Title: The World Council of Churches
Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
“The World Council of Churches” wasn’t a particularly Elizabeth-centric episode, but it still allowed Keri Russell to show the many facets she’s given to this character over the years. When I think about the complexity of Russell’s work in this episode and in the course of this show as a whole, I keep coming back to the final 10 minutes of this episode, which showcased her brilliant ability to seamlessly transition between soft and hard, warm and cold, certain and conflicted.
I think I’ve watched the moment Philip and Elizabeth talk about the names they and their children will take back in Russia about 100 times, and I still can’t get enough of it. The matter-of-fact way Elizabeth tells him that Paige and Henry will take his name was sweet, but it was the beat after—when Philip asked her what name she’d take—that was most affecting. Without any words—with only the softest smile and nod—Russell conveyed so much about Elizabeth’s commitment to her husband and to making their marriage something real no matter where they are. Once again, this scene reminded us that when Elizabeth commits herself to something, she does so with everything she is. And now she’s chosen to commit herself to Philip. The most beautiful thing about that is how happy it makes her. This isn’t Elizabeth choosing him because she has no other options or because someone else forced her to be with him; she’s so happy with her choice that it makes her glow in the darkness. The way Russell has slowly allowed us to see the warmth Elizabeth has hidden underneath compartmentalized trauma and a devotion to her mission made this moment feel believable and realistic. A smile and a nod are not often monumental moments for a character, but for this character, they are. For one moment, Russell allowed us to see what a truly content Elizabeth looks like, and it was a beautiful sight to see.
On the heels of this moment of unguarded happiness and warmth, though, came a reminder that Elizabeth Jennings is still not a woman to mess with. The complexity of emotions that crossed her face upon hearing Tuan’s awful plan was brilliant—Russell showed in a brief flash that Elizabeth understood that Tuan’s plan could work, but her emotions as a mother were stronger than her emotions as an agent. When Elizabeth decides to do something, there’s no hesitation—no waffling. That was my favorite thing about the beat immediately after Philip told her the plan could work, but Pasha could also end up dead—they silently, definitively came to the same conclusion (a lovely reminder of the power of the partnership between Russell and Matthew Rhys and what they can convey without words), and then Elizabeth went into “badass agent mode.” Russell has a very specific tone to her voice when Elizabeth is giving orders, and it was wonderful to see it used to try to save a life this time. The cold, harsh way she shoved the phone at Tuan and the deliberate way she seemed to use all the force she had to press the numbers on the phone conveyed the kind of complete authority that Russell projects with effortless confidence.
Elizabeth Jennings is one of the most complex female characters I’ve ever seen on television. She can smile with such genuine affection that it’ll make you melt in one scene, and then she can immediately follow that with a reminder that she is also a force to be reckoned with and a terror for anyone who stands in the way of her getting what she wants. That dichotomy may have rang false in the hands of a lesser actress, but luckily, Russell has always been more than up to the task of showing us that Elizabeth—like all women—can’t be made to fix into one nice little box.