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The Americans unveils a master class in building tension in “The Summit”

(Source: www.vox.com)

Every week, some of Vox’s writers gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, news editor Libby Nelson, and culture writer Caroline Framke offer their takes on “The Summit,” the eighth episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!

Todd VanDerWerff: From the earliest days of The Americans, writer Joshua Brand has been the show’s ace in the hole. Whenever the series needs to ratchet up tension, while also turning the emotional and psychological screws on Philip and Elizabeth, Brand is there to write the episode.

He was the guy behind season one’s “Duty and Honor,” in which Philip learned he had another son. He was Emmy-nominated for his script for season three’s “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” in which Elizabeth killed an innocent old woman, then had to sit with her as she died. And he wrote the fifth season’s best episode, “Dyatkovo,” in which Philip and Elizabeth settled some old scores, then decided to move back home.

So when Brand’s name popped up on “The Summit” — his only credited script for this final season, though, of course, he was in the writers’ room and helped plot out the season — I had high hopes the episode would be a special one. But it exceeded even those heightened expectations. This late in its run, it’s clear that The Americans is ending with a story that asks if Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage can be saved, above all else, and only then does it ask if Stan will catch on to them. If that’s the way the season crumbles, well, Brand’s who you want taking you into the final two episodes.

“The Summit” is filled with so many great moments and scenes — and so many great acting moments for Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys — that it’s almost impossible to start with any single one. But the very first scene in the episode, in which Philip reveals to Elizabeth that he’s been spying on her and informing Oleg of what she’s up to, is right up there with the best scenes the show has ever done. What’s more, I like that the episode brings Elizabeth around to Philip’s way of thinking, in wanting to ultimately protect Gorbachev, but she doesn’t forgive him. And maybe can’t ever forgive him.

Philip is right that he tried to tell Elizabeth multiple times what was happening. But Elizabeth is also right that if he had really wanted her to know, he could have found a way to tell her. (He loves to talk, she reminds us.) The two then spend the entire episode apart, until the very end, when they’re on the same page politically but never further apart personally. At this point, world peace seems more achievable than a Jennings detente.

Meanwhile, Stan is closing in, leaning on friends of Gregory (Elizabeth’s old lover from way back in season one) to see if they can recognize his neighbor from a photo of her, watching the Jennings household from his window, zeroing in, because he knows, even if he doesn’t have proof.

Folks, I somehow kept myself from skipping ahead to the next episode, but it was so hard, thanks to this episode’s master class in building tension. What were your preferred moments from this overstuffed treat?

This is an extraordinary episode for Elizabeth

The Americans

Libby Nelson: Not to flaunt our screener privilege too much, but I think we both deserve the Order of Lenin for holding back from immediately moving on to episode nine, Todd. “The Summit” was so enthralling that I’m simultaneously dying to find out what happens next and a little devastated that when we do, there will be just one episode to go. Ever.

Although it’s hard to choose, two moments in particular will stick with me for a long time. One is Elizabeth’s struggle to burn Erica’s painting — a decision that clearly causes her more pain and remorse than several murders we’ve seen her commit. The second is the confrontation between Elizabeth and Jackson, a moment that would have been riveting and suspenseful in any case but became unforgettable when Jackson, against all odds, leaves the car alive.

Philip had some extraordinary scenes, including the clearest rejection of the idea, brought back in Elizabeth’s confrontation with Claudia, that they are just following orders: “We do it, not them. It’s on us. All of it.” His every scene felt fraught, and by the time he bought that handsome but funereal suit, I was convinced that he was about to attempt suicide.

Still, “The Summit,” for my money, belonged to Elizabeth, and Keri Russell, and, as Stan’s source put it, her “incredible hair” (a description that must have confirmed Elizabeth’s identity beyond a doubt).

Which brings me to the one quibble I have with this extraordinary episode. I said last week that I feared Elizabeth was becoming too much of a monster, especially next to Philip’s all-American good guy. This week, though, her change of heart from unquestioning loyal soldier in an existential struggle to a freethinker who listens to the recording of Nestorenko and draws her own conclusions felt almost too neat. I believe that Elizabeth Jennings might react that way. But it all seemed to happen awfully fast, as if the imperatives of wrapping up the season were, for the first time, hurrying the story along.

