The Americans has more magic than David Copperfield

The Americans has more magic than David Copperfield

In a series of primetime specials (beginning with 1977’s The Magic Of ABC), illusionist David Copperfield wowed television audiences with close-up crowd work, a levitating automobile, and a disappearing airplane. But that was pulling rabbits out of hats compared to the stunt Copperfield staged for CBS on April 8, 1983. That night, with Copperfield’s help, a treasured icon of Americana seemed to vanish into thin air.

An illusion on the scale of The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears (the CBS special presentation) could only be performed once. But tonight, The Americans manages such a feat twice—three times if you count the Copperfield footage that appears in “The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” (The Americans episode).

First off: To my fellow Elizabeth Jennings in the audience, who saw the list of season four episode titles and wondered about the seven months between David Copperfield dropping that giant curtain and the fictional Russians dropping the fictional bomb on Lawrence, Kansas, pat yourself on the back. You predicted the time jump at the end of “The Statue Of Liberty Disappears,” a bold gambit in a season that was practically playing out in real time. But I doubt any of us could’ve foreseen how different the world looks in October of 1983: Frank Gaad is no longer the head of FBI counterintelligence, Pastor Tim and Alice are expecting, and Paige Jennings is monitoring the clergyman and his wife, dutifully reporting her findings to her furloughed-spy parents.

One layer of this epilogue plays like a downbeat series finale, where everyone but Paige gets to move on from the madness of Directorate S. One layer plays like the conclusion of a Cold War-era horror film, as Paige rattles off her miniature-golf recon with Stepford Wife/pod-person flatness. Yet another sets up a new beginning for The Americans, a reboot that sets its focus on the core quartet of Elizabeth, Philip, Stan, and Paige. Whichever way you slice it, “The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” is thick with meaning, portent, and excitement.

The dreamlike state of the episode’s ending corresponds to the largely wordless cold open, which at times feels like Martha’s on the verge of waking from a terrible nightmare. Like Noah Emmerich’s first outing in the director’s chair, Matthew Rhys’ debut as an Americans director displays a grasp of tone that could only come from living inside this show for several years. The way the sequence is cut together, it’s never quite clear that there is a plane to Cuba. After Gabriel opens the passenger door for Martha (like he’s doing her some sort of favor), I was just as surprised as she was to find Philip in the driver’s seat. In the darkness of the early morning, the route to the air strip could just as easily lead to the Pine Barrens. When the Russians go to the trunk, the camera lingers just long enough to suggest that only the bag carrying the dead rat will be going with the pilot. The whole thing bristles with unease.

Martha’s farewell is another season-four spotlight for Alison Wright, who displays anger, fear, and apprehension in her silence, while also granting tremendous emotional heft to something so ordinary as a jar of peanut butter. In another of the episode’s cinematic echoes, she exits The Americans like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, but she gets to deliver the “We’ll always have Paris”: “Don’t be alone, Clark. All right? Don’t be alone.”

It’s a tragic send-off for a character whose only crime was wanting to be loved. (Well, wanting to be loved and treason. But she was coerced!) And as “The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” winnows down the ranks of Americans cast members, it reduces Philip and Elizabeth to their emotional baselines, too. In Martha’s absence, Philip is sadness in a frumpy cardigan, moping around the house with an unshaven face and an EST book under his arm. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is white-hot rage, seeking an outlet in tobacco and violations of movie theater policy. Tonight’s episode gives season four its “Show them your face!” moment in reverse: Elizabeth shouts first (Says The A.V. Club’s own Joshua Alston: “If there was an Emmy for Outstanding Performance By An Ocular Vein, Keri Russell would be the clear winner”) then lashes out, bringing the “Lisa at Northrop” storyline to its violent conclusion.

With appearances by Lisa and Young-hee and a reference to Kimmy, “The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” shows that Martha was but one cog in a massive machine. But she was a cog who came between Philip and Elizabeth, and that unearths a deep reserve of hurt feelings late in the episode. Because you know who else was “Just an agent”? Poor Gregory, whose devotion to a Jennings drove him to commit suicide by cop. Wandering eyes and coulda-beens can eat away at any marriage, but in this relationship, that type of emotional cheating has a body count. Rhys and Russell heat Philip and Elizabeth’s unspoken season-four conflict to a boil in the foyer, beginning the scene with a great deal of space between them before they’re screaming about Gregory and Irina in one another’s faces.

