THE AMERICANS: “Rififi”

Marital strife obscures the net growing ever tighter on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. 

You’re an adult now, and I don’t have to hide things from you anymore.

–Elizabeth

It’s an interesting trick that after five seasons on the bench Henry Jennings has suddenly become Sixth Man of the Year on The Americans. When the show sent him off to a fancy prep school last year, I actually expected that we’d never see him again beyond a token appearance or two. It seemed as though they were clearing a character who had never quite worked so that they could focus on Paige’s burgeoning role as a second-generation Soviet agent, but “Rififi” was a perfect example of just how excellent a foil the youngest Jennings child can be.

Whereas the in-the-know Paige is forever balancing Elizabeth and Philip’s double roles, Henry remains in the dark about what his parents are really doing whenever they run off on unexpected business trips, which allows his innocent ponderings to carry heavy thematic loads in addition to the “if he only knew” heaviness. In “Rififi.” that moment comes in an unexpected call with his mother after she’s run off to handle another “travel emergency” and misses their Thanksgiving meal. She calls for no obvious purpose, simply wanting to talk about school. It’s the type of thing they don’t do much now that Elizabeth and Philip have essentially divided their parenting duties and she’s busy dealing with Paige. What he doesn’t know is that his mother’s call is a possible goodbye as she plans for an extraction that she doesn’t expect to go well. This could be the last time she speaks to him if she’s killed or captured, but even now she can’t admit that precarious truth. For Elizabeth, it’s always the mission first, and, even in a show about family secrets as explored through spycraft, that’s a tough pill to swallow. All of this in an episode where Henry catches Elizabeth smoking and she admits that there are things she doesn’t have to hide from him now that he’s grown up. Ouch.

Henry’s transition from benchwarmer to asset is only one of three major truths proven over the course of “Rififi’s” runtime. The first and most important to the plot is that Dennis Aderholt is the best (and perhaps only good) agent in the FBI. When he asks Stan to join him in the counterintelligence offices, his former partner can only blandly note how people always seem to die when he returns to the CI offices. This is a mission of mercy, however. Aderholt reveals several new breaks in their attempts to capture Soviet illegal operatives in the US. Gennadi’s last information package before defecting contained software for a lithium-based radiation sensor manufactured by Altheon industries, and there was a break-in at the same company’s plant in Washington. That info led them to a Soviet illegal codenamed “Harvest” who’s currently giving up secrets to the FBI. That new info is tightening the net on all Soviet agents working in the network, and, after all the pain he endured through years of frivolous chasing and losing people he cared about, Aderhold wants Stan to be there to share in the victory when the traps all finally spring shut.

It’s an opportunity that Stan can’t pass up, and his renewed passion is notable when the Jenningses (minus Elizabeth dealing with her “travel emergency”) join Stan, Renee, and the Aderholts for Thanksgiving where Stan opens the meal not with a prayer, but a celebration of the American Ideal and an excoriation of those who would threaten their way of life. It’s yet another instance of things kept secret having a profound impact on our characters. Philip and Paige don’t know that Harvest is giving up Soviet operating secrets to the FBI, thereby endangering their continued work in America. All the while, Stan doesn’t know that one of the exact people he longs to apprehend is sitting at his dinner table.

The third great truth about The Americans revealed in “Rififi” is that schlubby, down on his luck Philip is the show’s greatest character. Philip’s real world business continues to unravel, and that stress plus Elizabeth’s spy activities have the couple’s marriage strained to the breaking point. “Rififi” actually opens with Philip sitting at the kitchen table waiting for his wife to get home in yet another role reversal of prestige TV’s typical format. Philip confronts Elizabeth about her murders of Gennadi and Sofia in front of their child and tells her that he refuses to see Kimmy anymore, and even warned her not to go to any communist countries while she’s in Greece. Henry, home for the Thanksgiving break, notes the next morning that she slept in Paige’s bed instead of her own.

Things never get better for Philip, who’s next forced to lay off several of his employees. When Henry tells his father that one of his friends has a rich entrepreneur father who’s open to helping him out, Philip is flustered to be seen by his son and his son’s friends as a failure. Things come to a head when Philip takes the day off – a day he really should be working considering how bad business is – to spend time with Henry. The pair are playing a slot car game in a crowd when Philip bursts into unexpected expletives at his inability to keep his car on the track. It’s hilarious, and an example of how a bit of levity can buoy a show as serious as The Americans. Matthew Rhys is showing an incredible comic timing this season, and it’s a very welcome breath of air that punctuates the show’s often stifling pressure. Schlubby Philip; may he reign a thousand years!

