THE AMERICANS: “Urban Transport Planning”

Is even a show as icy as The Americans prepared to give us the bleak ending it’s foreshadowing? 

No matter what happens to me, if I’m fighting for something that important…

–Elizabeth

I’m particularly interested in one specific image from the opening minutes of “Urban Transport Planning” where Elizabeth, trying to scrub away the blood and brain matter covering her face after General Rennhull’s suicide last week, places her blood-spattered eyeglasses on a shelf above the sink. For all the things I love about it The Americans is hardly a visually inventive show, so the camera’s momentary focus on a pair of bloody eyeglasses is certainly a curious choice for a show typically more interested in basic over-the-shoulder dialogue setups.

But upon seeing that image I couldn’t help but mentally compare it to the cover of Yoko Ono’s 1981 album Season of Glass, a record about sadness and romantic loss that openly reflects Ono’s recent experiences with John Lennon’s murder. Indeed, the album’s cover features a photograph of the eyeglasses Lennon was wearing on the night he was murdered that are streaked with the musician’s own blood, an appropriate visual cue for the ways “Urban Transport Planning” deals with physical and emotional separation in marriage.

No one would ever call Elizabeth Jennings warm and open even in her best moments, but Paige is left reeling at her mother’s scathing reaction to the events surrounding General Rennhull’s suicide. Philip tried to comfort Paige, but Elizabeth dresses her down over the ways she failed the mission by abandoning her post and running to Elizabeth’s side in concern. She even refuses to allow her daughter to spend the night at their house on the grounds that it’s a “work night” as a stand-in for punishment. When Philip later tells Elizabeth that Paige was only looking to talk to her for comfort, a tone deaf Elizabeth insists that’s exactly what she was doing.

If only for the universe to rub salt in Paige’s wounds, Henry calls home during the tense exchange looking to talk to his dad about winning the big hockey game and his big upcoming math test. It makes you wonder if Paige longs to be unburdened from the truth of her parents’ existence that she once so eagerly sought. Henry’s happy ignorance is a sharp reminder that sometimes ignorance is bliss. Elizabeth does later offer Paige a slightly gentler take on the night’s events when the pair meet up the next day. Elizabeth, in her styling as a true believer, espouses her beliefs that as much as Paige may fear for her, it’s the mission that matters most, a line of thought continuing Season 6’s preoccupation with Paige’s handling if Elizabeth were to die on the job.

(And speaking of dying on the job!) Elsewhere, Philip’s storyline reveals that his recent business successes may be little more than an illusion as he asks for an extension paying for Henry’s new term at his expensive prep school. For as much time as The Americans forces Matthew Rhys to play Philip as physically and emotionally exhausted, Rhys is actually hilarious playing a schlub. In “Urban Transportation Planning” he gets to cringingly small-talk the prep school administrator about helping him plan his next vacation, and also gives a wildly uninspiring business talk to his employees that he cribbed from a book mere moments beforehand. Philip’s business may have a shiny new office space, but it seems he’s overextended his funds at the wrong moment. Boogie Nights once argued that each person has one singular talent that makes them special, and that to run from that talent is to invite disaster upon oneself. For Philip it appears that his talent was spying, and no amount of cheesy smiling and pep talks can make travel agency take its place.

Much of “Urban Transport Planning” revolves around Stan Beeman as he continues to be drawn back into counterintelligence work — his one special thing. Aderholt again proves himself to be the FBI’s only competent agent noting that Rennhull once killed a “lunatic” who broke into his house accused him of being a Soviet spy, and that his apparent suicide in the park suddenly draws that once-dismissed lunatic’s accusations back under the microscope.

