Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are no strangers to chance, and The Americans often generates suspense by thrusting them into the chaos created by others: Paige (Holly Taylor) revealing her parents’ secret to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), Martha escaping from the KGB’s safe house, Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt) accusing the spies of a hand in her husband’s disappearance. But tonight’s episode, perhaps because it scuttles narrative fireworks in favor of social cues, seems to press the issue further, raising the question of fate. Is there method in this madness? Is there meaning?
Elizabeth’s conversations with Pastor Tim, a sort of Socratic dialogue on the existence of a higher power, set the terms of the debate, but it’s a series of coincidences on which the notion of a grand design turns. “Dinner for Seven” replicates, writ large, the confluence of plot threads in the Jenningses’ foyer: As Stan (Noah Emmerich) heads home after having a drink with Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) arrive, and for a moment the death of Frank Gaad, the betrayal of Young Hee, and the careful handling of Tim and Alice inhabit the same claustrophobic space. It’s The Americans at a crossroads.
A feat of meticulous craftsmanship, a subtle bait and switch, “Dinner at Seven” frames its constituent parts as opposing forces, but in the end each element contributes to a coherent, if half-hidden, whole. Tim and Elizabeth’s triptych of cautious exchanges seems to lean, for instance, toward his side of the argument, the belief, as he says, that we’re all subject to “something greater” than ourselves. For Tim, of course, this is God, but it’s his openness to the idea that the supernatural is not the sole source of the moral impulse that draws Elizabeth, quite literally, into their discussion. Each subsequent scene finds her stance softening, and the sublime collaboration between the actors, writer Joshua Brand, and director Nicole Kassell elucidates this point with precision.
The first encounter is halting, standoffish, with Elizabeth propping herself against a table rather than sitting by Tim’s desk—wary, possibly, of being seen as the parishioner, the supplicant, when her ulterior motive is to procure the tape Alice mentions in “Munchkins.” The second begins in much the same fashion, the camera watchful, distant, as Elizabeth knocks on the door, but Tim soon closes the space between them, relaxing into his chair. Whether reassured or simply bemused by the news that he happens to know two Soviet spies living across the street from an F.B.I. agent, he warms to her, and Elizabeth responds in kind. She edges into his office and then steps into the breach: “You know,” she ventures, “we didn’t choose each other either, did we?”
Though she is, once again, working the long con, stroking Tim’s ego as a spiritual advisor, it’s telling that their third and final meeting culminates in a kind of confession, their mutual skepticism momentarily subsiding. She doesn’t cite specifics, but it’s evident that Elizabeth is brought low by Young Hee’s (Ruthie Ann Miles) wounded, desperate message, and Tim throws the manipulation of her “friend” into sharp relief. “All that matters,” he counsels, “is how we treat each other.”
If this series of events suggests a unifying ethical principle, “Dinner for Seven” is willing to shatter it too. At the heart of the episode is the comic strain of the titular sequence, a tense, awkward acknowledgment that “how we treat each other” is contingent, circumstantial, constrained. Against even the hesitant evolution of Tim and Elizabeth’s understanding, the interlude’s formal symmetry, its stasis, is striking: The meal begins and ends with the same high-angle shot of the entire table, not to mention corresponding cutaways to Philip and Elizabeth’s guarded expressions, those of gamblers who’ve gone all in.
Considering the context of the evening’s conversations, the implication is that the die is already cast: Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt), mere days after promising to destroy the Jennings family altogether, assures Elizabeth that she doesn’t “threaten people,” while Stan sniffs at Tim’s support for nuclear non-proliferation after the kindly pastor quails at his (admittedly inelegant) description of divorce. As Stan says, referring to the upheaval in his own life, our most fundamental disagreements don’t become “better,” in the sense that we resolve them, but they do sometimes become “easier,” in the sense that we develop an etiquette for dealing with our differences. In other words, we learn how to lie.
In effect, then, the episode articulates a contrast between faith and doubt, between the idealism of the Golden Rule and the pragmatism of politics, only to destabilize it, returning to one of The Americans’s central premises: Chaos is a symptom, not a cause, of the unwavering conviction. Though one works from the assumption that the appearance of randomness is no more than a failure to grasp the larger pattern, and the other sees randomness as the proof there’s no pattern at all, Tim and Elizabeth share in the supposition at the heart of both fate and chance, which is that the course of events is beyond our command. After all, Elizabeth’s notion that “we didn’t choose each other” echoes no one so much as her most formidable adversary. “None of us are in control,” Tim says. “Not really. Not ever.”
As in the blood-soaked surprise of its final minute, which witnesses Elizabeth, leaving the food pantry with Paige, fend off two menacing men in a dimly lit parking lot, “Dinner for Seven” doesn’t imagine a world shaped by providence, but it also resists the temptation to reduce the individual experience to a series of accidents, a redux of the existential absurd. It is, forgive the pun, no coincidence that the episode should construct such forceful connections to prior events, as if to impose another hermeneutic altogether: Just as the KGB telephone operator poured Philip borscht in “Travel Agents” as he neared the end of his relationship with Martha, Gabriel (Frank Langella) offers Elizabeth pierogi before she carries off one last deception of Don (Rob Yang); Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), spurred by the “curious” timing of her death, recalls the bleak confrontation with Betty in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”
Each new obstacle Philip and Elizabeth face in The Americans is, in one sense, an unforeseen consequence, an unexpected development, but each also presents a choice. To send Martha into exile, to poison the potential witness, to accept the Centre’s command to spoil Young Hee and Don’s “perfect little life”: These are moments of decision, loci of control, subject to “something greater” only insofar as the characters fail to recognize that the Cold War is the result of human actions, a response to crises and exigencies that involve no grand design.
This is what Stan is trying to say, I suspect, when he drifts into mournful reverie during his clandestine meeting with Oleg (Costa Ronin), remembering Chris Amador, Nina, and Gaad. As The Americans’s fourth season approaches its end, the most hushed moment in tonight’s quiet masterpiece focuses on the one person for whom the larger pattern is now clear: not fate, nor chance, but choice, a corpse-strewn conflict that offers the pretense of method, of meaning, but produces only madness.
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