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Is there life after spying?
That's not a question The Americans has taken seriously up until now. Of course, the show has long flirted with the idea that the Jenningses might return home — last season particularly — but neither Philip nor Elizabeth seemed able to imagine it. But now, the show is finally demanding that they take the prospect seriously. (That it's pushing those considerations in a season that begins with the exhumation of a KGB spy who'd planned to return home does not bode well.)
As we learn more about the Centre's activities from Oleg's side in Russia, and from Philip's flashbacks and conversations with Gabriel, it seems less and less likely that spies get to be welcomed home as heroes and treated to a pleasant retirement. I worry about Gabriel almost as much as I worry about that wheat plant (seriously, they had to bribe a pilot to smuggle the Glanders sample — how on Earth is he going to get that thing through customs?).
But Gabriel is tired. It adds up, he tells Elizabeth. As usual, a Gabriel quote doubles as a kind of meta-analysis of the show — here, he names the spiritual malaise afflicting everyone this season as lies stack up and guilt accrues. But what's most interesting about Gabriel's exit is how differently he behaves during his goodbyes with Elizabeth and Philip. His attitude with the former is resigned and reassuring. He will go home and resume relationships with the few relatives he has left, he tells her. It's not the brightest future, but there's a pleasant banality to the portrait he paints of himself in retirement. With Philip, by contrast, Gabriel is all edge. He tells him some brutal truths. He notes that they will probably never see each other again. Most intriguingly, having reassured Elizabeth that Paige would do fine and assuaged her concerns that they've burdened her with too much, Gabriel tells Philip the opposite. "You were right about Paige," he says to Philip. "She should be kept out of all this."
This was an unexpected turn — and not just because Gabriel suggested, two sentences earlier, that Philip was "losing it." I think I was expecting Gabriel to tell Philip about Mischa's visit in a semi-suicidal crisis of conscience. Instead, having met Paige — and having informed her of the lives her parents saved, and of their secret heroism — Gabriel revives the Jenningses' most divisive fight. Philip wanted Paige out, Elizabeth wanted her in. By telling them both they were right, Gabriel has pitted them against each other with all the force of his paternal authority. Frank Langella was magnificent in this episode; I might have flinched on Philip's behalf when Gabriel lashed out at him. But I don't know quite to make of Gabriel's indecision there — or why his anger at Philip translated into a concession that he was right. Gabriel is personally escorting one theoretically robust example of how well crossbreeding works back to Russia. Is the implication that Paige — the Centre's own crossbreeding experiment — wouldn't survive a similar transplantation?
She probably wouldn't, because she has horrible handlers. We know, thanks to his chat with Claudia, that Gabriel has never (prior to Mischa's arrival) lied to Elizabeth and Philip. It's chilling, then, that Elizabeth and Philip neglect to correct Paige when she asks them how the mission is going — adding that she's horrified that America would do such a thing. The Jenningses have new information and a new mission, but they let her keep thinking that Benjamin, who's trying to feed the world, is actually trying to starve it. It's an ugly moment, particularly since Paige seems to have truly radicalized this episode. They are destroying her.
The looming implication is that there is no afterlife to being a spy: Stan and Dennis approach a KGB agent seeking an exit strategy for herself and for her son, but she soon gives up hope and walks away. As for the Jenningses, it feels like a sign of their looming obsolescence that Philip and Elizabeth's charms aren't what they were. There was a time when Philip and Elizabeth drove their targets mad with desire. That time seems past, and they're struggling a little with this unexpected side effect of middle age. Philip looks a little put out when Deirdre indicates that she has zero interest in him beyond casual sex, and it bugs Elizabeth that Benjamin is cheating on her.
It's worth noting, finally — as the list of bad omens accrues — that Gabriel's parting words to Philip clarified one other point: The information Gabriel receives is circumscribed by his commitment to being transparent with Philip and Elizabeth. Having dismissed the possibility that Renee is a KGB agent, Gabriel acknowledges that the Centre might not have told him about Renee because they knew Philip would ask him. That's a frightening admission. It suggests that Gabriel only knows what the Centre wants Philip and Elizabeth to know. This is an organization that just used Elizabeth to find out the names of its political opponents in the therapist's office. Remember what the organization does to its opponents — what Gabriel knows they've done. "I believed I was acting in the service of a higher purpose," Gabriel says. "But I was just scared. It was terrible, terrible times."
Gabriel might be trustworthy, but the Centre isn't, and they've only told him as much as they want Elizabeth and Philip to know. I fear there might be some upcoming parallels between what Philip and Elizabeth aren't telling Paige and what the Centre isn't telling them — particularly now that Gabriel, along with any respect for transparency, is gone.
Read more analysis of The Americans:
The camera is getting sneakier on The Americans
The Americans is failing its sons
Regarding Henry and The Americans' other lost threads
Can The Americans tie up its loose ends?
The Americans has spent years whispering. Now it's starting to shout. That's a good thing.
The Americans recap: You are what you eat