Title: Jennings, Elizabeth
This Week’s Discussion Topic: Finding Yourself When Everything Else Is Lost
“We do not want you to lose who you are.”
When illegal-in-training Nadezhda was told this near the end of the episode bearing the title of the name she was given by the KGB, I was struck by the irony of the fact that people have continually tried to tell her who she is. How can a person not lose who they are in some way when even their name is given to them by someone else? In this episode alone, the two women Elizabeth is closest to—her mother figure and her daughter—both tried to define her by their narrow views of her actions. To Claudia, she’s a selfish traitor to the Cause. To Paige, she’s a liar and a whore.
So who is Elizabeth Jennings—or, perhaps more accurately, who is Nadezhda? She’s a woman who never had the luxury of self-reflection. In that final flashback, her downcast eyes and hunched posture (How great was Keri Russell at making her look so young?) showed the truth: Self-definition has always been a foreign concept to Elizabeth. When you’re just trying to survive, you don’t really have time to care about how you see yourself and what you value.
However, this episode showed that it’s often in those kinds of traumatic circumstances that our identity reveals itself. When a person’s back is against the wall, they often revert to the truest version of themselves. And nearly every character’s back is against the wall now. In that sense, “Jennings, Elizabeth” gave us not only an action-packed penultimate episode, but a penultimate episode that reminded us exactly who these characters are and what matters to them when they have nothing left to lose.
The character most clearly stuck with the walls closing in was poor, noble Oleg. From the moment he was apprehended, we knew he was a dead man walking—or at least a long-term imprisoned man walking. The way Costa Ronin played that scene on the street was brutal in its resignation. With just a long blink and dead-weight body language, we can feel his entire world collapse around him.
But when Oleg’s world fell apart, he stood strong in his sense of right and wrong. As one of the most deeply principled characters on the show—a man who would betray his own country to save the world from war—it felt right that he would hold firm in his sense of self even knowing that doing so would keep him from seeing his family ever again. Oleg sacrificed everything because he believes in doing what’s right, and when he told this to Stan (in one of the most stunningly tense and honest conversations on a show known for them), he felt he was talking to someone who would also understand the right thing to do in this scenario, which was to do whatever needed to be done to protect Gorbachev. He and Stan have always had a complicated history, but they always seemed to have a grudging respect for each other and understanding of each other, too. And Oleg thought he was appealing to that by telling Stan the truth.
However, this was an episode filled with people thinking they knew someone but finding out they were wrong. And Stan’s back is up against the wall in its own way. His gut says his best friend and that friend’s wife are the spies he’s been hunting for the better part of a decade, and that realization is ripping apart everything he thought he knew. So as his world falls apart, Stan clings to the one thing he feels he still has: his work. The one thing he doesn’t doubt right now is his identity as an FBI agent, and as such, he’s not the same man who defied orders to save Oleg years before. Stan listened to Oleg—and he may have even believed him (Noah Emmerich’s ability to convey 100 different emotions with just a twitch has never been used to better effect.)—but he wouldn’t do anything about it. What he needs right now is certainty, and the only thing he’s certain of is that he needs to bring the illegals program down. Stan’s suspicions about Philip and Elizabeth have thrown his entire universe out of orbit, and when that happens, people often revert to a black and white sense of the world. And in this version of the world, there’s no place for Stan to work with a Russian—even one he’s always believed to be a good man.
So Stan left Oleg alone in that cell—an eerily similar image to the abandoned figure of Nina in a Russian jail years before. And if there’s one major recurring motif in “Jennings, Elizabeth,” it’s one character physically walking away from another, leaving them alone as the world goes to hell around them.
Elizabeth was at the center of two of these scenes. In the first, she’s the one walking away, leaving Claudia alone after telling her that she thwarted the assassination attempt on Fyodor Nesterenko and sent a message about what Claudia was planning. I’m still not sure that was the smartest thing to do (another example of a conscience getting in the way of spy senses), but it led to one of the most chilling scenes of the season—and all without any blood being shed.
