability in his eyes. There was so much truth in what Philip was telling Stan but also so much deception, and watching Rhys and Emmerich delicately play that mental and emotional chess match between their characters reinforced the idea that the emotional ramifications of Stan finding out the truth are going to be so much harder to watch than any potential deaths that come out of it.
Although Philip’s answer abated Stan’s suspicions in the moment, something had awakened in him that couldn’t easily be sent back to sleep. So when Henry’s complaining about his parents’ work trips and and strange answers about Aunt Helen raised more red flags (Didn’t we all know that would happen someday?), Stan found himself back where he was years before—sneaking into the Jenningses’ home on a hunch. But unlike the parallel scene in the pilot, this one felt so much more harrowing—not only because there was more of a chance of Stan finding something with the show being closer to its end, but also because of the history Stan has in that house and with that family.
So much was happening in that wordless scene of Stan searching the house—punctuated only with that pointed flashback of William giving away too much about Philip and Elizabeth. The way he was looking but not digging too deeply hinted at Stan’s emotional conflict throughout the scene: It felt more like he was trying not to find something to put his suspicions to rest than trying to find something to prove his suspicions were right. Stan loves Philip, and when we love someone, it clouds our judgment and alters our priorities. So while it seems that a part of Stan was just waiting for the right moment to realize the truth, that part of him is still at war with the part that cares for his neighbors. Once again, that scene was all about emotional development—on a plot level, nothing actually happened because nothing was actually found in the house or the car, but Stan suspecting deeply enough to betray their trust and break into their home signaled a major shift in emotional and interpersonal dynamics, even if the actual plot wasn’t changed by his break-in.
As Stan and Philip began inching farther part, Philip and Elizabeth began inching closer together. Philip’s decision to go to Chicago wasn’t taken lightly by Elizabeth, who admitted when he first showed up that she didn’t expect him to actually come. Keri Russell played Elizabeth’s dawning understanding of what it meant for both Philip and herself that he came with a softness that managed to break my heart and mend the broken pieces of it from the start of this season all at the same time. Like Stan, there seems to be a part of Elizabeth that’s always known the truth—or has at least since the pilot. Her husband will always sacrifice his own desires for her safety when the chips are down (hence the perfect callback to the “In the Air Tonight” scene in the pilot). When things are hard and she’s tired and he’s barely in the spy game anymore, it’s easier to push that part down and bury that truth—because it’s easier to stay angry and push him away, especially now that she’s literally wearing death around her neck. But “Harvest” showed us that there are things even Elizabeth Jennings can’t compartmentalize anymore, and one of those things is how much her husband loves her.
From the first minute Philip walked into the Chicago bedroom, the intimacy between Philip and Elizabeth that’s been stilted all season began to return. Right before Elizabeth sincerely tells him that he didn’t have to come, there’s a beat where she looks at him with almost tearful and downright disbelieving affection, and it’s the most honest look we’ve seen from Elizabeth this entire season. Russell’s ability to balance Elizabeth’s brutally hard edges with moments of delicate vulnerability was working overtime in “Harvest,” reminding me of Season One—when everything Philip and Elizabeth said to each other and every look they shared felt monumental because it was all being built for the first time. Now, however, it’s being rebuilt, but it’s being done with that same kind of tentative warmth amid the horrors of spy life.
Elizabeth asking Philip if he was going to stay was such a Season One callback in the best possible way. Russell imbued that one request with a kind of shyness and hesitation that’s so rare for Elizabeth, and the relief we got to see in her entire body language when he put the suitcase on the bed was the kind of hopeful moment I’ve been waiting for all season. That one small action signaled that Philip wasn’t there as tactical support; he was there as her husband. And that’s what she wanted. Elizabeth didn’t need just any extra set of hands and eyes for this mission; she needed the only person she ever truly trusted—and the only person she ever allowed herself to lean on when things got too hard.
That’s exactly what she did by telling Philip about the cyanide necklace. Although she still kept the details secret (because she’s still Elizabeth Jennings, after all), she opened up to him about this huge burden she carries, and in typical Phlip fashion, he offered to carry it—and destroy it—for her. She couldn’t give him that victory, but she could give him a different one—a look into her true self once again after closing it off to him for so long. She told him about the necklace because it’s the only thing she could give to him after her gave her himself for this mission. And the small, sad smile on Philip’s face showed that he understood the magnitude of that gesture.
The warm glow of their bedroom was soon replaced by the harsh glare of parking garage lights after their mission went awry, and yet somehow, the intimacy remained. Leave it to The Americans to turn body mutilation with a fire ax into a genuinely romantic gesture. Only Russell and Rhys could take a brutal scene (The sounds! The ax getting stuck!) and turn it into something deeply emotional with just their eye contact. No words were spoken between them, but it ended up being the most honest scene they’ve shared all season. From the moment they locked eyes before he broke the glass, I knew this was going to be a moment about their relationship as much as it was about the shock value of what was going to happen to Marilyn.
When Elizabeth looked at Philip as he was struggling with so much more than just the ax, the epiphany that had been making its way to the surface since he showed up in Chicago finally broke through. Philip didn’t want to live this life anymore; he had no real connection to the cause or the homeland pulling him back to this place where she could see him losing whatever bit of his soul he’d found again with each swing of that ax. Instead, he was doing it for her. She needed him, so he dragged himself back into this ring of hell to save her. He chopped up the body so she wouldn’t have to do it; he took on this incredibly horrifying act to take one thing off her burdened shoulders. And she could see the fear on his face that her fate might not be much different from Marilyn’s.
Sometimes it can be terrifying to think about how much someone loves us. It changes something deep inside of us to let ourselves be loved and to acknowledge that we’re important to someone else. For a long time, Elizabeth has tried to bury her understanding of Philip’s love for her and commitment to her because it would make it harder for her to do her job. But she couldn’t deny it any longer. It’s why she showed up at the travel agency, it’s why she looked at him with such sadness and love when he talked to Henry on the phone, and it’s why she touched his face and his heart with startling tenderness. Elizabeth’s epiphany in this episode was that she’s Philip’s cause and she’s not afraid of that anymore—she’s grateful for it.
Which brings us to Philip’s epiphany. This episode’s conclusion—with Philip tearfully remembering the very real wedding he shared with Elizabeth three years before (or last season for those of us watching)—could be read in many different ways. Some people might see it as Philp wondering how his marriage deteriorated to its present state after that beautiful moment. Some people might see it as Philip wondering where that version of Elizabeth has gone. But I see it as Philip remembering what was probably one of the few genuinely happy moments in his life. And that’s all because Rhys allowed the smallest smile to break across Philip’s features as they softened just enough to tell a whole story on their own.
In that moment, I think Philip realized his own truth that he tried to bury: The vows he made to Elizabeth are the only promises he really cares about keeping. She’s the only thing that truly makes him happy. And he’ll do whatever he has to do to keep those vows—whether that means chopping up bodies, going back to a line of work he hates, or even turning his back on the work he’s doing with Oleg. I’m prepared to be wrong, but I think Philip is going to come clean to Elizabeth about what he was asked to do. He’ll betray Stan, he’ll betray Oleg, he’ll betray his own ideals—but he can’t betray her. And that might seal their coffins, but it’s a truth he’s always known deep down—and it’s a price Mikhail has always been willing to pay for Nadezhda.