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The Americans can be a great horror movie, too

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I did it without thinking. When Jim Baxter leaned in to kiss Kimmy Breeland, I instinctively mashed the following into my keyboard:

“no no no no no no no no no”

There’s a lot of history in that wretched moment. It calls back to season three, when Julia Garner was new on the Americans scene and her character had a big crush on her leather-jacketed weed guy. The scenes between Philip and Kimmy were an uncomfortable dance, the steps informed by the difference in their ages, Philip’s experience with seduction-as-spy-work, the Yazoo tapes representing Kimmy’s innocence, and the idea, planted at the end of season two, that the KGB wanted Paige—who was pretty much the same age as Kimmy—for the illegals program. Kimmy represented the limits of what Philip was willing to do for his job, and since she’s one of the few sources to survive her encounter with a Jennings, she also become a recurring presence on the show, her path intertwined with Philip’s thanks to her father Isaac Breeland’s upward momentum at the CIA.


And she stayed out of harm’s way all the way up until “The Great Patriotic War,” in which Elizabeth lays out one of The Americans’ more sinister traps for the young Wolverine: She’s going to meet up with Jim in Greece, he’s going to take her to Bulgaria, Bulgarian officials are going to find some drugs on her, and her stay in a Bulgarian prison is going to be leveraged against her father, who’ll tell Elizabeth who the CIA’s Soviet mole is. It’s a little Midnight Express scenario that doesn’t sit well with Philip, but it’ll help Elizabeth’s mission, which will in turn help Philip find out what Elizabeth is working on (and just when they’re rediscovery the intimacy in their marriage), and so he goes through with it. And thus the “no no no no no no no no no.”

This is The Americans at its most-warts-and-all. The relationships on this show are built on fault lines of trust, and this is an episode in which the ostensible moral compass sleeps with a woman he’s known since she was a teen and then puts his own daughter in a choke hold. In “The Great Patriotic War,” Elizabeth Jennings slips in through a poorly secured window and stabs a mother and father to death while their son watches wooden soldiers on parade. Given the ends, given the means, The Americans has always hidden a horror movie beneath its prestige-TV veneer. In “The Great Patriotic War” it comes out—in the breathtaking tension of the kitchen assault, in Philip telling Paige to come at him, in the way Paige goes all “arm-wrestling Seth Brundle” after that dipshit grabs her arm in the bar.


If “The Great Patriotic War” has an affinity for a particular type of horror, it sticks with its time period and goes with the slashers. And not just because Elizabeth sneaking into Gennadi’s kitchen is like watching a Friday The 13th from Jason’s perspective; sex factors so heavily into “The Great Patriotic War” that it might as well take place at Camp Crystal Lake. It’s not so prudish as to treat the act as something that’s 100 percent harmful—that connection Elizabeth and Philip make over bedside paperwork is honest and comforting and damn hot, even if it turns out it was all just to butter Philip up for the Greece plot. But sex is always going to be a tricky subject for the show, and one that’s as dangerous as boffing on the bunk above an arrow-wielding Pamela Voorhees.

The Americans has conditioned us to be suspicious of ulterior sexual motives, even when it’s between the Jennings. It’s a last resort on Philip’s expedition to Ann Arbor, and a tool of the trade Paige isn’t trained to wield. The stories Claudia and Elizabeth swap during the safe-house vodka fest take some of the mystery and the peril out of it, but their bonhomie keeps Elizabeth’s rape out of the conversation—a rape that took place during the type of exercise Paige demands after dalliance in barfighting, the rapist killed by her father in the same garage where she trades blows with her mother in “The Great Patriotic War.”

In all its sex and violence, the episode puts forth that its characters’ bodies are weapons (so maybe “The Great Patriotic War” is actually body horror?), and fragile ones at that. When Philip comes all “There aren’t really pads in the real world” unhinged in Paige’s apartment, the choreography is frightening and the sound effects are jarring, but the takeaway is more Americans than even a revisionist history lesson on the Russian side of World War II: Paige needs to slow down.


Despite all of the “no”s it prompted, “The Great Patriotic War” is my favorite episode of season six so far, remarkably taut for something that indulges in one of modern TV’s most bothersome habits. It runs long, but it runs long with purpose, timing these personal lows for the Jennings with another big loss for Stan and an unfortunate crossing of paths for Oleg. There’s reason to be worried for every major character in the episode, with the exception of Claudia, who kicks the dread of “The Great Patriotic War” with a knife-toed shoe when Margo Martindale lets out that wicked “Let’s find out.”


That’s the other thing about the length of “The Great Patriotic War”: It allows the episode to show so many sides of The Americans. There’s restored tenderness between Philip and Elizabeth, their calculator-bumping night together enough to make Elizabeth stub out a cigarette while there’s still plenty to be smoked. There’s that final phone call between Philip and Kimmy, shot through with the tension of the line they’ve crossed that they can never uncross, and ending on the urgency of his parting words to her: “Go to Greece, stay in Greece. Goodbye, Kimmy.” And there’s the most joyful meeting yet of the Daughters Of The Russian Revolution, which kicks off with stomach-coating shots of olive oil and culminates in Martindale cutting loose with some damn fine drunken acting. There are still layers to be uncovered within these characters, even ones as terse as Claudia.

That last scene prompted a delighted reverse of the “no no no no no no no no no”—but in terms of quality, “The Great Patriotic War” is “yes” across the board. As The Americans turns the corner toward the back half of its final season, it’s more justified than most in sprawling out across the FX broadcast schedule. With that extra time it makes us feel and fear for its characters in ways other shows can’t. So let’s raise a glass of olive oil to “The Great Patriotic War”—man, am I ever going to miss this show.


Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season 6, Episode 5: C. Practical, utilitarian hairpieces for practical, utilitarian missions. Gotta keep things short if you’re going to be lurking about and stabbing—worked for Michael Myers, and it works for Elizabeth.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 6, Episode 5: N/A. Unless that’s a real band playing at the bar, and I’m failing to identify their bouncy, C86 jangle.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? Nope, but maybe we can get some info on its whereabouts from the pinball machine.
  • Better Drunk Claudia line: “I was starving!” or “Oh, to the boy”?
  • Additional levity in the face of “The Great Patriotic War”’s darkness: A visit from Mark Harmon, earnest pitchman for Gennadi’s favorite beer. And, on an extremely personal note, I got a nostalgic kick from hearing Steve Yzerman’s and Bob Probert’s names called out during the hockey game Gennadi watches with Stan. I should’ve thought about this with the Tigers namedrop a few weeks back, but this season is taking place during an exciting period for Detroit sports: The Red Wings were just getting started on a division-championship season, and the Pistons would make it all the way to the NBA Finals the following spring. The Lions, as ever, were a total bust.