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The Americans: “The Colonel”

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Genevieve: In its first season, The Americans proved it has a way with beginnings and endings. The excellent pilot kicked off with a memorable sequence set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” a perfect yet unexpected musical choice that started the series off on a tantalizing note. And tonight’s season finale uses a slightly more on-the-nose but no less inspired song choice, Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers,” to score a captivating montage that cracks open all sorts of doors for the second season without actually throwing any open and diving into a cliffhanger. Both sequences are pretty much perfectly executed, and the music choices are a huge part of that. There’s a slightly ominous, menacing quality to “Games Without Frontiers”—to say nothing of the anti-nationalism thematic content—that drives home the ambiguity and futility of the scenes it’s backgrounding, scenes of people informing on and betraying each other, moving pieces around a board they don’t fully know the shape or scope of. And then the kicker: Paige, one of this show’s few true innocents, snooping around her mother’s laundry room, inches away from the secret compartment containing all her parents’ secrets. It’s a chilling final moment, and the perfect collision of The Americans’ two worlds, the domestic and the international.


The reason this montage works so well—and this is a method we’ve seen deployed in countless drama finales over the years—is because everything that comes before it is so tightly wound, the musical wrap-up feels like an emotional release, even though it’s just setting the stage for future events. “The Colonel” tightens the noose The Americans has been lazily weaving all season, bringing together a bunch of plot threads—the Weinberger bug, Sanford Prince, Richard Patterson, the Nina-Stan-Arkady triangle, Elizabeth and Claudia’s feud, and more—into an incredibly tense climax in which everything almost falls apart in about a dozen different ways.

The Weinberger bug (planted back in episode two) and the currently in-custody Sanford Prince (first introduced in episode seven) are the main threads in tonight’s plot, which sees Elizabeth and Philip planning to execute two simultaneous missions: The Prince-arranged meet with The Colonel, to get critical information about the United States’ ballistic capabilities, and the retrieval of the tape recording of the clock in Weinberger’s office. Nearly everyone on the KGB side believes the former is a setup (even Claudia, though she pretends otherwise for Elizabeth’s benefit), due to the fact that Prince is currently in FBI custody, while the tape-retrieval is regarded as the simpler, less risky operation. In fact, the exact opposite is true: Contrary to what Directorate S believes, Prince hasn’t yet caved—the meet with The Colonel is the real deal, while the Weinberger meeting is part of an FBI sting enabled by Viola’s intel about the clock last episode. It’s a pretty brilliant piece of plotting, with both sides working off incomplete information that ultimately blows up in everyone’s faces.


There’s so much going on in “The Colonel,” it’s hard to cover it all without just turning into a list of plot points. But I realized something about three-quarters of the way through this episode, when Philip is meeting with The Colonel: There’s no real information in play here. The Colonel tells Philip the plans he got them last week are incredible in the most literal sense of the word—pure fantasy, technology that’s more than 50 years out from realization—while the Weinberger meeting was fabricated by the FBI to draw out the KGB’s high-level operatives. Philip and Elizabeth are risking everything for essentially nothing, which lends some tragic irony to the lead-up to and fallout from their dual mission.

It was probably inevitable that a near-death experience would be the thing that would bring Philip and Elizabeth back together this season. But watching the two of them spend the episode planning for the worst—one of them being captured during the meet—made the reveal of Elizabeth’s injury, incurred during their escape from the shootout outside Weinberger’s home, all the more devastating. They managed to just barely evade capture, thanks to Nina’s intel from Stan and Arkady’s last-minute decision to abort, only to find themselves back in the position of potentially losing each other.

Watching Philip and Elizabeth debate and plan for the well-being of their children really helped sell their hospital-bed (well, creepy warehouse-bed) reconciliation; neither can imagine raising their kids without the other, to the extent that both would rather face capture so that Paige and Henry would be left with the other. Philip “wins” that battle of wills by sneaking off to the meeting with The Colonel, leaving Elizabeth to retrieve the tape and escape with the kids to a nice hotel upstate and then Ottawa… only to find himself rushing to pull her out of danger at the last second when things go south. It’s a classic bait-and-switch, except we know what the characters don’t, which makes it extra-excruciating to watch them stumble into danger, and extra-exhilarating to watch them maneuver their way out of it, perfunctory car chase and all.

