Todd: The longer The Americans goes on and the closer the FBI comes to uncovering the identity of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the slower the show’s pacing gets, paradoxically. Normally, we’d expect things to speed up as the noose tightens, the characters to get more desperate. That The Americans is doing the opposite—and largely succeeding at doing so, even under what must be incredible time constraints—speaks to the show’s central difference from something like, say, Breaking Bad or Justified. Where the characters on those shows act, sometimes after thinking long and hard about it, sometimes not, the characters on The Americans are often frozen by indecision, paralyzed by their inability to see a way out of the traps they’ve wandered into. Above all, these people spend their time calculating, trying to figure out ways to make the noose they’re in just a little bit more comfortable.
The situation in “Only You” would seem to suggest the aforementioned desperation: The FBI throws out a needle in a haystack search for Amador’s ring, which isn’t on the person of his corpse. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s able to then find the ring at a salvage yard, where the owner had attempted to pawn said ring. Stan intuits that Amador left the ring as a kind of signal, a way to tie this ghost car—with filed-off VIN numbers and the like—to his death. So he gets the salvage yard owner to put them on the trail of the guys who dumped the car, and when flipping through a mug book, the salvage yard owner comes across the face of an African-American gentleman he’s seen before. And Stan’s seen him before too, all the way back in episode three, “Gregory,” when Stan chased the man (whose name is Curtis) through Philadelphia. And Curtis can link the FBI to Gregory himself, which puts Philip and Elizabeth right in the crosshairs.
Yet as mentioned, this doesn’t cause the episode to speed up or anything similar. Instead, it slows down, becoming almost as much an episode about these people talking to each other, laying out their options and realizing how shitty all of them are. There’s a dynamite monologue from Stan about shitty motel beds and how you eventually realize that they’re all one and the same, less because of the quality of the beds and more because the sorts of things that lead you to sleep in a shitty motel are the sorts of things that lead you to get a shitty night’s sleep. It’s a similar situation for the characters trapped in this ever-tightening cat-and-mouse game: There are no good options for Gregory anymore. He’s basically limited to moving to Moscow—a city he’s never seen—or dying. He briefly floats moving to California, but Claudia’s not going for it. “Only You,” then, becomes a slow-motion car crash, as we wait to see which door Gregory picks.
By taking its time, “Only You” makes its final act all the more devastating. For the first half of the episode, I was engaged, but I was also wondering just why the episode was taking its sweet time when shit should be blowing up or something. Then, as the episode spiraled downward into that talky scene in the safe house apartment, a scene that often seemed as if it were filmed through a gauze made of molasses (I mean this as a compliment), I realized that this was the point. Gregory was going to die, and the episode was going to take its sweet time making sure I understood just how everybody felt about that. Philip, who had no compunctions about killing Gregory, realizes he needs to let the man live for his wife’s sake, whatever feeling he still has for her. Elizabeth has to watch this man, possibly her deepest, most significant love, walk out the door to his death. And for his part, Gregory is committing a kind of suicide. His commitment to the cause is over. Now to go out in a hail of bullets. After Amador’s death, it’s a kind of “eye for an eye” situation, and since Claudia pinned the murder of Amador on Gregory, it will ostensibly stop the trail cold. But it feels like an empty sacrifice, a moment preordained the second Elizabeth recruited him 12 years ago (shortly after he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The final act of the episode is dominated by a lengthy musical montage set to a jazz torch song, as Gregory walks out into the city streets to find the cops who might gun him down, while Elizabeth feeds her children, Philip eats alone in his motel room, and Nina and Arkady bid farewell to Vlad. (Telling bit of dialogue from Nina: She’s sorry about Stan losing his partner, but Vlad was her friend. Personal relationships always outweigh any possible political allegiances on this show.) The centerpiece is Elizabeth trying to keep her emotions over what happened in check, her icy reserve returning to her face. Though Philip let Gregory go for her, she’s not yet ready to take him back. And maybe she never will be. Gregory tells her to find someone who will love her for being strong, and it’s not immediately clear that can ever be Philip. It’s much more nuanced emotional material than the last couple of episodes, much more on the line of Philip’s sojourn to New York in “Duty And Honor.”
Any relationship that goes on long enough will end up inviting all sorts of other people into it. A marriage—or a friendship or a long-term relationship or a relationship between parent and child—is a vessel, built to travel forward in time, and also built to invite other people inside for a while. In some cases, this is quite literal. The relationship Elizabeth and Gregory had was easily the equal of the one she had with Philip, just as what he had with Irina matched his love for his wife. But both Gregory and Irina eventually get left by the side of the road, because they’re not the ones driving or navigating, not the ones pushing forward. And it needn’t be another lover. It might just be a good friend or a child or someone who spends an important amount of time with these people for a day or so. The point is that all of these people eventually get left behind, while Philip and Elizabeth keep moving forward. The vehicle is built to carry many, but it’s built to be driven by just two. At some level, that’s reassuring. At some other level, it’s deeply lonely.
So, Genevieve, what did you think of “Only You”? Did its pacing bother you, or did you find it ultimately rewarding, like I did? And do you have anything salty? Some pretzels or beernuts?
Genevieve: Sorry, Todd, I don’t; bet you wish we still had that caviar from a few weeks back, huh?
