“Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” is all about failure in both form and theme.
So much of this job is failure.
“Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” is a weird one. Not every episode in a season is going to be a knockout, but with only six episodes remaining, I wonder just how much time The Americans can afford to waste on Elizabeth’s art projects and Philip staring at sandwiches.
You can almost imagine writer Peter Ackerman anticipating such a response to this week’s episode, as it features Elizabeth’s futile attempt to steal the still-needed lithium-based radiation sensor. The mission is a disaster from the start, with alarms that should have been disabled alerting guards to her presence and forcing her to kill several of them in order to escape. Paige is understandably freaked out by the wailing alarms, but she manages to avoid a repeat of her failures from the General Rennhull mission. She stays the course and drives away from the scene leaving Elizabeth to deal with the damage without her. Elizabeth manages to escape, but she continues to leave a trail of dead bodies in her wake far exceeding the totals of other seasons.
First came the Naval guard hitting on Paige. General Rennhull and the Altheon contractor soon followed, and now Elizabeth has added multiple Altheon security guards to the list. For a spy show where the protagonists have so often relied on their wits before their guns, Elizabeth is setting a sloppy precedent. As she (and by extension Ackerman) tells Paige during their mission post-mortem, “so much of this job is failure.”
After Elizabeth tongue-lashed Paige in last week’s opening scene, this week it’s Philip’s turn to give their daughter a dressing-down. But whereas Elizabeth’s lecture was about how Paige nearly foiled a mission, Philip’s questions probe for a deeper truth behind the already rote answers his daughter spouts off about the greater importance of the mission in comparison to the loss of human life. “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” acknowledges that Elizabeth and Philip have divided up their parenting with Elizabeth, the active spy, taking Paige under her wing while Philip looks after Henry. Elizabeth never had time for Philip’s debates about spy work’s morality, and her protégé seems to feel the same way.
“Teacup” is a big episode for Paige, who seems to have shaken off the discomfort of seeing her mother spattered in General Renhull’s blood and is again fully devoted to her mission. She successfully gets pictures of Glenn Haskard’s negotiating team at a hotel, but her most interesting plot development comes when she begins to tell Elizabeth about a boy she met who has a crush on her. At first it seems like the kind of thing that any mother and daughter might talk about at the kitchen table – a Paige parallel to Henry’s frequent calls home about his hockey team – but the conversation takes a concerning turn when Paige notes that the boy works in the government and she’s considering using him for intelligence.
The conversation is a nice callback to her and Elizabeth’s talks about female spies using sex to gather information in the season premiere, and Elizabeth again steers her daughter away from the idea. But where she previously denied that such work ever existed, here she urges Paige that she’s not ready for the complicated feelings and dangerous possibilities that working a target via a romantic relationship can bring. Later in the episode Stan notes (over beers with Philip) how his son ignores the advice he offers, and this wouldn’t be The Americans without such dramatic irony. The last we see of Paige is her post-coital glances at her suitor’s government badge after she allows him to take her home at the end of a night spent partying. Stan is right. Kids never listen.
While Elizabeth struggles with Paige, Philip isn’t having much better luck with Henry, who easily notices his father’s distraction during one of their frequent calls. Philip is forced to admit that his business is failing, and he may not be able to pay for his son’s senior year of boarding school. It’s hard to not feel for Henry, who’s finally blossomed into manhood as a prep school hockey god and responsible student after years languishing as the “other” Jennings child (and he somehow has more screen time now that he’s away at boarding school).
I see Philip’s financial distress as at least a partial metaphor for the USSR’s overspending on weapons production in an effort to keep up with the United States. Philip trying to keep up with the Joneses may lead to his own self-destruction. Much of “Teacup” feels like a calm before the storm as everyone struggles for a last moment of happiness before their respective worlds cave in, and Philip is the best example as he goes line dancing with his staff while trying not to think of the layoffs he’s about to issue.
His quiet return to spy work isn’t going much better. In another wink at the audience, Julia Garner makes a rare appearance as Kimmy Breland after being a series regular for Season Four, and Philip greets her with a mention that he’s glad she could squeeze him into her calendar. She’s going away to
Fiji Greece for the next semester so Philip won’t be getting anymore intelligence from the tapes he’s stashed on her CIA agent father — just as the US/USSR missile negotiations heat up. It’s a blow for Elizabeth and the Centre, but Philip can only shrug at their concern. He’s out of the game, after all.
Officially, so is Oleg, but the Russian operative remains in the States, urging Philip to crack his wife’s stone-like exterior and find out what information she’s passing to the Centre. He warns Philip that she’s a key operative in their mission to destroy Gorbachev to which Philip demurs, “You have to know my wife would never hurt her country.”
“We know how loyal she is,” Oleg replies, “but loyalty can be used.” Oleg would know. Despite his own retirement from counterintelligence work he finds himself slipping information back to Arkady via calls home to his father.
The episode’s title comes from the codenames the FBI has for Gennadi and Sofia now that they’ve applied for asylum. The pair remain dysfunctional as ever, and they continue to ask for Stan by name. He just wants to be done with counterintelligence, but they remain a connection he can’t sever. Indeed, even the Centre knows about the pair’s defection, and Elizabeth is tasked with finding out what they know and what they plan to do with it, a mission that puts her in Stan’s direct orbit. Stan and the Jenningses are headed for an inevitable collision and this may be the first step in their ultimate destinies.
Finally, Elizabeth continues to monitor Glenn Hanskard via her disguise as his wife Erica’s hospice nurse. The episode’s closing moments find her escorting the sick Erica to a house party where Glenn and his fellow negotiators – including their Soviet counterpart – plan to watch the World Series. It’s the best chance she’s had to hear the pair’s plans and secrets for the negotiations, and she slips a microphone into Glenn’s jacket before the event. It’s a goldmine of an opportunity.
That opportunity is foiled, however, when Erica becomes violently ill before the first pitch can even be thrown. Elizabeth, Glenn, and the Soviet negotiator all run to Erica’s side, working shoulder to shoulder. It’s the kind of proximity to the pair that Elizabeth has longed for, but Erica’s sickness has made missile negotiations the last thing on their minds. She gets home that night to hear the pair beginning to discuss work on her tapes only for them to break it off along with the party. Elizabeth throws the tape and earphones away in disgust. It’s one thing to know that a huge part of spy work is failure, but it’s wholly another when it keeps happening to you.
The Dead Drop
– Philip’s line dancing remains both the best and most bizarre recurring image The Americans currently has working for it.
– I understand that the show wants to be theatrical with its loud/soft sound dynamics and low light visuals, but Elizabeth’s Altheon raid was so dark that I could barely see it and I was watching in the dark. Come on guys. Not everyone has a professional theater setup in their house!
– I have absolutely no idea where the show is going with that final sequence of Philip remembering being hungry as a child while staring at a sandwich. It seems like something that should have been in Season Five, with its focus on American’s bountiful food compared to the USSR’s broken markets. Hey, a lot of TV production is also about failure, I guess.
Next week appears to be a major episode, and doubly so with the great Thomas Schlamme returning to the director’s chair. See you then!