And oh, those faces: On the way to Elizabeth’s broken-bottle breaking point, the range of Keri Russell’s expressions is something to behold. The angry faces, in startling close-up, steal the show, but don’t underestimate the smugness she puts on while Gabriel dresses Philip down for attending EST. Afterwards, Gabriel asks if Elizabeth wants to talk about Philip talking about stuff at EST, and she replies “Not really.” And why should she? Her face says it all.

She gets another key line in her kitchen-counter confrontation with Paige: When Paige complains that she can’t control how she feels about spying on Tim and Alice, Elizabeth fires back with “You can control what you do.” “The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” is the sight of Philip and Elizabeth losing control, and their handlers recognize this. The scene between Gabriel and Claudia adds another coat of generational conflict to the proceedings, but their conversation is also important as a reminder that the Jennings are agents too. And when an agent loses control—when they’re unpredictable (like Lisa) or in danger of being caught (like Martha)—they have to be taken out of the field.

Philip finds some degree of control in the tenets of EST, but Elizabeth is convinced that EST is controlling him. They could both hear the “You love the prison you’ve built for yourself” speech from Lawrence (returning guest star Scott William Winters) and come to opposite conclusions. But “The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” argues that these characters will never stop seeking the structure and the foundation afforded by the likes of EST and Mary Kay, the KGB and the FBI, the church and the family. EST literature, the Bible, a loving companion, or Mary Kay TimeWise facial cleanser won’t give you control over your emotions—but they just might help you manage them.

The structure’s power is a symbolic one, just like that of The Statue Of Liberty. Nobody’s going to overlook the irony of the four Jennings gathered around the TV, listening to David Copperfield espouse the all-American virtues of freedom and liberty. But it’s more than just a U.S.-versus-USSR juxtaposition: Philip and Elizabeth are about to temporarily lose something that defines who they are. In a great flourish, The Americans makes The Jennings’ lives as spies disappear. The magic of “The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” is in transforming Elizabeth, Philip, Paige, and Henry into the happy family they’ve always pretended to be.

But the real illusion is in the misdirection. You can’t see Philip and Elizabeth working Tim and Alice because Paige is doing it for them. The curtain falls and the spies are gone. It raises, falls again, and the spies return. God bless The Americans for daring to attempt such an endeavor, let alone pulling it off with such showmanship.

Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week Eight: B. Who’s that mysterious stranger visiting Gene’s grave? And how did he match his rumpled dad visage so perfectly with that rumpled dad windbreaker?
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Four, Week Eight: A. Season four continues to slay in the music supervision department. In the tradition of “Gregory,” The Americans turns to Roxy Music to score an epilogue that’s split between hope and despair. The show has had its share of winning, but it’s not its time to lose. (Was anyone able to identify the country song that’s playing under Philip’s rendezvous with Gabriel?)

  • Was there any Mail Robot? Think I’ll walk out in the storm. There’s no love to keep me warm inside.
  • “The Statue Of Liberty Disappears” is a treasure trove of pop-cultural artifacts, from the eponymous primetime special to Patti and Young-hee’s matinee double feature (Tender Mercies followed by The Outsiders) to the box of Banana Frosted Flakes on the Jennings’ kitchen table.
  • Forgive me if this was covered earlier in the series, but is it possible that Gabriel and Claudia started out like Philip and Elizabeth?
  • Since prognostication-by-episode-title worked out so well last time, let’s give it another spin: Who are the guests at episode 11’s “Dinner For Seven”? The four Jennings, plus Pastor Tim, Alice, and the baby? Or the Jennings, Pastor Tim, Alice, and Stan? The Jennings, Gabriel, Claudia, and The Switchboard Operator? Seven people we’ve never met before, but who will suddenly become very important to the show in the next few weeks? After that time jump, anything feels possible!

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