But Philip and Elizabeth’s experience is only one facet of this story, which can be approached from several directions. There’s the Stan/FBI side, which sees them getting the right information but at the wrong time. There’s the Nina side, which sees her having her divided loyalties tested as Stan tempts her with exfiltration while simultaneously feeding her critical information for Arkady. And there’s Claudia, who’s trying to juggle her bosses’ disregard for her charges’ safety with her charges’ open disdain for her—and getting a little revenge in on the side. Todd, what do you think of how all this came together in the end? Did any part of it not work for you, or work especially well? And how do you feel about things going into next season, based on what we see in that final montage? Future is bright, don’t you think?


Todd: Is that what I told you to say?!

The show The Americans reminds me of more and more here in this first season is Mad Men. Like that series, the show is a period piece with a slightly detached storytelling style. Like that series, The Americans can feel a little distant if you’re not tapped into its deep reservoirs of subtext. And like Mad Men, The Americans offers up an intense well of emotion, forever building and building, until it can be almost unbearable to watch. Yet that well of emotion is kept behind the thinnest of membranes, never to bubble onto the surface until this episode, a season finale that finally reveals just how deeply these characters feel, just how perilous their course could become if they gave in to those emotions. But where Don Draper expresses his true emotions in a lengthy monologue about nostalgia, Philip and Elizabeth reveal their hands with just three words.


The first comes from Philip, racing to save his wife. “Elizabeth,” he says, and it could feel cheap, if it weren’t built so perfectly. (Arkady’s plan to let the Jenningses know they’re up shit creek by painting an abort symbol on the side of a car and trying to catch the two of them is ingenious.) It’s a neat return to that moment in the pilot when Philip revealed his true allegiance after a full episode of toying with defection to the Americans by killing the informant who’d assaulted his wife. Philip’s allegiance, even when the two weren’t together, is to his wife, and he’ll risk everything to save her. Matthew Rhys’ voice cracks just enough in this episode when he says that word to let you know that Philip is picturing a world without Elizabeth, and it’s one that looks bleak.

The other two come from Elizabeth, and they devastated me like few have in recent TV memory. “Come home,” she says to Philip when she awakens from unconsciousness to talk to him at her warehouse bed. It’s what she’s wanted to say for episodes, but it’s what she hasn’t been able to say, because these people keep everything behind a veneer of professionalism and duty. What’s more, she says it in Russian, a choice that works so beautifully. Here’s Elizabeth, returning to her mother tongue, to ask her husband to be her husband again. It’s the strongest possible way she can think of to make this commitment, and it’s perhaps my favorite moment of the whole season.


I’ve already talked to a colleague who thinks this episode didn’t do enough to advance the story, relied too heavily on advancing the plot by millimeters when it could have taken a great leap forward. Instead, like so much of this show, it remains poised on the cusp of things happening. Paige is about to find out. The Russians are about to launch their attempt to flip Stan. Stan is about to learn who Philip and Elizabeth are. Now, to a certain degree, a show like this is always going to be about things that are nearly happening, that haven’t quite come to be. The real stuff will go down in the final season or so. The question is how artfully the show juggles things on the way there.

I can see the point of view that there was too much in the way of jerking around the Jennings marriage to achieve certain story ends—and I was almost with you last week in thinking it might be fun to see the two of them split for far longer. Yet in its best moments—and they are legion—“The Colonel” returns us to the idea that these people love each other very much, but they’re not very good at finding ways of saying that, because of the unusual circumstances of their marriage. And even as the Jennings duo is coming back together, the Beemans seem to be on the brink of splitting apart, pushing Stan ever closer to Nina, with her renewed sense of purpose. It could all feel too tidy, too clean, but it feels momentous somehow.


