Greetings, Comrades! Welcome to the final season of The Americans posts here at NGN! I’m so excited to analyze every last detail of this last season with all of you, and if this episode was any indication, we’ll have much to discuss! So please share your thoughts in the comments because if any show begs for deep conversations, it’s this one, and I need some people to talk to if I’m going to get through this season without having a complete mental and emotional breakdown.
Title: Dead Hand
Episode M.V.P.: Keri Russell
I’m going to write this into being: This will be the year Keri Russell wins her long-overdue Emmy for playing Elizabeth Jennings. I’ve been beating that drum for years now, but if this episode is any indication of the work she’s going to be doing this season, I can’t imagine a world where she doesn’t win.
The thing that has always made Russell’s acting in this role so compelling is also the thing that I think makes it so underrated: It’s all about her body language. Of course she delivers her lines with a sharpness that makes them feel even more deadly than that knife to the security guard’s neck. (Her “I know you love to talk” to Philip was one of those moments that literally knocked the wind out me with how biting it was. It was reminiscent of her legendary work in Season Four’s “The Magic of David Copperfield V.”) But she also brings a uniquely purposeful physicality to the role that lives in the silences that make this show so special. I’ve always believed there is a connection between Russell’s history as a dancer and her ability to use her body as one of the strongest tools in her acting arsenal, and this episode may have featured the best use of those tools yet. So much of what’s going on with Elizabeth is happening under the surface—even more than it usually is because she can’t even let her guard down completely with Philip anymore—so Russell has to use her posture and her movements to let us see inside this character.
And what’s happening inside Elizabeth Jennings is like a car accident—you can’t look away, even though you know you’re staring at utter destruction. Elizabeth is broken, perhaps even more than Philip was at his lowest point. But Russell lets us see the effort she uses to try to hide that from everyone except her husband at the very end—when she’s too tired to be anything but herself. Exhaustion is a hard thing to play convincingly, but Russell makes Elizabeth’s burnout feel painfully tangible because it’s in every physical detail of her performance. It’s in the slump of her usually straight shoulders when she’s alone, it’s in the slower steps she takes, and it’s in the unfocused look in her eyes at times.
Elizabeth isn’t just tired, she’s crumbling from the inside out, and she has no one to lean on. Her isolation is a major visual motif in this episode—she’s by herself a lot. And when she’s alone, she’s often physically curled in on herself, hunched over and looking much smaller than she usually does. It’s been days, and I’m still haunted by one shot in particular: Elizabeth, having just murdered someone to protect Paige’s identity, standing in the rain and smoking a cigarette, shivering with her arms crossed over her body and staring out into the night. This is Elizabeth at the end of her rope, somehow both completely drained and a live wire at the same time. It’s the personification of an exposed nerve—completely frayed by her circumstances. And in that moment, I was both moved by Russell’s performance and terrified by it. Elizabeth at wit’s end could do anything, which was also reflected in that final shot of her with the cyanide necklace. The complete emptiness in her expression and the way Russell let us feel the weight of that necklace like it was a thousand pounds made my whole body tense up as I wondered just how much more she could take of the demands of this lonely life.
The Americans has always excelled at following the “Show, don’t tell,” maxim, and it’s because it has a cast that can tell entire stories without dialogue. This season, I can already see that the story Russell is telling us about Elizabeth—her isolation, her exhaustion, and her desperation—is going to destroy me.