Am I being unfair? Is Philip going to take Chekhov’s cyanide pill? And is anyone else resentful that we’re spending any time, this late in the game, trying to figure out what’s up with Renée?

Caroline Framke: Well, since we’ve only got two episodes left and everything is a mess, I’ll just go ahead and voice my “WHAT IF” suspicion about Ms. Renée. WHAT IF we got so many apparent red herrings about her being a sleeper agent that we’ve looped all the way back around to thinking she’s harmless, only for her to indeed be a sleeper agent meant to make sure that Stan doesn’t do exactly what Stan is now doing? What if we’ve been waiting so long for Stan to have a showdown with his neighbors, only for him to turn around and get blindsided by an operative right in his bedroom?!

Or I dunno, maybe she’s harmless. At this point, the prediction I feel safest making is that I won’t be expecting whatever we end up getting. But hey, this is my last Americans roundtable. (Sad face.) I might as well shoot my shot.

Which brings me to Elizabeth. I get where you’re coming from, Libby, but her turn in this episode really worked for me. That’s in part thanks to Brand and Russell’s commitment, because wow, does “The Summit” bring out the best in both of them. To give credit where it’s due to Russell in particular, three of this episode’s most memorable scenes — Elizabeth preparing to kill Erica, Elizabeth debating what to do with the painting, Elizabeth calculating the cost of letting a terrified Jackson leave her car alive — depend almost entirely on her face struggling to keep itself together.

There are a couple of other, crucial reasons why I buy Elizabeth’s ideological foundation making this tectonic shift. One is that this final season has made it painfully clear just how exhausted she is. This job has taken everything she’s got. It’s taking all she has just to stay upright — and it’s making her sloppy.

When I realized that her plan to bug the meeting was to seduce a congressional intern into becoming her personal State Department courier, I had to laugh through my horror. On the one hand, it worked. On the other, it was exactly the kind of blunt move that she would normally have rejected without a second thought. But with the summit hurtling toward her and few options left, Elizabeth has been taking some frankly stupid risks all season because what does she have to lose? If things go wrong, she always has that necklace.

But the main reason I believe Elizabeth would, in fact, make such a big move by episode’s end is that conversation she has with Claudia. She cashes in all the goodwill she’s stacked up over the years by insisting that Claudia share the real reason they want Nestorenko dead, and she’s clearly floored by the answer. Claudia isn’t just working to bring down Gorbachev outside the party’s wishes but has been using Elizabeth — one of the party’s most loyal and trusted foot soldiers — to do it. When Claudia admitted that part of the plan is to falsify Elizabeth’s reports to damn Nestorenko’s motivations, I knew it was over. Elizabeth has worked too hard for too long to let her work be twisted like this.

I also keep going back to the moment in that ferocious opening scene when Philip insists that he only told Oleg what Elizabeth was up to because he wanted her to “think … like a human being.” He might as well have slapped her; maybe she would have preferred it. Those harsh words rang in my head throughout this episode, as they did, I suspect, in Elizabeth’s.

But as much as this episode belongs to Elizabeth — and whew, episode nine is called “Jennings, Elizabeth,” so get ready for that — one image that will stick with me for a while is Philip’s drawn face blinking up at a Russian film he picked up at the video store in a fit of nostalgia. (It’s called The Garage, which, I see what you did there, The Americans.)

Again, this homesick indulgence is the kind of slip that neither Elizabeth nor Philip has tolerated for decades. But it speaks volumes about just how tired Philip is, how much he’s trying to remember the country he’s been fighting for, that he throws caution to the wind and watches it anyway (at the exact moment his FBI neighbor is trying to get a peek in, no less!). Philip has long been a tragic figure, but I swear Rhys has found a way to collapse his body by several inches; that’s how worn down he’s become.

Todd, I’m worried about our best line-dancing boy! Is he gonna be okay? Are any of us gonna be okay?!

Is Philip Jennings gonna be okay? (Probably not, but we can dream!)

The Americans

Todd: I think probably Philip is a little paranoid if he’s so worried about renting a critically acclaimed foreign film that he has to put on a disguise and act like he’s renting porn. Then again, I get it. And his choice of film (which is about the clash between individuals and the larger organizations that try to police their behavior and critical of the Soviet leadership through metaphor — or so I’m led to believe, as I haven’t seen it) can only help boost that paranoia.

