THE AMERICANS: “Harvest”

Stan’s gut knows the truth about the Jenningses, but he can’t get his heart to believe it just yet. 

Your father…he made a mistake when he committed to this life.

–Elizabeth Jennings

Stan knows. After nearly a decade living across the street from an American couple with mysterious jobs, odd hours, and no extended family to speak of, he’s finally starting to put the pieces together. He knows, but he can’t bring himself to believe it just yet.

It was weird enough when Elizabeth couldn’t make it to Thanksgiving last week, but “Harvest” finds Philip also dashing out of town for “business” at a moment’s notice, leaving Henry behind on his vacation break. When Philip asks his neighbor to drive Henry to a friend’s house for him, Stan just wants to know what his friend is going through. “Is something wrong?” he asks before adding that he’s really good with reading people and helping with situations. It’s Stan at his ironic putziest, but this may be the last we see of that side of him and Philip’s “confession” is a big reason why.

Philip admits that his business is failing in an effort to explain why he’s seemed so stressed. He offers that up as his great shame, eliciting the comfort (and end to Stan’s probing questions) that he wanted. The FBI agent can’t help but see things in a different light later that night, however, when Henry blatantly discusses his the agency’s problems on he and Stan’s car ride across town. “He told you about all this?” Stan asks incredulously, shocked that Henry would act so nonchalant about something Philip made sound so shameful. Henry goes on to talk about how his parents always disappear at odd hours, something he’s never seen from any of his friends’ families. He even admits to not having any extended family which surprises Stan, who remembers Elizabeth staying with “an aunt” several years back. “Oh yeah. I never met her. I think maybe Paige did,” Henry says. For all Elizabeth and Philip’s worries about Paige’s eavesdropping, her confession to Pastor Tim years ago, and her spy work, it may well be the “safe” and uninvolved Henry who inadvertently gives up their whole operation.

This week’s episode in the grand spy operation is the attempt to extract “Harvest” from Chicago. He’s been under FBI surveillance for weeks, seemingly not in cooperative custody, but still divulging operations info according to Aderholt. Neither Elizabeth nor her comrade Marilyn have confidence in the mission’s success, and Elizabeth even reveals the presence of Chekhov’s locket cyanide to Philip when he joins her in Chicago for the mission.

The operation itself is a thing of mangled beauty. On one hand it’s breathtaking to see Elizabeth and Philip seamlessly swap Harvest for another driver in the middle of traffic, but that’s about the last thing that goes correctly. Once Harvest’s monitor notices the vehicle’s driver is no longer the Soviet spy he’s been chasing, he calls in all sorts of reinforcement. The replacement driver is immediately captured (what was the plan for this guy? Did he actually ever think he was getting away or was this a purposeful suicide mission?) and Philip, Elizabeth, Marilyn, and Harvest are forced to flee amidst a hail of gunfire that leaves Marilyn and two FBI agents dead and Harvest with a bullet in his gut.

Even a show as concerned with the emotional costs of covert work as The Americans doesn’t always have the time to directly address the consequences of each killing. Usually the show uses a shorthand of having Philip and Elizabeth’s sadness and frustrations play out in their marriage, but every so often we see confront the death they’ve caused in the form of the bodies directly in front of them. Think “Martial Eagle,” “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep,” or “Baggage,” in short, three of the show’s greatest episodes. “Harvest” is another example. As Harvest bleeds out in the back of the van he passes on three messages (love for his mother, the location of the sensor schematics, and an F-you to his father) before taking his own hidden cyanide pill. Philip is left to confront the effects of a self-induced poisoning while Elizabeth drives, all the while knowing that the same fate could await his wife. He urged her to flush her own dose down the toilet, but Elizabeth, always the true believer, asserted her belief in the success of the mission and the Soviet spy network over her own safety.

Elizabeth and Philip pull their van into a parking garage to switch vehicles, change clothes, and continue their escape, but when Philip notices a fire ax in the garage he takes further steps to cover their tracks. Harvest has already been identified by the FBI, but Marilyn’s body could lead agents back to Washington, DC. Thus, Philip uses the ax to chop off Marilyn’s hands and head to prevent identification. The hands are easy enough, each coming off with a single blow, but Philip’s cuts to his deceased co-conspirator’s neck are much more difficult. The show contrasts the sharp clangs of the ax striking concrete after cleaving Marilyn’s hands away with the sickening thuds that accompany Philip’s ineffective strikes at her neck. Philip has to stop, settle his stomach and nerves, and pry clean the stuck ax before he can continue his work. It’s gut-wrenching, and Phillip is still obviously feeling the effects later that evening as he sits looking ill in the car while Elizabeth weighs down a duffel bag and throws the cleaved evidence into Lake Michigan.

It’s Elizabeth’s later assertion to Paige that her father made a mistake in ever signing up for a career in covert spying, but who wouldn’t be deeply disturbed by having to dismantle the corpse of a coworker? It’s just another example of how much more Elizabeth is made for this type of work. Philip, bless him, is just a mere mortal. It’s a point she wants to make perfectly clear to Paige when she gets home. Things aren’t always like this, she tells her daughter, but sometimes they are and you have to be prepared to handle them. She’s done sugarcoating the job, and she asks Paige if she’s truly ready to give up everything for spying: friends, relationships, her life if need be. Yes, Elizabeth and Philip had an official wedding ceremony to match their original sham marriage last season, but Elizabeth has always first and foremost been married to the cause. “I don’t really have any friends,” Paige notes in what’s quietly the episode’s saddest moment, but she reaffirms her devotion to the Soviet cause. “Then it’s time to apply for an internship in the State department,” Elizabeth notes, and the episode ends with Paige walking into the rainy night. It’s the grand end to Elizabeth and Paige’s entire time in America, and it’s seemingly now within grasp.

