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On The Americans, you can’t go your own way

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Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are failing. It’s a reality often acknowledged by The Americans: Not every objective in the Jennings’ spy games is achieved, not every mission is successful. But those defeats feel particularly pointed in “Mr. And Mrs. Teacup,” because it’s not just that the characters are failing—they’re failing on their own. When they meet in the kitchen at the beginning of the episode, the camera is placed so as to make the gulf between Philip and Elizabeth look especially wide. They’re unable to rely on the partnership and the collaboration that has carried them through choppy waters so many times before. The Americans never looked like it was going to have a happy ending, but the unhappiest endings it’s shown us belonged to people who tried to do this type of work alone: William Crandall, suffering in isolation in a government lab. Or Jared Connors, who killed his own family for objecting to his KGB activities, and died avenging the death of the woman who seduced and recruited him.


Named for a partnership that we hear about but only see in pictures this week, “Mr. And Mrs. Teacup” is the type of Americans episode that comes to a close just when it seems like it’s ramping up. The slow-burn has ignited: Elizabeth’s path is due to intersect with Stan’s, Philip’s approaching a financial reckoning, and Paige might be jumping a few steps ahead in her training. But these are matters for a later date, a date that won’t come any faster even though I could’ve sworn that the “Driving My Life Away” montage was clearing the runway for another time jump. Instead, the show is following its own star and taking the words of Eddie Rabbit and Erica Haskard to heart: Slow down, sit a spell, take some time with the people who matter.


Philip appears to be losing touch with that facet of his humanity. His distance from Elizabeth is felt in his interactions with everyone else in “Mr. And Mrs. Teacup”: Clashing with Paige, disappointing Henry, never seeing Oleg again. Even Kimmy’s going to be out of reach for a few weeks due to her Thanksgiving in Greece. He can still turn to Stan, though, and their conversation drives at the soul-deep unease that’s in Matthew Rhys’ every expression in these early weeks of season six. As successful as he’s been at camouflaging himself among the American people for all these years, there are certain aspects of who Philip is and how he grew up that are always going to prevent him from completely blending in. He’s flummoxed, and he has every right to be, by the capitalist imperative to grow, grow, grow. Stan responds with a maxim from his old man: “The more you want, the more you get, and that’s both good and bad.”


But Stan, and maybe even Stan’s father, have never wanted the way Philip has. Contrary to my mid-episode prediction, “Mr. And Mrs. Teacup” winds up jumping back a significant number of years, into Philip’s hellscape of childhood memories, a place where, when children aren’t beating one another to death with rocks, they’re waiting outside of kitchen doors to scrape a meal out of freshly used pots and pans. While this daymare interrupts Philip’s attempts to reconcile the books, his desk is a still life of once unimaginable riches: calculators, a working telephone, a can of soda, a bag of potato chips, multiple types of pens. Amid this sprawl, he’s absentmindedly placed a sandwich over by the keyboard. Has he become so wasteful? Or ungrateful for what he has? Or is it just that he’s working so hard to maintain his slice of the pie?

Philip’s failure is galling because it’s one in which the target keeps shifting—if the target even exists at all. Consider it in terms of the sports debate from last week’s episode: The Soviets prefer ice hockey, where the rinks and the goals are always the same size, and every game lasts three periods of uniform length (barring overtime). But the Americans are into the baseball, which gives off the air of organization in its nine innings, three outs per inning, three strikes and four balls per at bat, but places no constraints, in terms of time, on how long those games, innings, or at-bats can last. And while the dimensions of the baseball diamond itself are regulated, there are subtle ways in which a home team can give itself an advantage over the visitors, be it in the height of the pitcher’s mound or the length from home plate to the outfield wall.


If you’re an inexperienced player like Philip, expecting that your past successes and your status symbols will give you Kirby Puckett-like prowess every time you step to the plate, you’re going to wind up frustrated. Expanding the business did not expand the business, and now he’s whiffing at pitch after pitch, having subscribed to the American notion that bigger is always better, and will therefore keep Philip Jennings in cool cars and keep Henry Jennings in a prep-school uniform.


He’s experienced the types of failures Elizabeth faces in “Mr. And Mrs. Teacup,” but at least she can identify what went wrong in those scenarios. At the World Series party, she pushed the Haskards too hard, Erica wasn’t ready to leave the house, and a vital chance to snoop on Glenn’s conversations was wasted. At the Altheon plant, the shrink-wrapped packages and the rigorousness of the security team are more than she can handle on her own. For her troubles, Elizabeth winds up with three additions to her season-six body count and a bunch of puke on her scrubs.

The Altheon heist is both a white-knuckle suspense sequence and an articulation of the final season’s “it takes two” themes. Elizabeth isn’t invincible when she has a partner—take “The Midges” and its Roxy Music break-in for one example—but its evident throughout that she could’ve used a third or fourth hand, even if it was just to hold the pen light she uses for placing the explosives. She stumbles in her first attempt to access the lock; she paws helplessly at boxes too tightly cased in plastic. It’s a hopeless situation, and when the light momentarily flashes on Keri Russell’s face, she expresses that hopelessness. With no one else there to rely on, she has to bail herself out.


Erica is still trying to teach her hospice nurse about the values of the intangible, but Elizabeth maintains a faith in results—and she comes up empty twice in “Mr. And Mrs. Teacup.” The episode itself fares better, delving into the themes of the final season (and deepening its parallels to the first) and inching the storyline ahead. There is the sense that some bigger explosions have been delayed for a later date, but that’s just The Americans, a show that would never jump into a confrontation between Elizabeth’s team and Stan when it could spend an episode examining the ways in which Philip has embraced and been let down by the doctrine of people he once considered the enemy. “Mr. And Mrs. Teacup” goes a little heavy on the camera setups that resemble surveillance footage—all the overhead photography, the shots through curtains and blinds and such—but those serve an episode that steps back and surveys where Elizabeth and Philip are at as individuals. They’ve seen failure before, but it’s starting to mount up and block their view of Paige’s activities. She’s never been one to follow orders, but disobeying Elizabeth and hooking up with the intern feels like the first step on a path to disaster. Or maybe she’s just observing everything that’s going on around her, and realizing that she should have her own matching teacup sooner rather than later.

Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season 6, Week 4: B-.Welcome back, Jim Baxter, a man who, like Philip, is struggling to find his place in the late ’80s. There will always be dirtbags who look like Jim, but he sure does look like a man out of time opposite Kimmy and her acid-wash jeans.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 6, Week 4: C+. Eddie Rabbit makes sense for Philip’s boot-scootin’ release valve, but “Driving My Life Away” is cornier than what’s usually tasked with carrying an Americans montage. I do like that scene of a marker of progress for the season, though: Stavos seems like he’s getting the hang of the line-dancing.
  • Three ominous words I’m eager to learn more about: “Our guy inside”
  • Glenn’s Yakult Swallows jacket is pretty cool (until it has a bug sewn into its lining—that has to drive its value down), but it could’ve been cooler: Had he been stationed in Japan in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he and Erica would’ve rooted for the Sankei (and then, after a change of ownership, Yakult) Atoms, whose mascot and namesake was the robotic manga and anime hero we know in the States as Astro Boy.