TV Time: The Americans 5.05
Title: Lotus 1-2-3
Episode M.V.P.: Matthew Rhys
It’s a basic fact of The Americans: As Philip’s mental and emotional state gets even worse, Matthew Rhys’s performance gets even better. And since “Lotus 1-2-3” was basically an hour-long meditation on Philip’s inner deterioration, it was basically an Emmy reel for Rhys. Every beat of Rhys’s work in this episode—from the first moments of the episode to the last—was a thing of devastating brilliance, and the way each of his reactions built on those that came before painted a clear picture of a man crumbling from the inside out under the constant strain of so much guilt coming from so many places.
The tone of the entire episode was set in its first few minutes, with Philip’s inability to seem even remotely interested in the sex he just had with Deirdre. But in typical fashion for this show and this actor, Rhys didn’t oversell Philip’s lack of enthusiasm, he played it with just the right amount of emptiness to show rather than tell us how completely checked-out Philip is and how little he cares anymore about “making it real” beyond the barest necessities of this kind of work. Small, silent moments like that one made his confession to Elizabeth at the end ring true: We believe him when he says this work has been hard for a long time because we’ve seen it slowly eat away at his soul. By showing us that inner devastation so skillfully for so long, Rhys made that last scene less about Philip telling the audience something important and more about him telling Elizabeth something important, which kept the storytelling as intimate as possible.
In a thousand little details, Rhys showed the ways Philip came to that confession—the point in which he needed to unburden himself because he physically couldn’t handle carrying the weight alone anymore. It was in the way his cheerful, joking tone faltered when it became clear that Henry feels neglected by his parents. It was in the way he stared at Paige as she told him she was so damaged by what he and Elizabeth told her that she might never be able to form a healthy relationship—with the guilt of a thousand failures as a father pressing down on him and making his features actually seem to sag under the weight of it all. It was in the tension in his shoulders and back as he thought of the information he provided potentially placing Stan in the middle of a honeytrap.
And, of course, it was in the way his rapid nodding and swallowing betrayed the complete inner breakdown he had upon discovering that he and Elizabeth killed a man for essentially no reason—only because the people they were supposed to trust were wrong. Those few moments after Elizabeth told Philip the truth about Ben were some of the saddest seconds of television I have ever watched. It felt as if I was watching Philip simultaneously prepare to faint, vomit, and break down crying, but, instead, he physically seemed to swallow down all those reactions and went on autopilot, the final traces of his will to fight seeping out of his exhausted body.
What we saw in the scene that followed was Philip at perhaps his lowest point, and Rhys did an amazing job of showing that in his body language—the hunched shoulders, the way he picked at his food, even the simple gesture of taking of his glasses was filled with such heaviness that my chest actually hurt watching it. In order for that final scene to resonate the way it did, Philip’s journey to fall to that low had to be so heartbreakingly sincere that it would hurt not just us to watch it, but it would also convince us that it hurt Elizabeth to watch it, too. His pain had to be so palpable that her desire to ease that pain however she could would feel believable. Luckily for this show, they have found a master of restrained emotional devastation in Rhys. I have never been more in awe while having my heart broken.