At its most compelling, The Americans is about slippages: between stasis and change, citizen and country, faith and doubt; between parent and handler, child and charge; between past and present, us and them, you and I. After all, no character remains perched at one of these poles for long—secretaries become spies and dissenters disciples, hardliners soften and targets resist. So it is in “The Great Patriotic War,” as Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) cutting comment on Paige’s (Holly Taylor) liaison with a congressional intern — “sounds like you made quite the impression” — segues into her fateful request that Philip (Matthew Rhys) lean on Kimmy (Julia Garner) to join her in Greece. Elizabeth’s plan, which involves blackmail and a Bulgarian prison, is a desperate one, and Philip is reluctant to participate. “She’s just a kid,” he protests. “Not anymore,” Elizabeth replies.
That they might just as easily be talking about Paige—and this before she beats up a cowardly suitor and his aggressive wingman in a crowded bar—soon emerges as the crux of one of The Americans’ finest hours, which condenses the series’ central tactic, the element of disguise, into its most threatening. Kimmy slips into Paige; Paige slips into Elizabeth; Elizabeth slips into the role of doting wife, or eager lover; Philip slips the grasp of the operation in Greece, though not before slipping into his most painful choice of all. After the earlier conversation in the Jennings’ kitchen, there’s no question that Philip has made a decision with regard to Kimmy that he’d find loathsome if it happened to Paige. “I’m proud of you,” he says before he kisses his mark, fucks her, unable to do more than stare at the wall. “You’ve grown into a smart, interesting woman.” Coming on the heels of Paige’s self-defense, the sequence, though brief, is unbearable.
The unifying factor here, of course, is sex—the ultimate connection, the ultimate weapon, the ultimate revelation, the ultimate disguise. It’s the long, lingering silence and the flirty little laugh by which Elizabeth cushions her husband against the prospective mission in Greece, on which director Thomas Schlamme holds for several dozen exquisite seconds. It’s the subject of Paige’s argument with Elizabeth as their sparring match comes to an abrupt end, which writer Hilary Bettis conveys through the petulant remark (“get off my ass”) of any college sophomore. It’s the unacknowledged current running through Oleg’s (Costa Ronin) surprise run-in with his former flame, Tatiana (Vera Cherny), and her pungent instruction to the rezident to send a cable that labels Burov disloyal. It blinds Stan (Noah Emmerich) to the niggling possibility that Renee (Laurie Holden) is a plant; it binds Claudia (Margo Martindale), Elizabeth and Paige closer together, trading war stories from the battle of the sexes as they throw back shots of vodka. It is, as “The Great Patriotic War” reiterates again and again with such unforgettable ardor, the ultimate challenger of simple binaries, if only because it is so fundamental to our shared experience: If you have never used sex to avoid an argument, or indeed to start one, have never manipulated with it or been manipulated by it, if it has never consumed you, pursued you, bowled you over, then you may be above The Americans’ fray, but as it happens I am not.
The same might be said of love, of course—another slippage, this one my own—but that is, as I see it, the point. As its title implies, “The Great Patriotic War” is, as with the series entire, an act of reinterpretation, ever shifting with one’s point of view. To Stan, Gennadi (Yuri Kolokolnikov) is a source; to Gennadi, Stan’s a friend. To Oleg, fleeing the United States is moving on; to Tatiana, it is ignoring the consequences of one’s actions. To Kimmy, Philip’s decision to end their relationship is mercurial, cruel; to Philip it is a kindness, and perhaps his penance for prior sins. To Paige, the fight in the bar is self-defense; to her mother, self-exposure. This is, you see, what it’s always been about, dating back to the pilot episode: To imagine villains as heroes and enemies as friends, love affairs as honey traps and partnerships as marriages, to understand, after a fashion, that The Great Patriotic War and World War II are one in the same, and also polar opposites.
It’s this, in the end, that sends the episode, the season, the series hurtling into the home stretch, with the camera chasing Philip and Elizabeth from the garage to the master suite until they reach the same, polar opposite conclusions: “Maybe you were right,” Elizabeth says of Paige. “Maybe she’s not cut out for this.” “She can do it,” Philip counters. “My point was always that she shouldn’t.” From here the palette shifts from The Americans’ muddy neutrals to the purple of bruises and the crimson of wounds, one final slippage, the one that defines it—the slippage between war and peace, creation and destruction. In the image of Elizabeth tiptoeing along the wall after her brutal murders of Gennadi and Sofia (Darya Ekamasova), or the sound of Philip muttering “Not bad” after he roughs up Paige to make a point, the series digs once more into its protagonists’ penchant for violence. Only now that slippage threatens to draw in their daughter, to expose her—as Gennadi and Sofia’s son is exposed—to traumas from which they’ve so long sought to protect her.
“Something’s wrong with you,” Kimmy tells Philip, though in an episode of slippages she might be speaking of anyone.
“I know, but I’m trying my best,” Philip replies, and so might he.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.