To explain why, I think you have to return to that giant, bleeding well of emotion at the show’s center. The only way a show like this can work is if it starts to spring leaks, and those leaks get bigger and bigger with time. “The Colonel” suggests that these people are selling each other grand fantasies as much as anything else—something that is literally incredible—yet it also stakes its claim on the idea that these people sometimes don’t even understand themselves. As the Cold War heats up and inevitably winds down, as the characters head into 1982, a big year for the conflict, what most matters are their connections to each other. And though those may be tentative, they persist. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have made it through the greatest trial their marriage has ever faced. Now, they can finally get down to the work of building something concrete, something real.

And all of it just in time for someone—their neighbor? their daughter?—to find out who they truly are. And all of it just in time for Claudia, a woman who might know the two of them better than they even know themselves, to suggest Elizabeth isn’t as committed as she thinks she is. It’s a beautiful setup for season two, but I’d also argue it’s a perfect ending to season one, which was, at its heart, a season about two people finding a way to express the inexpressible, to realize how deeply they needed each other. And in three words, the show found a way to do just that.


I first saw this episode at a screening for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (making me hope the show gets some serious Emmy attention), and at the post-panel Q&A, the producers suggested the focus of the show might shift away from the endless musical chairs within the Jennings marriage toward other stories, like their relationships with their kids. I’d welcome this, but I wonder if this finale made you, Genevieve, something of a Jennings marriage skeptic at this point in time, see the pairing in a more positive light again.

Genevieve: Yeah, I have to kind of eat my words on this one. The past few episodes, I’ve really enjoyed watching Philip and Elizabeth struggle to define themselves outside of their marriage, much more than I enjoyed the push-pull of earlier episodes (the pilot excepted). But tonight’s reconciliation brought me back around on wanting these two crazy kids to make it work, and hearing that the producers may intend to just have that stick and move on to other things makes me like it even more. The Jennings were tested as individuals this season; perhaps now they can be tested as a unit, and not just by the FBI and the KGB. I’d like to see The Americans incorporate more domestic stories that don’t relate directly to Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage—and the foreshadowing with Paige at the end of tonight’s episode indicates we may be getting exactly that.


I’m glad you highlighted Claudia’s line about Elizabeth not being as committed as she thinks she is, because it mirrors almost exactly what Arkady says to Nina about Stan: “The kind of man who did what was done to you is weaker and more vulnerable than he seems.” Stan and Elizabeth work as sort of parallel characters, both staunchly committed to their cause, but also haunted by personal demons that bleed into their work in destructive ways. If I had to guess, I’d say next season we’re going to see these two struggling to maintain the connection they feel to their causes, and the sense of identity and purpose that gives them. The difference is Elizabeth now has—it would seem—something else to anchor herself to, her family, while Stan has just lost that grounding force. I’d put good money on Stan spiraling downward next season, and considering the work Noah Emmerich has done this year, I can’t wait to see it. Based on what The Americans has set up with this episode, season two could go in a very different direction from season one, and that’s exciting to think about. Future is bright, indeed.

Stray observations:

  • Poor, sweet Martha. I was all but certain she would never make it out of the season alive, yet there she is, waiting for her reliable husband to come and see her on the nights he can and tell her how great her wallpaper is, then perform fantastic oral sex on her. She really has no idea what’s coming. [TV]
  • Not to get all Zapruder on this thing, but how exactly did that bullet make it into Elizabeth’s gut if Stan was shooting from outside the car, standing up, while she was sitting? [GK]
  • Wasn’t that car with the receiver in the trunk parked in the woods last time we saw it? Hey guys, maybe don’t leave your super-secret spy car parked in the middle of a road with no other cars around it. [GK]
  • A part of me really wanted Paige to find something in that last scene, but that wouldn’t have spoken very well of her parents’ spycraft, or it would have suggested she had super-strength so as to move the washer. Actually, that last one might have been kinda cool. [TV]
  • Oh man, that scene of Elizabeth huddled up in the corner listening to the tape from her mother… such good eye-acting from Russell. [GK]
  • I just realized this episode set up the possibility that we could be Grannie-less next season, with her supposedly getting reassigned. And just when she was getting some really good disguises! [GK]
  • I think there’s a lot of potential in seeing the relationship between Elizabeth and Paige in season two. That’s what I hope the show spends some time on. [TV]