Title: The Summit
This Week’s Discussion Topic: The Heartbreaking, Heroic Humanity of Elizabeth Jennings
“You don’t think I’m a human being?”
That question looms over every moment of “The Summit,” and by the end of the episode, no one who’s been paying attention could accuse Elizabeth Jennings of being devoid of humanity. This was an episode devoted to putting the show’s truest believer through the emotional wringer until every speck of soul she tried to burn away with ideological zeal and every bit of conscience she tried to bury under her devotion to her cause were finally laid bare. And from that vulnerable place emerged a woman who’s more dangerous and in more danger than ever before—because humanity can be a strength, but in the world these characters inhabit, it can also get you killed.
Elizabeth’s awakening sense of agency didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the culmination of small moments of humanity throughout the show’s run, including the powerful moment in last week’s “Harvest” when she let herself finally accept the magnitude of Philip’s love for her and the lengths her will go to for her. The opening of “The Summit” was fueled by that revelation, with Elizabeth entering their living room in a much less guarded and more sincere emotional state than we’ve seen her in previously this season. The softness on her face when she told Philip she knows he cares about what happened in Chicago and that he worries about her was a shocking contrast from how she’s looked at her husband for much of this season. Elizabeth’s walls were down with her husband in that moment, and that made everything that came after even more painful because Keri Russell let us see exactly why Elizabeth puts those walls up in the first place—because anyone she lets behind those walls has the power to destroy her.
Loving someone means giving them the power to destroy you. When you’re intimate with someone, you give them the power to hurt you in deeply personal ways. By telling Elizabeth the truth, Philip reaffirmed that she’s always had that power over him. Like he said (with the kind of heartbreakingly honest delivery Matthew Rhys excels at), he would do anything for her. But he won’t help her with a mission that seems like it can only end with her taking that pill around her neck. He loves her—loves her enough to tell her the truth, which she could certainly take to the Center or use as motivation to kill him herself—but he loves Elizabeth Jennings the human being, not Elizabeth Jennings the KGB puppet, which is what he’s afraid she’s becoming.
However, one look at Elizabeth’s face during this scene shows that Elizabeth Jennings the human being is still there—and still capable of being hurt. The range of emotions that played out in her eyes and the set of her jaw was astounding. What stayed with me the most wasn’t the anger—we’ve seen that powerful fury before—it was the hurt. The moment after Philip told her he’d been reporting on her, Russell let us see Elizabeth’s pain and the mammoth effort she took to hide that pain behind walls of anger and biting comments once again. But when Philip let it slip that he wanted Elizabeth to think like a human being—said with such frustrated disdain that it gave me chills—those walls came crashing down once again. The tears in Russell’s eyes as she asked Philip the episode’s central question—”You don’t think I’m a human being?”—made for one of the most genuinely human and genuinely heartbreaking moments we’ve ever experienced from Elizabeth’s perspective.
That opening fight was a perfect reminder that The Americans is at its best when it’s taking things that are universal in relationships and playing them out in this high-stakes world. In this case, this was a fight about a man lying to his wife for what he saw as a good reason that escalated into the kind of language you can’t take back. Elizabeth’s reaction to Philip’s statement hurt so much because we’ve all been there—the victims of a well-timed verbal blow that touches on deep-rooted insecurities and vulnerabilities we try to bury within ourselves. And that’s why Philip’s words carried such weight with her and informed everything she did afterward. Only the words of someone we love can get under our skin in that way. Sometimes it takes the deepest betrayals to get us to open our eyes to what made things go so terribly wrong. The intimacy Philip and Elizabeth have built with each other isn’t always about gentle touches and admissions of love, but that doesn’t make it any less honest. Sometimes intimacy is about being so close to someone that you can see their flaws and being so honest with someone that you can challenge them to be better. The truest testament to Philip’s love for Elizabeth is that he risked his life to be honest with her about what he’d done with Oleg and why he did it in an effort to get her to be the best version of herself. And the truest testament to Elizabeth’s love for Philip is that she didn’t go to Claudia with his betrayal like she surely would have done earlier in their marriage and actually listened to him.
Elizabeth was deeply affected by Philip’s words in a way that can only happen when they come from someone whose opinion matters to us. And as the episode continued, the humanity Philip questioned asserted itself in ways that reminded us why Elizabeth has tried so hard to separate her emotions from her work. Humanity is a dangerous thing to act on in the world Philip, Elizabeth, and Stan inhabit. It makes you worse at your job, and being less than your best at the kinds of work they do can get these people killed.
Elizabeth’s first act of genuine humanity in this episode came in her mercy killing of Erica. She didn’t have to help her die, and she certainly didn’t have to kill her in a way that kept it from looking like her husband had anything to do with it. The second Glenn mentioned he wasn’t working the summit anymore, Elizabeth no longer had a professional purpose in that home. But she’d come to care for this artist and the man who loved her too much to watch her suffer. There’s a sad parallel between Glenn and Philip—both men tried to do what they thought was best to help their wives, but both men only ended up making their suffering worse. So Elizabeth freed Erica from her pain—a final act of mercy shared between two women who were both trapped in endless spirals of suffering.
That shared sense of suffering was reflected in every shot of Elizabeth looking at Erica’s art this season. The twisted reflections of women crying out in pain seemed to speak to Elizabeth’s humanity in a way that both unnerved her and fascinated her. So when she took the painting that I’ve always seen as a symbol of Elizabeth’s struggle with her own sense of impending death, it felt right. And watching her agonize over whether or not to burn that painting was one of the most powerful—and most human—moments the show has ever given us.
