Can you imagine The Americans without Frank Langella’s Gabriel, who’s emerged this season as the shoulder angel to Margo Martindale’s devil-like Claudia? This much is clear: Levity will be in shorter supply. In the opening of this week’s episode, “Crossbreed,” Elizabeth (Keri Russell) informs Gabriel of her almost certain belief that Alexei Morozov is trying to feed the world’s hungry, to which he replies: “Just like Miss America.” Gabriel, in the moment, seems completely unperturbed by the news, concerned less with the next stage of Elizabeth’s sleuthing than he is with Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) mental well-being in the wake of the lab director’s death. Gabriel may make room here and there for a good joke, but like the series itself for the last few episodes, he’s obviously burdened by the emotional collateral damage caused by spywork. “The same as me, it’s upsetting,” Elizabeth tells her handler after he asks her about Philip, and by the end of this finely detailed episode, she arrives at a place where those words come to actually feel true.
“Crossbreed” is practically a treatise on the psychodynamic theory of guilt. There’s a sadness to the way Elizabeth runs the faucet after Henry (Keidrich Sellati) leaves the kitchen, signaling to Philip that it’s time to talk shop. Their conversation, which he visibly dreads having, is a familiar one: making sure that their superiors don’t see them sweat—that these spies have built the defense mechanisms to sufficiently protect them from whatever pain they harbor within them. Theirs is a charade that would seem at least unnecessary to perform for Gabriel, who’s clearly being sincere when he assures Elizabeth that her uncertainty is normal, and at the same time as his acknowledgment of his sense of mortality constitutes an admission that he, too, is plagued by similar feelings. But Philip and Elizabeth have been feigning pain and pleasure for so long as part of their job that it’s only natural that they would keep their guards up even around the architects of their ingenious personas.
Slowly and methodically, the episode reveals Elizabeth, Philip, and Gabriel to be working their way through one of the so-called stages of grief. Elizabeth is in denial about the extent to which her work has eaten away at her, until a Tai chi session with the perceptive Benjamin Stobert (Brett Tucker) visibly unlocks something within her. A little less on point is the portrayal of Philip’s depression: He still struggles to figure out the reason for why he’s increasingly gripped by memories of his impoverished youth alongside his father and mother (Alexei Bondar and Natia Dune). And then there’s Gabriel, who’s very much in the bargaining stage. The elephant in the room is Mischa (Alex Ozerov), whom he kept away from Philip, and in lieu of admitting to him what he did, Gabriel eases his burden by helping Philip to unlock at least one mystery from his past by telling him that his father worked at a penal camp.
The latest episode of The Americans is practically a treatise on the psychodynamic theory of guilt.
“We didn’t have anything, now we have everything,” Philip tells Elizabeth in bed after remembering how his father used to bring stuff home from work. At this early point in the episode, as he recalls his mother cleaning a filthy pair of shoes, Philip is obviously thinking about how much he materially has in America. But what shape will his memories take, tomorrow or the day after, when he knows that those shoes were pulled from the feet of a man that his father possibly had a hand in killing? The Americans comprehends the complicated irony of Gabriel’s blessing also being a curse, then cunningly sees how the emotional torch that this man guiltily carries and passes on to another is of a piece with the soul of the Russian nation, or at least that of the purest communist mindset and its ardent belief—as espoused by Elizabeth at one point—that “we’re all in it together.”
The Americans isn’t a very political series, or rather, it isn’t an explicitly political one. Certainly, “Crossbreed” feels the closest that the series has come to offering up a commentary on the fundamental idea of communism, and yet, given the rather pointed reference that Paige (Holly Taylor) makes to her communion in the process of telling her mother that she’s getting something valuable out of the Marx that she’s reading, it’s also more accurate to say that the series is generally about people’s struggle to abide by the tenets of any belief system that’s been essentially forced on them. At one point, Dimitri (Leonid A. Mandel) discovers that Oleg (Costa Ronin) and Ruslan (Ravil Isyanov) have broken into his “beautiful apartment” and discovered the evidence of his shady dealings, including money and watches, and he almost reflexively mutters: “Take what you want. There’s enough for everyone.” He parrots the line they want to hear, and without knowing that one of his tormentors no longer takes much stock in such a belief.
Elsewhere, we catch glimpses of Evgheniya Morozov (Irina Dvorovenko) being tailed by Philip and his crew and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) sinking their claws into a new target, but how these angles will fit into the season’s big picture remains to be seen. The narrative shards that truly resonate here are the ones that tie back to the episode’s overriding thematic concern with the nature of grief. It’s in Elizabeth confusing Paige for how she brushes off the Mary Kay spokeswoman who comes to their door; Paige thinks her mother is being mean, but really the woman is yet another reminder of what Elizabeth did to Young Hee, and soon she sets out to visit her old friend’s home, discovering that she no longer lives there. It’s even in Elizabeth, during her latest mission, using something very close to the truth about her past to ingratiate herself with a psychiatrist whose files she wants access to. Her desire to unburden herself of all the bad things she’s done certainly feels real, but the self-deprecation in her face as she walks out of the man’s office also suggests that her belief in confession as salvation is still only in some kind of nascent stage.
The heady title of the episode points at once to AgriCorp’s manipulation of plants and, more urgently, to Paige’s confused sense of herself as a product of vastly different ideologies. And that confusion is like that of her parents, even Oleg’s. “Crossbreed” imaginatively ends with a montage that braids together all of these traumas, and set to Peter Gabriel’s “Lay Your Hands on Me.” Every “I am willing,” “I am ready,” and “I believe” of the song speaks to the characters’ sense of “living in the zone of the in-betweens,” which is to say between who we want to be and who we’re pretending to be. When Elizabeth and Philip take Paige to meet Gabriel, the moment is jarring because of the multitudes it contains. Paige is at once offered to him as a thank you, for all that he’s done for her parents, and as a sacrifice of sorts, for all that she could offer the agency. But beneath the surface is still the unspoken truth of what Gabriel has withheld from Philip, and the sense that its unearthing could be the flashpoint that spirals more than one life into oblivion.
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