The very first episode of The Americans began with one of the titular characters struggling with doubt. Philip began questioning the usefulness of their mission, suggesting that perhaps it was time to quit spying for Russia and defect — become real Americans.
“But Paige and Henry,” Elizabeth replied, aghast. “What would you tell them?”
“The truth,” Philip responded.
So much has changed for this family in the intervening years, but looking back, it now seems clear that conversation never really ended. It was the first crack, one they deftly sidestepped as long as possible. But as the fifth season draws to a close, it’s become a chasm they can no longer avoid. Philip has long since abandoned any remnants of belief in his homeland. Paige has become a casualty. This week, finally, Elizabeth fell off the edge as well. “The truth” is out, but it’s far more sad and complicated than they could have known. That’s the point: If you’re going to murder on behalf of your country, your faith in it has to be blind. And its enemies have to remain enemies, and absolutely nothing more.
Things are shaky from the start this week, when Claudia sends Elizabeth and Philip on a new mission. The Center has identified a woman in Massachusetts, whom they believe was a Nazi collaborator. “She personally shot hundreds of our boys,” Claudia explains with a slightly too vehement shake of the head. After everything that’s happened with the super-wheat and the Lassa virus, this story already sounds fishy — and Claudia’s briefing just a little too heavy handed. Usually so slick in her manipulation, it now seems obvious that she’s trying to hook them, incite their patriotism and anger. This woman, Anna, was, “a collaborator” — pause — “on a Nazi execution squad.”
Later she tosses in a few more details, not only to demonise the target but disparage her as well. After the war, Claudia says, “she was in a hospital in Germany getting treatment for a venereal disease — which she got from sleeping to with too many Nazi officers.” She’s hitting the nail too hard, and Elizabeth and Philip seem well aware of that. They’re not going to kill her without being sure this woman is who they say she is. Claudia agrees (but surely their hesitancy won’t go unreported).
Using an old photograph of Anna for comparison, they track her down where she now lives, in Newton, Massachusetts. (Side note: Great episode, y’all, but exceptionally bad job disguising Brooklyn this week. Next time you want us to think you’re in Massachusetts, maybe don’t shoot in front of one of the most popular restaurants in NYC. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, but help a lady out.) Elizabeth thinks she looks like woman in the photo, but her typically unshakeable certainty is gone. And Philip just isn’t buying it: “I can’t just get this order from them and do whatever they say.”
That’s basically his entire job description. Philip is already on thin ice with the Center, simply by questioning his missions. (Speaking of, anyone wondering what happened to Stobert and Kemp?). Hesitating on whether or not to kill a suspected Nazi collaborator? That’s gotta be treason.
If it wasn’t already clear that their hearts aren’t in this anymore, Henry comes home from touring the FBI with Stan. He’s bubbling over with intel about the mail robot and the vault, and all Elizabeth asks is, “You hungry?” Their casual reaction doesn’t seem calculated either. Later, in the laundry room, Elizabeth and Philip don’t conspire over how to get more details from Henry’s visit. They’re just hoping he doesn’t become an FBI agent. If anyone gets out of this unscathed it’ll be Henry. Early on in the episode, Philip gives permission for him to go to boarding school, then heads over to watch TV with Tuan. We see another flashback of Philip and his father, but a happy one this time. This time, Philip seems less haunted by his past, and simply mournful over the mess he’s made with is own children. Already he is an absentee dad, eating McDonald’s with his fake son while his real son is touring the FBI and eating KFC with the guy next door. In letting Henry go to boarding school, is giving up entirely?
Over and over again, the answer seems to be yes — and no more so than during the riveting final sequence of this episode. Elizabeth and Philip break into Anna’s home, hold her at gunpoint, and put on their game faces for an old-school interrogation to find out if she really is who the Center say she is. She denies it, sincerely terrified and seemingly unaware of what they’re talking about. “You mistaken! I swear, you mistaken,” she implores them, hands outstretched.
Elizabeth goes in for the kill, berating the woman with her supposed crimes: “You have the blood of over a thousand soldiers on your hands...You know what you are? You’re a monster.” After last week, when Pastor Tim used the same word to describe her in his damning diary entry, Elizabeth’s literal finger-pointing seems telling, and somehow pathetic. Who is she trying to convince?
Either way, Anna does not break. “She’s lying,” Elizabeth insists when they regroup in the other room, keeping an eye on their target. Philip takes a long look before replying: “Even if it is her…”
This is the moment when he crosses the line — takes a flying leap across it, really — so far that he leaves the viewer behind. He won’t kill her even if she is a Nazi collaborator? “What?!” whisper-shouts Elizabeth, along with the audience.
They return to Anna, telling her they’re going to wait until her husband comes home, at which point, she pivots. “It’s all true what you said,” she sputters. “I betray my country.” It’s such an instant, clumsy admission that, at first, we’re sure she’s lying to save her husband’s life. But when he does come home, and they force her to explain, it’s clear that she just cannot bear to tell him the whole and awful truth.
“When the Nazis overrun Dyatkovo, we were rounded up and taken to the square in the center of town. My father was shot, along with many other men and boys. I held onto my mother. But she was shot. They made me dig a hole. I used a shovel, a pail, then my hands. We threw them in like garbage.”
The camera inches up on Philip and then Elizabeth’s faces as she continues:
“I was sixteen. I didn’t know anything about the world — about anything. They let me live. There was no reason. Nothing made any sense. They gave me food. I was obedient, helpless. The first time, they gave me so much to drink, I could barely stand up.”
“The first time?” her husband asks.
“...that I shot them. Soviet prisoners.”
To almost any audience, the phrase “Nazi collaborator” evokes an image just as recognisable and evil as “Nazi” itself. Those people were evil, betrayers not just of their countries but of all humankind. There are relatively few unequivocally evil people in this world; that’s the very premise of this show. We’ve been conditioned to understand, if not entirely forgive, two people who have probably killed as many as this woman. We’ve seen their starved, sorrowful childhoods, the brutal training and manipulation they endured. Through their story, we’ve learned to humanise a historic enemy. With this scene, the show seems to ask: But can you humanise this one?
Anna is no conspirator. She is a victim. Like Elizabeth and Philip, she was taken at her most vulnerable point and made into a weapon. The only difference is that, in Anna’s case, it was her enemies that weaponised her. In Elizabeth and Philip’s, it was their own country. Anna was forced. They were tricked. They’ve done evil, and evil has been done to them. Anna’s story hits way too close to home, and though Elizabeth kills Anna and her husband, she does so with gritted teeth and shaking hands. It’s awful.
“I want to get out of here. We should just go,” Elizabeth says as they drive away into the night. The road ahead is dark. All they can see is the few feet ahead of them. “I mean it,” she says. “Let’s go home.” But where on earth might that be now?
Normally, The Americans ends each episode with a sharp cut to black before the credits begin. This week, instead, the scene fades away, leaving Elizabeth and Philip dissolving into darkness.