Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are names on tombstones in an American cemetery, aliases adopted by Mikhail (Matthew Rhys) and Nadezhda (Keri Russell) upon reaching the United States, but they are also, as the pair admits to Paige (Holly Taylor) in “The World Council of Churches,” their “real names” now—disguises worn so long they’ve supplanted the people underneath. The implications of Shakespeare’s oft-quoted question, and the fact that we are more complex organisms than the rose that remains a rose, so thoroughly permeate the season’s penultimate episode that it begins to seem an obsession. As The Americans nears the end of its most ambitious arc, a painstaking, jet-black portrait of the families we make and break over the course of life’s long passage, “The World Council of Churches” considers the relationship between what we call ourselves and who we are: What, after all, is in a name?
“I miss my old name, too,” Philip adds, when Paige asks after the origins of “Jennings.” Mikhail, or Mischa: The name by which he’s known to his brother, sister-in-law and nephew in Russia; the name of his estranged son (Alex Ozerov), whiling away his days in a mirthless Soviet factory when his uncle invites him to dinner. (“He lives abroad. He’s some kind of hero,” Mischa says of Philip, rueful. “I’m not supposed to ask about him, either.”) In the context of the season’s raft of flashbacks to Philip’s childhood, not to mention his and Elizabeth’s renewed interest in going “home,” the fact that Philip misses his old name—even as he accepts Philip as his “real” one—is telling. The central slippage of espionage, the one that brings the Jennings low after the gruesome climax of “Dyatkovo,” is that among the agents’ multiple selves, and much of Philip’s upset this season stems from the fact that self and name no longer match. Is he the suburban father concerned that Stan (Noah Emmerich) might end up like Martha, and does this mean he’s also still Clark? Is he the Mischa he remembers, the Mischa that married Nadezhda in “Darkroom,” or is he neither, or both?
The Americans offers no clear answers to these questions, because, of course, there are none: It is not only spies that wear disguises, assuming and discarding identities as circumstances change. Paige removes the cross around her neck in the opening sequence, so far from the eager communicant of “Born Again” she might be a different person; Henry (Keidrich Sellati), emboldened by his success at school and his relationship with Chris, prepares a dinner for his parents that’s so surprising they’re left more or less speechless, as if the immature boy of seasons past had been replaced with someone else. That moment in which Elizabeth retrieves the pendant from the trash and places it in Paige’s hand, like the one in which the elder Jennings pretend all’s well with Henry’s plans for prep school, draws the poignant point that dissembling is not as difficult as we prefer to believe. I, too, have worn more disguises than I can count, trained only by the notion that my name—which means “gift of God”—doesn’t quite match my self, either.
This thought is unpleasant to acknowledge, not least because it has consequences for other people, too: For Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), Alice and Claire Louise, off to Buenos Aires because the Jennings are not who they claim to be; for Oleg (Costa Ronin), nearly ensnared by the KGB investigators for giving the FBI the intelligence that led to William Crandall—Vitaly’s—capture; for Stan and Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), suddenly unsure of the operation with Sofia (Darya Ekamasova) because her intended is both a famous hockey player and, perhaps, a mole. In the choice to cloak the self in one or another persona, The Americans suggests—the attentive lover, the caring neighbor, the loyal friend; the unassuming secretary, the committed parishioner, the concerned handler—there is always the latent risk that we’ll forget who we are, and by extension what it is we stand for. Oleg’s frustration over the likely prosecution of his informant, Ekaterina, is one example: In “The World Council of Churches,” which begins to bring his season-long subplot into sharper relief, he realizes that he’s been fighting on behalf of a regime soaked in the very corruption he’s trying to stop, and it appears to send him reeling. As he surveyed the Moscow skyline to the mournful score, I even found myself thinking, “Will he jump?”
The same sense of fatigue animates the Jennings’ nascent plan to resettle in Russia, which again raises the issue of names: “Would they just go around Moscow as Paige and Henry Jennings?” Philip asks. “They should take your name,” she replies, before nodding in assent that she’ll take his name, too. Mikhail, or Mischa; Philip; Clark: Which one of these he assumes as his own will transform the lives of those around him, and in this “The World Council of Churches” is, despite its comedown from the lacerating doubleheader of “Darkroom” and “Dyatkovo,” a rather magnificent treatment of the terror of finding, and of being, oneself. “You can’t predict what a person’s life will be,” Tim advises, “and you can’t deny them the challenges that’ll shape them”: To hide in one or another disguise—son, brother, boyfriend; teacher, writer, not-quite “gift of God”—is not the challenge itself but the avoidance thereof, delaying the reckoning until it’s too late, at which point events we can neither predict not prevent finally force your hand.
There is, to wit, one more name for Philip in “The World Council of Churches,” which Elizabeth announces with that plaintive cry: “Brad!” she says, as the “flight attendants” and their “adoptive son” race to the Morozov home to stop Pasha’s (Zack Gafin) attempted suicide. The first real cliffhanger of the season is also among the series’ most brutal, as the misery that Tuan (Ivan Mok) and the Jennings have heaped upon an innocent teenager—note that the sequence cuts to Paige here, the camera dancing around the punching bag in the garage—reaches the moment of crisis. Unlike Natalie Granholm, Pasha is culpable in no crimes, and though our questions must remain unanswered for now (Did Pasha follow Tuan’s advice, or for that matter his instructions? Who is the man watching the Morozovs’ house? Do Philip and Elizabeth realize they’ve gone too far, that Pasha is indeed “the priority here”?), there’s no mistaking that what they’ve wrought is not the “justice” to which Elizabeth refers in the episode’s opening sequence.
Juliet’s speech might promise Romeo that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but the final act of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and The Americans’ looming one, is not so naïve to endorse her conviction. What’s in a name? Maybe everything.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.