“The Great Patriotic War” is every bit as good as it is uncomfortable.
I don’t think I’m the same as you, Dad.
I ended my recap last week wondering how long The Americans could spend its remaining hours on setup episodes. Consider me properly rebuffed. The super-sized “Great Patriotic War” immediately stakes its claim to being one of the best episode of The Americans ever, even if it didn’t offer the fireworks that some early buzz had led me to expect.
“The Great Patriotic War” is one of the most uncomfortable episodes of television I’ve ever seen, rivaling even some of the cringiest episodes of The Office or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But while those shows play their cringe for laughs, The Americans is a dramatic period peace that doesn’t offer a safety valve. Rather, the discomfort is additional pressure added to the show’s thematic boiling pot.
“Coming of age,” whatever that means to you, is already a weird, uncomfortable thing to go through with your parents, but Paige’s experiences have always had an added tinge of Soviet espionage to go with the normal boundary pushing. In “The Great Patriotic War” she gets the horrifying trifecta of pushing parental boundaries, drinking with her parents, and (most horrifying of all) discussing sex with them too. I come from a typically shame-based religious family, and the idea of discussing “the deed” with my parents makes me want to tear my skin off, but Paige has been probing that topic with Elizabeth all season, first asking about the use of sex in spy work, and then seriously hinting to her mother that she wants to try it.
The last time we saw her she’d recently seduced a State department intern and was eyeing his badge in the aftermath, and this week finds her discussing the tryst with her dismayed mother. Paige is obviously excited by the encounter, and she’s quick to try it again, drawing free drinks from college guys just a few nights later. However, that attempt turns physically dangerous when a rude and restraining patron forces her to fight him off with her self-defense maneuvers. When she shows up Philip and Elizabeth’s the next day with a bruised face and asking for extra sparring time, the physical workout between Paige and her mother becomes a battle of boundaries and (to Philip’s horror) a discussion of her agency when it comes to sex. Matthew Rhys is his typically great self with the schlubby dad stuff, and he gets some great line readings out of it.
But where another father might choose to lay low and pretend such events never happened, Philip’s concern is for Paige’s safety, and not in a way that references safe sex practices. Paige’s agency in sex is an extension of her belief that she can handle herself in the spy game – buoyed by her success at disabling two bar patrons the night before. Philip, however, knows she’s not as ready as she thinks she is. The slight Elizabeth and two college frat boys are one thing, but a full-sized FBI or KGB agent is another, and Philip intends to set her straight. There’s something both scary and loving about the fight he picks at her apartment later that night. It’s less a demonstration that he, as a father, is still in control of his daughter, but rather an example of how her cockiness could get her into trouble. He invites Paige to come at him – really come at him – and he easily evades all of her blows and locks her in a chokehold, Paige nearly blacking out before he releases her and leaves without a sound. Paige may say that she invites the world’s violence like Elizabeth, but Philip shows her that one needn’t invite the fight to end it.
Elsewhere, Oleg encounters his old colleague Tatiana in a brief but powerful scene where she confesses that she was the one who tipped the KGB that he might have been working with the Americans, thereby triggering his apartment searches last season. She complains that his ruining her mission has stalled her career advancement, but Oleg refuses to admit he was the actual culprit. It’s echoed later by Tatiana reporting to the new Resident that Oleg is untrustworthy and should be dealt with, recommending the Soviets put pressure on his father to figure out why he has really returned to America. It’s a small plotline, but expect this one to bear fruit later.
“The Great Patriotic War” continues its uncomfortable sex theme with Philip (as “Jim”) finally bedding Kimmy before she heads to Greece for the end of the semester. Elizabeth has urged him to work his way into her European trip and get her arrested smuggling drugs into Bulgaria, enabling them to blackmail her CIA agent father and free Philip of his last spy mission once Kimmy’s father is their asset. Kimmy, however, isn’t keen on a 40-year-old man bumming around Europe with her friends, so Philip’s last option is to finally bed the college student he’s been on the verge of seducing for years. It’s as gross and uncomfortable as you’d expect with Kimmy in the throes of passion, and a wig-wearing, dead-eyed Philip staring off into the void. It almost makes you long for the actual, if complicated, affection he had for Martha. The plan has its desired effect, and “Jim” soon finds himself invited to meet her in Greece. Thank goodness his lecture to Paige was one about safety and not morality *shudder*.