Standing in that garage, going back and forth between hiding the painting and destroying it, we saw Elizabeth at odds with her own humanity. Does she hold on to it despite the danger it could cause, or does she burn away all traces of it to keep herself and her country safe? In this moment, she chooses the path she’s always chosen—fire and fury for the cause. But it’s not the same. Her shaking hands and broken body language reveal that this act of destruction feels more difficult for her than many of the murders she’s committed for her cause. Something has changed in her, and it feels right that this is the last act of destruction we see her do for the cause. She can’t keep shutting down her instincts—her humanity—to be a good soldier. Like a phoenix, she rises from that fire a different person—a woman who can no longer be an agent of destruction.
Even Elizabeth herself doesn’t realize that such a monumental change has taken place in her soul until she’s in the car with Jackson—who knows she asked him to do something illegal and who has threatened to tell his father and the police about it. In most cases, there’s no way that kid is walking out of the car alive. Killing him is the right move for Elizabeth the agent, but it’s the wrong move for Elizabeth the human being. And that struggle is shown in the visible shaking of Russell’s entire body and the horrifyingly nauseated look on her face. Elizabeth knows that she can’t let him go, but she also knows she can’t kill him. In the end, her humanity wins out, which is beautiful in the moment but potentially lethal down the line.
Like Philip in last season’s “Dyatkovo,” when the time comes to eliminate the threat, she can’t do it. But unlike Philip, she doesn’t have a partner to take care of it for her. Instead, by letting Jackson go, she puts herself and so many other people in danger, showing in no uncertain terms the danger of allowing yourself to feel in such a cold line of work.
Elizabeth didn’t tell Claudia that she let Jackson go, but she did tell her about another innocent life she couldn’t take: the Russian negotiator, who she comes to believe is a good man. The scene in which Elizabeth asked Claudia to explain to her why she had to kill him was a masterclass in creating tension. As Claudia revealed how deep into the dark side of the KGB she was and how deeply she had betrayed Elizabeth, it became clear to both the audience and to Elizabeth that the intimacy she thought they had developed was all a lie. Claudia never saw her as a human being—she saw her as a pawn, a weapon. And in doing that, she underestimated her. Because Elizabeth isn’t a killing machine; she’s a human being. And when human beings assert their agency, anything can happen.
By refusing to be a pawn any longer, Elizabeth Jennings followed in the same heroic path as Nina, and I can’t help but fear she’ll meet Nina’s same fate. However, she might be able to do some good before it catches up with her. By telling Philip the truth and instructing him to tell Oleg, she placed her trust once again in her husband and his own humanity, and by dedicating herself to protecting Fyodor Nesterenko, she showed just how far she’s come—from planning to kill him to working to save him. I couldn’t help but feel immense pride over how far she’s come, and that same pride and love was reflected in Philip’s offer to help her. However, just because they’re working together again doesn’t mean all is right in their marriage. The wounds of betrayal run deep, and by the episode’s perfect closing line (“Maybe he’ll give you absolution.”—delivered with such bitterness from Russell), it was clear that what hurt Elizabeth the most wasn’t that Philip has been reporting on her; it was that he lied to her about it for months.
In the end, Philip and Elizabeth were united in their ideals but still divided in their marriage—represented physically by them heading in separate directions. I couldn’t help but see parallels between this and Season One’s “The Colonel,” with both of them walking into danger and the audience left to guess which would be the trap. My fear is that Philip’s meeting with Father Andrei will lead to disaster. On a plot level, it makes sense because the FBI is tailing Russian priests, and on a symbolic level, it makes sense that their most pivotal moment of humanity—getting married for real using their real names—would be their downfall as spies.
Because if this episode taught us anything, it’s that humanity makes you worse at your job. Having a heart gets in the way more often than not. Just ask Stan, whose human connection to Philip and Elizabeth blinded him for years to the truth he first suspected in the pilot and whose humanity has certainly played a part in the fact that he hasn’t told anyone else about his suspicions yet. (Also, his humanity could be blinding him to the fact that he has a KGB agent in his bed if you believe—like I do—that there’s still something up with Renee.)
And then there’s Philip, who proved a long time ago that having a soul makes spying almost impossible. In this episode, he showed that it’s also a problem in the business world. His human connection to Stavos has made him feel guilty about firing him, which made him seek absolution long before Elizabeth suggested a visit to Father Andrei. However, all he was left with was the confession that Stavos’s connection to Philip kept him quiet about what his bosses were doing in secret. That Stavos knew was a shock; that Stavos knew and kept quiet was another reminder that what really matters on this show when the chips are down are human beings and their relationships to each other.
When all is said and done, I have a feeling “The Summit” will be seen as the beginning of the end for Elizabeth Jennings. I always predicted that she’d die not as a pawn of the KGB but as a human being who thought and loved and finally sacrificed for something more personal—and more important—than an agency that never cared about her and broke her as a person from the very start. Her character arc has always been pointing toward this moment of revelation—of choosing to be her own person and choosing to defend instead of destroy. It’s been six long seasons of waiting for it all to come to fruition, but when it did, it made for one of the show’s best hours—and one of the most brilliant showcases for Russell’s acting talents.
Whatever—and whoever—might be lost in the final two episodes, Elizabeth Jennings has found herself, and that’s all I could ever have hoped for as a fan of this character and this show.