That may not matter, however, if Stan continues to follow his gut over his heart. Aderholt is despondent with the loss of Harvest, noting that Stan was correct when he said all of the FBI’s counterintelligence operations that look like gold eventually turn to shit. This time its Stan who’s there to offer support in an inverse of their years of working together. He brings up old casefiles from the basement looking for clues to tie the Harvest extractors to the years of operations by Soviet illegals that have come before. Plus, the illegals from the Chicago extraction bought vehicles for the operation beforehand, and those witnesses are currently working with FBI sketch artists who noted that the team included a white couple.

All the while the weight of Stan’s suspicions continues to press on him until he finally picks the lock to the Jennings’ house before they get back from Chicago. His walk through their house is almost a montage for the entire series. He sees Paige’s cross necklace on a nightstand from her years with Pastor Tim. He examines their family portraits in the living room as William Crandall’s dying words from years before echo in his ears: “Two kids. She’s beautiful. They’re the American dream.” His final probing in their garage, examining but not solving the fuse box, recalls the show’s pilot episode when he crept into the same garage to poke around. He didn’t know that Philp was watching him then, waiting to strike from the shadows and kill if need be.

Even then, something struck Stan Beeman as being “off” with his neighbors, but years of time and the comforts of friendship dulled that sense of unease. Now, there’s simply too much to ignore: odd work hours, sudden trips out of town, no extended family, conflicts in their story, and how they just so happened to leave at the same time as the Harvest operation in Chicago. You can tell Stan doesn’t want to believe the truth. He even called Philip his best friend in “Harvest’s” opening minutes. But new suspect sketches are coming, and one in next week’s trailer was a dead ringer for Elizabeth in a wig. How much longer can he avoid the truth when it’s poised to be staring him, figuratively and literally, right in the face?

The Dead Drop

-Elizabeth had more art lessons with Erica, but the episode already did enough Philip and Elizabeth soul-searching that I didn’t feel the need to include Erica’s urges for Elizabeth to find and reveal herself through art in the main recap.

-Obviously Philip did not ask for extraction last week, and, as a commenter pointed out, Oleg probably doesn’t have the connections to make that happen anyway.

-The entire Harvest extraction sequence was pretty great, but why would you leave a dismembered body lying in the middle of the parking garage? Sure, they’ve removed all of the identifying features from the body, but the very next person to walk through the garage is going to find it hard to miss. I know they wanted to get out of there quickly, but was one more minute to put the body back in the van really too much trouble? Seems odd.

-On a similar note, was Paige really not available to drive Henry to his friend’s house? When Henry unknowingly gives up the family secret it’s going to seem like Paige really should have found a way to fit that hour into her schedule.

-I’m sure we still have one or two to come, but with the show winding down I’ve been thinking about the show’s great use of musical cues over the years. Here’s my current top 5:

5. “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring in Season 2’s “Echo”
4. “Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac in Season 1’s “Pilot”
3. “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie in Season 4’s “Clark’s Place”
2. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House in Season 6’s “Dead Hand”
1. “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac in Season 3’s “Walter Taffet”

The show loves an on-the-nose music cue, and I’m expecting one more. With the importance that Fleetwood Mac’s music has had for the series (not on the list is “Gold Dust Woman”from this season) I can imagine “Go Your Own Way” as the soundtrack for a final Philip and Elizabeth split to end the series. If you have any other great cues you loved, please note them in the comments section.

Just three episodes left. See you next week!

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2 thoughts on “THE AMERICANS: “Harvest””

  1. I agree with your dead drops–the show has so many threads, it’s ragged in some ways.
    I do like the art lesson thread. Elizabeth has just a glimmer that there is more to life than spy work. But she’s not American enough to settle for a life of creativity, love, fun, freedom. Just that touch of awareness is fun for me.
    And, romance-wise, I was very moved by Phil’s remembering his Russian Orthodox wedding. The guy believed for a while that he had a marriage. And I was moved by Eliz touching him before departing into the night again. I imagined her thinking, “if I were capable of love, I would love him…”
    After Oleg got yelled at by his old spy boss/lover last week, and then she asked for pressure to be put on Oleg’s dad–it’s annoying that they weren’t mentioned at all. I hope they don’t disappear like the Kansas connections a season or 2 ago. Was that lady just pissed at Oleg for not telling her anything useful? Is Oleg getting any useful info for the Gorbachev clique? There was some code work last week, but treaty negotiations are too slow and abstract as a topic for a show like this.
    Paige’s comment that she “wants to make a difference” is believable, and American-sounding, and consistent with her old Christian sincerity. But she’s too young, and she’s been too sheltered , growing up in the USA, to make this kind of commitment.
    Dismembering. We did that with Willilam’s corpse too. Heavy handed symbols.

  2. another dead drop: Stan did not figure out the fuse box. But I’m not sure we’re supposed to believe he learned nothing. Isn’t there other stuff? Radio in the basement; darkroom; codebooks and chemicals; guns, disguises. Maybe all of that is in other safe houses, but I remember lots of code work in the basement or garage an earlier season.

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