The beginning and ending contain the most important developments, but it’s for the middle of “Rififi” that The Americans should be seen as a classic. After last week’s forbidding all-timer, one might’ve forgiven the series a comedown, and in terms of the narrative, I suppose it is: With their Russian defectors’ grisly demise, the FBI’s counterintelligence division springs into action, and though the “illegals” program is rounding into focus, the agency’s confrontation with Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) must wait another week. Yet in terms of structure, subject matter, setting, and tone, “Rififi” is the ambitious equal of “The Great Patriotic War,” a surprisingly funny, Henry-centric hour that doubles as a love letter to critics, triples as a Thanksgiving episode, and quadruples as a change-up pitch, which is another way of saying that there is no drama on TV right now firing on more cylinders than this one.
Consider the ease with which writers Stephen Schiff and Justin Weinberger fold humor into the episode, this on a series best known for brutal deaths (and even more brutal silences): The mail robot backing Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) into the elevator; Philip’s stunned, stuttering “I haven’t failed! You told him I failed?” as Henry (Keidrich Sellati) reveals his plan to save the family business; Elizabeth’s cinephiliac approach to Jackson Barber (Austin Abrams), the seductive (to me), “I walked into Bob le Flambeur” by accident. (I can’t be certain “Us film nerds need to stick together” is a nod from Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to the series’ champions, but this is my preferred reading.) I even laughed, half-startled, at the loud, dispirited F-bomb Philip drops when his race car spins off its rails again, though the same line confirms that he’s once again nearing the breaking point—this time in his marriage as much as his work.
By placing Henry, once a self-styled comedian, at the center of what may be The Americans’ wittiest installment, Schiff and Weinberger not only leaven the violence of “The Great Patriotic War,” or even counteract the dread seriousness of Philip and Elizabeth’s argument: They also draw on the series’ one remaining untapped resource, Henry, to reframe the Jennings’ marriage before the fireworks start. After all, it’s his innocent question, his unexpected wisdom, which compels Philip to call Elizabeth in Chicago, where the mission to extract the “illegal” being tailed by the FBI is already on thin ice: “I don’t understand why she’s so unhappy. She has a nice life, right?” It’s his conversation with Elizabeth, far more strained than the one he has with Stan, which creates the episode’s most heartbreaking image, of a mother realizing she’s lost touch with her child, possibly irrevocably. It’s his very presence, after so much absence, so much neglect, which suddenly throws his parents’ problems into sharp relief: Their failures are on the table, their lives are off the rails.
It’s fitting for gratitude to comes up in “Rififi,” given that Henry’s home for Thanksgiving, and when Elizabeth jets off to rescue the man codenamed Harvest, my mind’s eye couldn’t help but flash to Don Draper sitting on the stairs in his empty home, wistful for a holiday with his family. Much as Stan’s highly uncomfortable toast (read your audience, buddy!) is a paean to the American dream, the American way, its underlying message is simpler: Cherish what you’ve got, because it could be gone at any moment. And though Elizabeth might describe it as “Forum bullshit”—and tell you where to shove it, too—Stan’s blessing is one our protagonists could both stand to hear, on the cusp of their riskiest operation.
Note that I said their operation: In the end, for all the techniques of “the greatest art form of the 20th century” at play in “Rififi,” for all the nasty accusations (“You just wanted to fuck her,” Elizabeth says of Kimmy) and disgusted expressions (“Somehow, you got me,” Philip spits), for all the flubbed jokes and botched plans and ugly recriminations, the camera that swings around the kitchen to find Elizabeth coming in the front door in those opening minutes eventually comes full circle, and the fragility of what he cherishes most causes Philip to get back in the game. Their final exchange, so resigned to their mutual contempt it’s almost funereal, is one last, clever coup, a pivotal moment coded in the language of business. Out here on the tightrope The Americans has strung for itself this season, with Philip working against his wife (but unable to throw her over) as the feds prepare to nab their colleague (who they’re tasked with saving), with Paige (Holly Taylor) hardening, Henry wizening, pressure building, the Cold War reaching its closing stages, it’s a remarkable feat, to hide the existential crisis in their marriage in the discussion of client, and still to find, buried so deep it’s nearly invisible, the sort of gratitude, understanding, and love that’s poised to bring Philip and Elizabeth back into the field, together. Next week’s episode is called “Harvest,” which has an air of the unspoken warning in Stan’s Thanksgiving speech: As you sow, so shall you reap.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.