Stan’s brief appearances come from his monitoring of Sofia and Gennadi, who seem on the verge of reconciling before being relocated to Oklahoma. Let’s hold off on that happy ending, though. After an episode of stalking, Elizabeth slips into their apartment and shivs both Soviet defectors, leaving their bodies for their young child to find — a typically Americans-styled scene with Elizabeth silently praying she doesn’t have to stab a young child while the horror of her crimes slowly dawns on her face.
Special credit for “The Great Patriotic War” goes to director Thomas Schlamme, who also directed television’s sexiest tooth extraction in Season Four’s “Glanders.” Schlamme is an expert at camera movement, most famous for the “walk and talks” of The West Wing. Here, he gives The Americans a visual flair that it often lacks. His camera pans from an odd angle that invites Stan’s car into frame to follow the FBI agent into a donut shop; it pulls back and hovers overhead as Elizabeth and Philip get intimate; it travels throughout the Jennings house via steadycam as the pair fight over Paige’s desire for honeypot missions. The visual inventiveness is a huge part of what makes “The Great Patriotic War” jump off the screen. He saves his best trick for last when Stan pulls up to Sofia and Gennadi’s apartment, the scene awash in police lights, and Schlamme follows the crushed agent as the scene’s meaning dawns on him, and the defectors’ child is escorted from the building. It’s heartbreaking, even as the audience is actually rooting for the woman who murdered that child’s parents.
It isn’t long before Stan is crashing the Jenningses’ house and asking Philip for a beer to wash away his long night. He laments his agency’s failure at keeping defectors safe; meanwhile, Philip struggles with the realization that Elizabeth is likely the person behind Stan’s failed mission. It’s also uncomfortable foreshadowing for what possibly awaits our resident spies if they should switch sides in this cold iteration of the great patriotic war.
I could headline almost every episode recap with a blurb that it finds Elizabeth and Philip at different emotional and philosophical poles. “The Great Patriotic War” is no different. While Claudia, Elizabeth, and Paige get drunk to clear the air and teach Paige how to keep a level head, Philip finds himself at an isolated phone booth calling Kimmy for the last time. The three women swap stories of sexual encounters and laugh while Philip offers up poor excuses about why “Jim” can’t come to Greece and thinks Kimmy should find someone her own age. He closes his call by warning her not to visit any communist countries in Europe and hanging up without any further explanation. It’s a message that almost has to ring some bells for the daughter of a CIA agent, and it’s hard not to wonder if this is the beginning of the end. He’s both putting his own safety at risk and undermining Elizabeth’s mission as he and his wife continue to find themselves ideologically divided. At some point this pot that’s boiled for over 60 episodes finally has to burst, right?
The Dead Drop
-As icky as Paige, her mother, and her ersatz grandmother swapping sex stories is, drunk Claudia is a delight.
-The spy stuff took a major backseat this week which is always a relief for any recapper, to the point that this 90-minute episode is easier to discuss than many of the normal-sized ones.
-The show is correct in how many more Russians died in World War II than Americans and how it goes criminally unmentioned in American history classes. As the saying goes, World War II was won by British intelligence, American steel, and Russian blood.
-Seems that Renee may be working at the FBI soon after all! She’s too old to be an agent, but she can still be a secretary. SPY! SPY! SPY!
-I am curious if the FBI agent who saw Elizabeth bumming a light off Gennadi shouldn’t have noticed her looking exactly like the woman in the police sketch that’s seemingly still hanging around FBI offices. This is just further proof that Dennis Aderholt is the only good agent on the show.
-No Henry this week. Hope he won whatever big hockey game you know he was playing.
There are now more remaining episodes of Game of Thrones than The Americans. Only five left! The end is near, readers. See you next week.