The pacing of “Only You” didn’t bother me one bit; in fact, it resulted in one of my favorite episodes of The Americans thus far. (I feel like we’ve been saying that a lot, which is obviously a good thing, but also speaks to the different ways this show can be great.) While episodes like last week’s or “Trust Me” are exhilarating in terms of watching things fall apart as our characters scramble to hold things together, the inevitability of the events in “Only You” allows the emotional elements room to stretch out. From the moment that ring was found, there was really no question of Philip and Elizabeth (or Granny) being able to turn things back around their way; you can see in their faces and hear in the way they talk to each other that there’s no way to finesse this situation, no one to transfer the heat onto. Gregory’s going to have to get gone, be it geographically or corporeally, and the certainty of that fact makes the lead-up to his ultimate fate much more tragic than the drawn-out, inadvertent demise of Amador last week.
This could just be my affection for Gregory as a character talking. Since the third episode, where he made his first appearance, I’ve been hoping The Americans would find a way to continue to use him, and the couple of short appearances he’s made since then have been a treat. So while I’m certainly sad to see him go, I’m glad to see him receive a fitting send-off, one that allows him to be a hero to Elizabeth in more ways than one and, more importantly, remain true to both himself and their relationship.
It’s sort of appropriate that this episode focusing on Gregory is a more subdued one. Aside from the breathless street-level operation he ran in “Gregory,” his appearances on this show, particularly his scenes with Elizabeth, have been marked by a certain quietude. (Hell, even his death among a storm of bullets was relatively serene.) Gregory is a very self-possessed, collected character, much more so than the equally capable but more easily ruffled Philip and Elizabeth, or Stan for that matter. (Even when Gregory was mixing it up with Philip in the episode named for him, it was a quiet sort of menace; not overtly threatening, but extremely pointed.) Part of this can be chalked up to him just being a little more removed from things and less cognizant of potential fallout—as evidenced by his hopeful suggestion of disappearing into the streets of Compton, something even he seems to realize isn’t a real option. But it’s more because Gregory, perhaps more than anyone else on this show, knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and what he’s willing to do to get it. He’d have to be; a black American who goes from being a Civil Rights activist to a covert KGB operative doesn’t get there without a well-developed sense of purpose. That’s certainly what drew Elizabeth to him, and vice versa; the fact that he highlights her strength as her definitive characteristic speaks volumes about what both of them value most.
The disparity between Philip and Elizabeth’s devotion to their cause has been one of the primary sticking points in their relationship, and Elizabeth’s unwavering trust in Gregory highlights this. She lets her former lover walk out of the safehouse unharmed, confident that he’ll stick with his plan to let himself be killed and not make a run for it. Would she trust Philip to do the same? Almost certainly not. When she tells Philip, “I know him, he’s always done everything he’s said he’d do, that’s who he is,” the look on Matthew Rhys’ face is incredible: doubtful, but also a little pained, as if processing the unsaid “unlike you” tagged onto the end of that sentence.
Even though Gregory’s death ostensibly cooled the heat on Philip and Elizabeth, it has some major implications for their relationship: Elizabeth is essentially emotionally stranded right now—you can see it on her face in the episode’s closing shot—and she’s there because Philip screwed things up with Amador, sealing Gregory’s fate. Then again, as you point out, Todd, she sealed his fate when she recruited him 12 years ago. There’s a lot of potential for both blame and guilt in this situation, and I hope The Americans doesn’t back away from it, the way it’s seemed to do with the whole Irina situation. (Though I’d be very surprised if that doesn’t pop back up down the line.) What do you think, Todd? Is this the last we’re going to hear about Gregory? Was Stan’s inscrutable face as he stared at the crime-scene photo of him one of satisfaction or suspicion?
Todd: Were this earlier in the season, I’d think Stan’s going to give up his hunt for now. But with the final three episodes coming up, I’m all but certain he’s not going to accept that Gregory was the be-all and end-all of whatever plan the KGB has. It’s worth pointing out that Stan’s got some major blood on his hands as well, as if Nina ever found out that he was the one who killed Vlad, she’d likely crush both their incipient love affair and their more established spy missions beneath her foot. Stan’s got just as much to lose—and just as much to have revealed—as many of the other characters now, and that puts him in a place where he compartmentalizes even more. I tend to think we saw the real Stan last week, and that Stan was an angry person. But like a lot of highly emotional men of his era, he’s excellent at buttoning down, at pulling things back. By the time Sandy suggests they could escape, that all they need is Matthew and themselves to be happy, it’s clear such a thing would make Stan miserable.
Really, there’s a lot of that in this episode. People want to escape their lives, want to get off the bus, but they can’t, because they’re driving the bus. Gregory gets to “escape,” but he also ends up dead for his troubles. The characters are all in situations they’d rather just leave behind, but there’s also no believable way to leave those situations behind. They’re trapped. What Gregory goes through is simply what all of these people will go through sooner or later, and the choices that brought them to this point were made so long ago that any exit strategy they could dream up is a lie. All they can do, then, is keep playing, no matter how miserable it makes them.
- Seeing Derek Luke in this show reminded me of when he was going to be the next big star and made me wish people would use him more in projects. He’s a really terrific actor, and he brings a quietude—as you mention, Genevieve—to Gregory that makes him feel like such a vital part of the series. [TV]
- It’s too bad no shitty hotel chains wanted to sponsor the show and be the face of the place Philip is staying. Product placement potential! [TV]
- The ratings for last week’s episode were fairly atrocious. The show’s already been renewed, of course, and both Archer and Justified went through slumps in the middle of their first seasons before becoming solidly rated performers for FX. Furthermore, I’m assured by FX that the ratings for DVR playback and streaming more than make up for the viewers no longer watching live, so they don’t seem too concerned. But it is disconcerting to see the numbers for this show continue to fall. Here’s hoping people get caught up before season two! [TV]