As Claudia processed the reality that everything she was working toward fell apart, it felt right that she was eating traditional Russian food. That’s who Claudia is; she defines herself by her Russian heritage, and she clung to it as her world was thrown into chaos by someone she trusted. So when she lashed out at Elizabeth—with the kind of cold, controlled anger only Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale can deliver—it was from a place of deep hurt and very real panic. But ever the Russian matriarch, she never lost her cool; it was only after Elizabeth left and the slightest glimpse of moisture was seen in her eyes that we got to see just how shaken she was. Alone and betrayed, she had only her nationalism to hold her up as her work was torn down.
In a brilliant parallel scene, Claudia and Elizabeth’s fractured mother/daughter dynamic was flipped when Paige entered the kitchen to confront Elizabeth about what happened with Jackson. Although Elizabeth was put in the position of the mother this time, she was still the victim of someone else’s judgment, with Paige calling her a whore and telling her that Philip can’t stand to be in the same room as her and Henry got away from her as soon as he could. As the insults kept coming with righteous fury by Holly Taylor (who’s perhaps never been better), it became clear that, like Claudia, Paige was speaking from a place of deep hurt and betrayal. The ease with which Paige fell into this life never felt completely right to me this season, and this scene showed that it was never supposed to feel right. When the stakes were high and the pressure was mounting, Paige showed her true self—still a vulnerable, scared girl who was lied to for her whole life and holds on to a lot of repressed anger from that. And like Stan and Claudia, when things get tough, it becomes much easier for her to make things black and white, which means that, like Stan and Claudia, Elizabeth was clearly in the wrong in her eyes.
Paige kept pushing Elizabeth’s buttons with accusations about who she is, until Elizabeth finally snapped and told Paige the harsh truth. She was never a whore; she was a fighter who was taught to give up everything—including her body—if her country required it. Russell’s terrifying indignation was a sight to behold as Elizabeth took a sledgehammer to Paige’s black and white worldview. And as she spoke, one thing became abundantly clear to me—and I think to Elizabeth, too. There’s only one person who fully understands her—one person who won’t leave her alone the way she left Claudia and the way Paige left her.
I loved that Philip’s phone call came immediately after the flashback of Elizabeth getting the mandate to never forget who she is. Philip betrayed her in no small way because he felt she was losing herself in her work; he cared about her true self even when she didn’t seem to care anymore. But with a few words, that betrayal suddenly became the least of their worries. The moment they’d planned for had finally come—things had gone “topsy-turvy” after an epic chase scene that made me feel like I was going to have a heart attack. And with a short response punctuated by just the slightest crack in Russell’s gravelly voice, Elizabeth sprang into action with no time to lose.
With the walls closing in, it was time for Elizabeth—for Nadezhda—to finally define herself on her own terms, and she did so with one of the most meaningful gestures in the show’s history. As each second became more precious, she took the time to turn back to the safe and grab the wedding rings she and Philip were given at their real wedding ceremony. Those rings were the only items that weren’t thrown in the duffle bag; she kept them in her pocket, as close to her as possible. In that one moment, Nadezhda defined herself not as a soldier or a spy or even a Russian; she defined herself as a partner, as a wife. That’s the part of herself she wants to cling to when the world is falling apart; that’s what gives her comfort in the greatest storm she’s ever faced.
Those wedding rings symbolize Nadezhda finally being seen and loved for exactly who she is. They symbolize the home she and Mikhail made for themselves. Because for Nadezhda, home isn’t the house she left behind without a second glance. It’s the man waiting for her—the man who’s always waited for her.
Elizabeth and Philip ended this episode as the only characters who aren’t alone. Elizabeth was moving toward him instead of following the pattern of walking away. When their world crumbles, they have each other to lean on. That’s their truest identity: partners in every way. And in the middle of chaos, instead of drifting farther apart, they find their way back to the one thing that really matters: their marriage.
In her bitterness, Claudia asked Elizabeth: “What’s left for you now? Your house? Your American children? Philip?” By the end of this episode, Elizabeth seemed to have lost the first two: She had to abandon their house and was told by Paige that both she and Henry want to be as far away from her as possible. But she still has Philip. And Claudia might scoff at that, but Elizabeth knows how valuable that really is.
I have no idea what’s going to happen when all is said and done for these characters, but I do know that Elizabeth is making her way to her husband with their wedding rings in her pocket and a clear sense of who she is and what she values most. And with everything on the line, that’s all I could ever have hoped for.