Directed by Matthew Rhys, this week’s episode of The Americans, “The Committee on Human Rights,” begins exactly where “Crossbreed” left off. But let me begin at the end, specifically with that haunting image of Gabriel (Frank Langella) and Philip (Rhys) seated across from one another inside the former’s apartment. Throughout this evocatively staged sequence that serves as a tribute to Gabriel’s work throughout the years in trying to keep Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) well informed and grounded, my eye kept gravitating to a patch of white unpainted wall near Gabriel’s head. And my mind went to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, a film in which people leave behind splotchy black stains—redolent of the blast shadows of Hiroshima victims—on walls when they die, or simply go missing. That blackness is a symbol of all that’s inexplicable about our lives, just as the swath of unpainted wall here represents the one thing that Gabriel doesn’t come clean about throughout a profound unloading of his conscience: that he kept Mischa away from Philip.
More remarkable even than the fatalistic mood that Langella sustains during this exchange, or the way that Rhys’s images cradle the characters throughout the seamlessly edited shot-reverse shots of this and the other scenes set within Gabriel’s apartment, is how nearly all of the episode’s plot strands spill into or directly inform Gabriel’s long goodbye. Philip, perhaps because of the toll his remembrances of his youth are taking on him, or maybe because of his frustration over the dead end that the investigation into AgriCorp seemingly reached, is seeing deception everywhere. Early in the episode, during a stretch of good old-fashion spycraft in action, Elizabeth retrieves the mystery file from the psychiatrist’s office, and later Philip asks Gabriel about the file’s contents with a hint of accusation in his voice, as if he feels he’s being kept in the dark about something. Gabriel tells him it’s nothing more than information about a well-organized opposition to the party back home—words that are so canny in their vagueness that viewers shouldn’t be surprised if, several episodes from now, Philip’s paranoia is justified.
Indeed, only time will tell if Gabriel’s words are veiled in any way, but in the moment, his home is the only place it seems where the truth is remotely easy to get. That can’t be said about the domestic space that Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) shares with Renee (Laurie Holden). Duty, of course, requires him to remain silent about even the smallest details pertaining to his job, which include whatever he and Dennis (Brandon J. Dirden) are after by wrangling Miss Kovalenko (Darya Ekamasova) and how it’s ensuring his job security for the moment. But he senses the harm that this is doing to his bourgeoning relationship, and so he offers Renee an abstraction of the truth that, from the expression on her face, clearly and deservedly gets an A for effort. Later, in Gabriel’s apartment, Philip asks his handler if Renee is one of them, to which Gabriel balks: “Are you serious? You’re losing it Philip.” And yet Gabriel leaves the door open to the possibility that she’s a spy by suggesting that the agency didn’t tell him because they knew Philip would ask him the question.
The producers of The Americans are more than aware that they’re playing a very, very long game with their audience.
If Philip could couple all that Renee knows about Pittsburg with all that she knows about Indiana and the shooting locations of Breaking Away, the film she and Stan are watching on television during their conversation in this episode, then he might not be so suspicious about her—because, seriously, how much research into the American New Wave were Russian spies asked to do during the Cold War? By this point in the season, it’s safe to say that the producers of The Americans are more than aware that they’re playing a very, very long game with their audience, and if you’re at all annoyed with the series at present (which is to say, if you’re not completely satisfied with how happy it is to simply stew in the characters’ fears and insecurities), then you’re invited to see some of your frustrations reflected in Philip’s own. The man is looking for a release to what feels like a stopgap in his life, and there’s a sense that it will come soon now that Gabriel is likely out of his life forever.
Philip’s desire even metatextually resonates throughout the episode. “You need a lot,” Deirdre Kemp (Clea Lewis) says to him at one point, after he brings up the one bowl in her kitchen and a conversation ensues about whether she’s ever lived with anyone and the possibility of him spending more time in Topeka. The double-meaning dialogue of the scene is delicious: Deirdre is, of course, correct when she says Philip isn’t good at letting things take their course but not for the reason that she thinks. Little does she know that all he wants from her are some Lotus 1-2-3 files. Nonetheless, Philip is stung by how Deirdre only wants him for sex, and it’s a moment that dovetails perfectly with a later scene in which he and Elizabeth learn that Benjamin Stobert (Brett Tucker) has been seeing another woman. Philip almost needs Elizabeth to feel as slighted by Benjamin as he was by Deirdre, because it seemed as if Benjamin was very much into Elizabeth. And little does Philip know—because Elizabeth certainly isn’t telling—that she probably is hurt, though also not for the reason he thinks: The seeming sincerity of Benjamin’s attentions and passions may not exactly have enamored her, but at least they made her feel pangs of guilt that drove her toward Young Hee’s former home.
The sincerity with which one arrives at self-truths is a thematic thread that’s run throughout this season of The Americans and is very much front and center in “The Committee on Human Rights.” The episode begins with Philip and Elizabeth marveling at the ease with which Gabriel handily wins Paige (Holly Taylor) over by amusingly acknowledging how her personhood has been affected by the discovery of her parents’ secret lives. It’s easy to appreciate the warmth that washes over Paige during this scene as myths—about her family, about Russian spywork—are almost subliminally dispelled for her and, later, the way she takes her life into her own hands by finally breaking up with Matthew (Danny Flaherty), as if driven by a greater sense of certainty. Except that everyone who sits around Paige during the episode’s opening scene appears to recognize the bitter irony of Gabriel, by way of Marx, saying, “Our sacrifices are then for the benefits of all.”
Unmistakably residing in the look that Elizabeth directs at Philip during this moment is a confession: that their sacrifices might have done more harm than good. And it’s one that Gabriel almost explicitly cops to by the end of the episode. Exiting his apartment for what will probably be the last time, holding a potentially world-changing plant (a potted sample of Benjamin’s work for AgriCorp in Mississippi) in his hands that drolly evokes a retirement gift, he offers a sort of correction: “You were right about Paige. She should be kept out of all this.” For Gabriel, the only way for him to apologize for the way he essentially sacrificed a man’s son to a cause is to save the man’s daughter. Which means, should Philip learn of Mischa coming to D.C. and that he wasn’t told for reasons that were scarcely for the benefit of all, then the only thing to stop him from going after Gabriel may be to heed the man’s words: to keep Paige from the very trauma that currently eats away at his own conscience.
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