The Americans Review: Old Scars, New Skin

(Episode 5.05)

TV Reviews The Americans
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<i>The Americans</i> Review: Old Scars, New Skin

It’s altogether fitting that Stan Beeman (director Noah Emmerich) should express the sentiment at the crux of “Lotus 1-2-3”: At once falling in love and falling out of favor at work, his folksy toast, “To old scars and new skin,” suggests the same combination of the expectant and the world-weary that suffuses the entire episode. To be more precise, it’s the understanding that old scars are made from new skin that The Americans conjures here, seeping in through the cracks in each character’s façade as the hour unfolds; the lightheartedness of its half-winking approach to bone-dry pillow talk (“I can show you some printouts”) and arrogant men (“You know a lot about a lot of things!”) soon sours, by increments, until idealism and disillusionment meet. Of all people, Stan should recognize that the two states are inextricable—though of course, as Renee (Laurie Holden) observes, ”[I]t’s easy not to see it.”

Whether she merits Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) suspicion, or for that matter Stan’s affection, Renee’s mention of the blinders we wear to assuage our doubts echoes through the remainder of “Lotus 1-2-3,” the main theme in its regretful fugue. It’s in Philip’s uncertain assessment of his childhood memories, hesitant to lend meager hunks of black bread more nostalgia than they deserve; it’s in the stupefied glance he and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) exchange after learning that Henry (Keidrich Sellati) has an “aptitude” for mathematics. It is, perhaps most acutely, in Mischa’s (Alex Ozerov) crestfallen face, as Gabriel (Frank Langella) explains that he’s come thousands of miles for nothing: The dominant force in The Americans, after all, is the inherent tension of the dashed hope, the broken promise, the tested belief, through which we reach out to our fellow man to forge a connection and return with empty hands.

Despite its moments of levity, then—witness the Burov family’s impromptu episode of the Soviet Bachelor, inviting not one, not two, but three prospects for Oleg (Costa Ronin) to dinner— “Lotus 1-2-3” underscores the profound loneliness that accrues to those for whom an inconsequential conversation is also an intricate disguise; it bristles with strange codes and strained silences, against which its moments of communion (“I miss you,” Elizabeth says from Topeka) appear fragile, imperfect, small. As the montage in the middle of the episode implies, its images of Philip tossing the pigskin with Tuan (Ivan Mok) and Elizabeth enduring indifferent sex with Benjamin (Brett Tucker) set to the Rolling Stones, the Jennings are slaves to their secrets—Paige (Holly Taylor) included. In keeping with the rest of the episode, though, what’s left unsaid during her dinnertime conversation with Philip, on which the Stones’ “Slave” lands, is as telling as her stated fear that she’s “meant to be alone”: Her father offers no reassurance, no comfort or wisdom, before the sequence cuts to black.

To do so, for Philip, may be one lie too many; it’s clear, at minimum, that his willingness to wear a smile for the sake of the mission has finally reached its limits. Consider the speed with which he retreats from Elizabeth when she returns home, with unfortunate news, from Topeka—another change in the episode’s emotional register, crystallized by Emmerich’s exquisite direction. After discovering that Benjamin is part of a project to develop drought-, pest-, and fungi-resistant strains of wheat—not, as she suspected, a nefarious plot to cause famine in the Soviet Union—Elizabeth’s entrance begins with a warm embrace, which the camera captures in intimate close-up. Soon, though, she turns her head downward, as if dreading her husband’s reaction, and her awful admission (“We were wrong”) becomes another dashed hope, another tested belief, another severed connection: Swallowing hard at the thought of the lab tech they murdered in “The Midges,” Philip backs away and heads for the door, an interlude throughout which the editing separates the actors into a series of reaction shots—protagonists once more standing on either side of an emotional and ideological divide.

To old scars and new skin: As in Season Four’s superb “Travel Agents,” in which Elizabeth learns that Philip has revealed himself to Martha, “Lotus 1-2-3” acknowledges that the aliases, cover stories, hairpieces and costumes of The Americans’ acts of espionage cannot hide, much less heal, the still-raw wounds sustained in the course of the Jennings’ many lives. By the time Philip and Elizabeth are back in the frame together, sitting across the table in the episode’s mournful final image, “Lotus 1-2-3” points to the fact that there is no hiding from the people we are and the choices we make, no matter the masks we might wear. “No. No,” he admonishes her, after she offers to perform their most terrible tasks alone. “It’s us, Elizabeth. It’s us.”