Naturally, it’s the true believer Elizabeth who brings much of the episode’s spycraft drama, the obverse to Philip’s troubles in the coin that is their marriage and careers. She’s assigned to gather intelligence on the meetings between a member of the Soviet negotiating team in town for nuclear de-escalation talks and the CIA agent he seems to be reporting to. Her target is a young film-buff intern named Jackson who works on his staff, and she bonds with him over a second-run theater’s showing of the French heist film Rififi. Elizabeth is surprised when Jackson rebuffs her advances after the film (perhaps he’s gay, or perhaps the show just wants to note that Elizabeth is just getting too old to be honeypot-ing 20-year olds), but she later gains his trust by offering him work at her fake firm after he expresses more interest in culture than politics.

That mission will have to go on the back burner though, as Elizabeth is instead dispatched to Chicago in an attempt to extract the captured Soviet agent Harvest from the FBI’s clutches. This is perhaps the most dangerous mission she’s ever faced. It’s not 100% clear whether Harvest actually wants extraction or is simply being used by the FBI to lure other spies into a trap. Even Elizabeth and her co-conspirators don’t think highly of the mission’s chances for success. It could easily end in capture or death instead, and this is what triggers her to call Henry at home. More meaningfully, she also calls Philip, who she’d previously berated for his lack of ideals and commitment with Kimmy — and he pledges to come to her aid.

Every time The Americans wants you to think Philip and Elizabeth can’t possibly survive their love finds a way to endure, but the stakes have never been higher for our protagonist spies. Harvest will be nearly impossible to rescue, and even if they succeed, Stan and Aderholt are closing in back on the home front. The net gets ever tighter. Rififi, aside from the meta-textual importance of its blacklisted American director, is most notable for its nearly 30-minute heist scene. That’s exactly what Philip and Elizabeth are aiming to pull off next week: stealing a Soviet asset back from right from underneath the FBI’s nose. It should be thrilling, but here’s the trouble; if you’ve seen Rififi, then you know the hero dies.

The Dead Drop

-Has there been any fan service this season better than Stan and Dennis having to share the elevator with the mail robot? So so good.

-It’s hard to comment on the coded message Philip left for Oleg at the end of the episode. Maybe it’s just info on Elizabeth, but what did he actually learn about her mission in this episode that he could actually pass on? My outside guess is that he’s asking for extraction for the family.

-Hang in there with Walden, Henry. It’s a transcendentalist classic about self-discovery and communing with nature. You may need that if you end up in the USSR.

-Keidrich Sellati is good, not great as Henry. It’s really the writing that’s carrying that role, but I can’t be mad at a guy who was cast as a young teen. He’s certainly not distracting. When you cast kids on a TV show you’re flipping a coin and hoping they develop into really good actors. They got that with Holly Taylor, so let’s not be greedy.

Just four more episodes left and next week looks like an all-timer! With all that newly gained info about Soviet methods from Harvest it looks like Stan is doing some poking around the Jennings house! See you all then.

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One thought on “THE AMERICANS: “Rififi””

  1. Philip can’t be asking Oleg for extraction, because Oleg isn’t well connected enough. The embassy’s spy branch maybe could extract. Claudia would not do it now because Eliz. is too valuable. Maybe Phil told Oleg that Eliz. is out of town a bit, so assassinations will be fewer, the negotiators safer. Maybe Phil thought the Chicago trip would mean something to Oleg.
    Philip being so upfront with Eliz. about dropping the Bulgaria assignment surprised me. That admission could get him killed, as he’s more than a dropout, he’s an enemy. Also, it tells the Soviets that they’ll have to chloroform Kimmy to haul her to Bulgaria.
    I’m annoyed that the Mexico orders to Eliz. have sat fallow so long, no new info about them. Was that thread about the arms limit negotiations? Kind of discontinuous.
    Likewise, watching “Rififi” I was confused about a second Sam Nunn intern. I thought Paige went to bed with one. Or is Jackson the same guy? If so, and if Eliz. takes over working him and screwing him–kinky, and in line with the show’s ethos.
    A sign of the times/detail: when Stan and Dennis talk about uncovering Russian agent “Harvest” through gay sex, they smirk Harvest’s “next date”. A modern crime/spy show wouldn’t let them act so 1980’s narrow minded , unless to belittle them.
    And Stan will make progress next week, according to the tease at the end. So they’ll have 4 weeks when Stan is soooo close.

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