Stan, however, has bigger tasks at hand. “Urban Transport Planning” finally gives us his long-awaited reunion with Oleg when Stan arrives at his hotel room unannounced. Their conversation about their current jobs and Oleg’s return to the United States to be educated in the episode’s titular field of study is just prologue for the pair’s deeper discussions about their past. With The Americans now focused on its endgame, the show can dwell on the biggest questions facing its characters, including how the now deceased Nina was the one thing that initially tied the two frenemies together, and how her execution has left a gaping hole in their already fragile sense of trust. The show is on a quick-paced collision course with its end, but the quiet scene between Oleg and Stan is the kind of icy emotional punch that has always made the show great: Oleg refuses to believe that Stan did everything he could to save Nina, and doesn’t know that Stan truly fought tooth and nail to keep him from being recruited by the CIA. Their cold reunion ends with Stan urging him to leave the country for his own safety, a small glimmer of hope that there’s still a bit of friendship between the two men.

Stan also remains preoccupied with Gennadi and Sofia’s unravelling relationship which threatens to get one or both of them killed. Sofia notes without a hint of irony that Soviets know how to keep secrets after revealing that she told her new lover Bogdan about Gennadi’s work slipping documents to the FBI. Fearing that Gennadi’s cover is about to be blown, Stan has no recourse but to take the couple into protective custody as dissidents asking for asylum, but even such a drastic change isn’t enough to make Sofia consider reconciling with her husband. She remains staunch in her insistence that she and Gennadi are divorcing, an action that would see them separated and placed in protective government custody in different cities. Gennadi would lose access to his wife and child even without assenting to the separation, likely preventing him from every seeing them again. It’s a harsh pill to swallow, all as a result of one of Sofia’s typically frustratingly flippant decisions.

Watching Sofia and Gennadi’s marriage fall apart, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels to Elizabeth and Philip and how the show might ultimately handle the couple. Is their wrenching separation a thematic precursor for the dissolution of the Jennings’ marriage? And what does Gennadi’s loss of his child presage for Philip and Paige or Elizabeth and Henry? Would a show as icy as The Americans even hesitate to give us an ending that bleak?

It’s something we’ll have to contemplate considering the directions “Urban Transport Planning” finds our protagonist spies heading. Elizabeth and Philip have a brief moment of bonding over the Russian food, zharkoye, that she, Paige, and Claudia prepared that afternoon after she smuggled the leftovers home to him, but their affection quickly breaks down over ideological differences when Philip, already stuffed on Chinese takeout, brings up Gorbachev’s Soviet thawing tactics. It’s a keen symbol that the idealist Soviet Elizabeth comes home offering a traditional Russian dish, but the more Americanized Philip is already stuffed on an American dish masquerading as something foreign. Elizabeth refuses to believe that Philip would believe the lies of Glasnost asserting that, surely, no one in Russia is actually buying them. Philip, however, notes that she hasn’t been back home in over 20 years. Neither of them truly know what the typical Russian person wants as they only get information filtered through their bureaucratic controllers.

The episode ends with the couple divided. Philip again meets with Oleg in a Washington D.C. park to report on his own wife, while she interviews a government contractor about security procedures at the company producing the lithium-based sensor she’s still attempting to acquire. The doomed contractor accidentally mentions that his girlfriend works for security at the plant, thereby forcing Elizabeth to kill him as she, herself, was posing as a member of the plant’s security team. Thus “Urban Transport Planning” closes with Philip and Elizabeth separated on every level; physically, emotionally, and ideologically. Time will tell if they will reconcile or be shattered just like Sofia and Gennadi before them in this final season of The Americans: a season of glass.

The Dead Drop

–I’d like to believe I’m a Philip or a Stan, but I’m definitely the poor contractor being killed by Elizabeth in a hotel room.

–There was another Stan plot point with Renee mentioning how amazing it is that Philip and Elizabeth get to work together…before noting that she wants to become an FBI agent. At this point it’s either gospel that she’s actually a covert operative or Laurie Holden is doing some of the most ham-fisted acting I’ve ever seen.

–The really terrifying thing about that scene is that the cutoff age for joining the FBI is 37. I’ve got a birthday next month and it’s adding to my existential dread that there’s another career option that I’m about to age out of.

–Will we ever see Pastor Tim again? It may be hard for the show to write him back in after the three-year time jump, but I hope we get one more appearance. Regardless, my own private narrative asserts that he definitely died at Jonestown.

–That one diplomat was correct in his belief that the Minnesota Twins will win the 1987 World Series.

Until next week!

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