What this final season is making abundantly clear is that these two don’t really have a country anymore. The deeper we get into the season, the more clear it is that the real struggles are often within these giant bureaucracies or within the relationships that are their microcosms. Philip and Elizabeth are navigating a split within the Soviet Union, in the most obvious form of this, but even Stan is divided between his growing certainty that Philip and Elizabeth are the spies he’s been looking for and his desire to keep them as his friends.

Then again, maybe Philip and Elizabeth aren’t as great at their jobs as we think they are. Even Stavos knew that something was going on in the back office, and he made sure not to tell on his bosses. So when Philip goes to find comfort from his old employee, to assure himself that he’s a good person and a good friend and a good boss, he doesn’t get it. He just gets further confirmation that he’s a failure at everything.

Libby, I couldn’t help but think of the season one finale, “The Colonel,” which we talked about so much earlier this season, because the end of this episode mirrors that one in some ways. Elizabeth wants to meet with Oleg, which is theoretically the riskier play because his presence in the US has attracted substantial attention, while Philip is off to do the less risky thing by talking to Father Andrei. But we also know that the FBI is hot on the tail of a Russian Orthodox priest — and that’s probably Father Andrei, right? (I mean, probably there are other Russian Orthodox priests, and this show has never lacked for foiling the general rule of economy of characters, but I maintain my belief to the end.)

What’s kind of amazing about this season is how it just keeps stripping away more and more elements that don’t matter to its core story: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, and whether they’re going to get out of this okay. And I have to admit … I’m not sure they will. Picture a grimacing emoji right here.

Libby: It’s a little astonishing that Stan is seemingly on the verge, in a whole bunch of different ways, of maybe, finally, actually finding out the truth about his neighbors, and it’s essentially the B-plot of “The Summit.”

And still, nothing about how this will all end feels inevitable yet.

Father Andrei has seen Elizabeth and Philip without their disguises or their alter egos — and it would seem fitting that getting married would turn out to be the most dangerous thing they ever did, the thing that finally blows their cover. But it would seem equally fitting for Oleg to be the fulcrum. And I can’t discount Stan’s long search through car registrations and the recurring motif of the garage. And Renée! (Here’s my half-baked theory: Renée is a second-generation agent like Paige, someone who will have no problem proving her all-American loyalty to the FBI. I know this doesn’t quite jibe with what Claudia told the Jenningses in season two, but do we really trust Claudia to tell the whole truth?)

We’ve also added two more to the list of characters who know or suspect the Jenningses’ true identities: Stavos and Jackson the intern. It’s not stunning that a longtime employee of the travel agency would suspect something more than selling cruise packages was going on (although it does make me long even more for the travel agency workplace comedy spinoff that Americans fans deserve).

The Americans

Jackson, who after all gave classified information to Elizabeth, has good reason to keep quiet. But he joins a group I think of often: the people who encountered Philip and Elizabeth and lived to tell the tale but, I suspect, are never quite the same. I’d be very surprised if Young Hee or Martha or Pasha and his parents or even Kimmy reappear. It’s a testament to the world The Americans has created that I often find myself wondering, as you would about an elementary school acquaintance, whatever became of them.

But we’re not done yet, and I’ll save those musings for after the finale! Todd, who would you like to see come back?

Todd: I, too, sort of wish we could get a finale where Stan, having arrested Philip and Elizabeth, drags them to a gigantic VFW hall, then throws open the doors, and everyone they’ve ever wronged is there, and then everybody laughs and says, “You two crazy kids! All is forgiven!”

But I know we won’t get that. If there’s one thing The Americans has made clear over the years — and makes clear again and again in “The Summit” — it’s that spying is crushingly lonely work, a dark, laborious task that requires you to eventually push people away because the job requires it. Elizabeth and Young Hee were friends once. They’re not anymore. And if Stan ever pins down his neighbors, that relationship is probably dead too.

That’s what’s made this final season so crushing, so hard, so exhausting. Philip and Elizabeth used to have each other, a port in the storm of their lives. Now they don’t. Maybe they can find it again, but there are only two episodes left. I’m trying to be optimistic, but I’m not sure how smart that is.

More Info: www.vox.com