The acting in this show is just so fucking good. That scene between Elizabeth and Paige where she's reprimanding her daughter literally gave me the chills.
[9.7/10] What an episode! I complained mightily in my last review that the show was padding things out, stretching out individual incidents rather than moving the story forward. Well holy hell, The Americans makes up for that and then some, delivering explosive moment and powerful scene and momentous development by the bucketload. This episode, with its climactic events and near-breaking points and time jump, felt way more like a season finale than the eighth episode in a season.
What stands out is how the episode headfakes the audience a little bit. The overarching theme of the show over the past season and a half or more, has been “things can’t go on like this.” As this episode demonstrated in particular, the pressure was getting to everyone, from the Jennings to their kids to their agents to their handlers to the people trying to track them down. This being a twisty spy show, you think that’s going to end up with lots of people dying, with a massive shift in who’s in control and what the state of play is.
Instead, just when it seems like things are at their breaking point, in comes a release valve rather than a revolver. After another great scene with Claudia, Gabriel acknowledges that the world has changed, that times have changed, and that he and his charges have to change with them. He gives the Jennings what’s implied to be seven months off, more or less, and if the montage we get at the end is any indication, they are happier, healthier people for it.
That’s a damn good thing because Philip, Elizabeth, and basically everyone in their orbit is at their wits’ end by the time things get to that point. What makes all of this work so well, beyond just the season and a half of setup, is how the bad mood snowballs and expands from one person to another throughout the episode. Philip has been the focal point of the “can’t go on” idea so far, but his unhappiness becomes everyone’s unhappiness as it spreads like a disease.
For however much the show dragged out Martha’s departure, it gets one scene here, that is powerful in Martha’s continued resoluteness and Philip’s look of utter despondency, but which is still only one pre-credits sequence. The rest of “The Magic” is a hangover.
Philip is crestfallen by having to send someone he cares about away from all that she knows and loves. He takes it out on Elizabeth who, god help her, is just trying to be there for him and understand him, and dishes her own frustrations right back. Elizabeth takes it out on Paige, who’s still unhappy about having to play nice with Pastor Tim. They both take it out on Gabriel. He spills his frustration to an understanding Claudia. And the breaking point comes where, on top of everything, Lisa is ready to go to the cops and Elizabeth has to kill her with a liquor bottle. The way she comes strolling, smoking, into Gabriel’s home is the last straw. It’s enough to convince him that however much he sees the Jennings’ lives as charmed by comparison to his younger days, they need a break.
But before we get there, we get some of the show’s most powerful scenes ever. I could write a book on just the confrontation between Elizabeth and Philip over EST that turns into a fight about everything. You can feel the way that Elizabeth is trying so hard to be understanding and supportive and hits her endpoint for being able to tolerate dismissal or bile in return. You can feel Philip’s resentments for how she’d stay in this life and do so gladly and willingly. You can feel her anger at Philip for treating another woman like she matters so much, and not keeping stoic about this job. And you can see him ready to burst over the idea that he’ll never measure up to who Elizabeth loved first in her heart, not just as her mission.
It’s the strongest, most captivating marital bloodletting television has seen since The Sopranos (and I imagine I wasn’t the only one having flashbacks to “Whitecaps”.) This episode captures so well how these two people are just at the end of the ropes for reasons that are related to, but not about one another. But with their dander already up, their irritation already stoked, the slightest prick turns this fight into a fight about everything that’s ever bothered them.
That extends to the equally striking scene between Elizabeth and Paige, where having already been challenged by so much crap piling up, Elizabeth has run out of patience. Paige is a teenager, not used to having to bottle up her emotions and put on a palatable face for the rest of the world. But having had to do that so much herself, to think about her own “cage” to try to fix a problem with a solution she doesn't understand, Elizabeth has no tolerance for the miniscule-by-comparison complaints from Paige. She reads her daughter the riot act, lays on the guilt and the blame, and takes off the kid gloves.
Throughout all of this, the FBI is in disarray with Gaad on the way out. Lisa is back on the battle on cracking at the seams. Elizabeth finds her only solace in her fake friend who’s becoming a real one. Philip learns that his son is called back from the front, and worries about him having someone. And somewhere out there, Martha is waiting in Cuba to start a new life she’s barely prepared for.
That is a lot for a single season, let alone a single episode. Most of “Magic’s” great scenes could anchor an hour of television on their own. But The Americans fires them at the audience one after another until your nerves start to feel as frayed as the characters’ do.
And yet, what follows next is a series of moments of mercy. Despite their fight, despite everything, Philip sees Elizabeth shaken and disturbed after having to kill Lisa and he tends to her. Gabriel sees the toll this work has taken on his agents and promises them a dispensation for as long as they need. Liberty disappears, a reminder of how close we can come to freedom and choice, to points of no return, only to see the worst averted at the last moment. There is catharsis in that montage, the sense that after almost four full seasons of trials, the Jennings finally have a chance to heal.
But the bit of David Copperfield magic that the Jennings family watches on television at the end of the episode is just that -- a trick. They seem like a happy family. Philip gets to play hockey. They’re finally spending time with Henry. Elizabeth is hugging Pastor Tim and Alice. But we get hints that Paige is doing her job but worn down by this miniature spy training. And Gaad tells Stan that it’s easy to let feeling and friendship let you lose sight of the mission.
All seems well on The Americans for once. The worst has been taken care of, and it’s implied at least that our complicated heroes have finally earned themselves a respite. But a respite is not an exit. There’s still obligations, still things moving behind the scenes, that will require them to dive back into this life for another season or two. After keeping the waters calm but about to boil, the series settles things back down once again. But the tremors that were lurking under the surface are not gone, only quelled, and it remains to be seen how long this comfort and peace can hold. The demands of serialized television suggest it won’t be very long, but I hope it lasts just a little longer.
Brilliant episode, a lot of emotion and excellent pacing. This cast is really so amazing. I agree that it felt like a season finale. But I think they may be headed toward a series finale soon, because the show's ratings have been on a downward spiral.
A reboot of the series.
One of the best episodes yet!
What an intense episode! Felt like a season finale.