The Subtle Knife
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Americans is ending with its sixth, slightly shorter season. It’s a breath of relief for the series and for those of us who have been watching with baited breath between each season, hoping this little watched but critical darling of a series can complete its story on its own terms. It’s a luxury not all television series are granted. Some find themselves chopped off abruptly, leaving fans to wonder where the story is going. Others have to wrap up their story hurriedly in the upcoming season or tract of episodes, leading to a feeling of frustration that the narrative was propelled not by character or by story requirements but by the network (HBO’s Rome comes to mind). In all honesty, I wouldn’t have been surprised by a fifth season ending announcement, either. This brilliant, dark, depression season of The Americans feels like a story in its denouement, arching towards a climax and what I’m assuming will be a tragic downwards spiral towards a bittersweet ending. As an episode, Dinner for Seven is wrought with a delicious amount of propulsive tension, each sequence cutting like a sharp knife through the thin air with any amount of blood seemingly inevitable in its spillage. That sense of tension feeds into the feeling of a story coming around full circle, drawing in threads that had seemingly been lost or complete back into the fold, winking towards the audience that what they may have thought the story was working towards as a resolution was anything but.
Certainly no one expected Betty to come back into the narrative. Season 3’s finest outing introduced an elderly woman who had to die because she had seen Elizabeth without a disguise. She was quiet, dignified, and knowing in a way few of Elizabeth’s victims were. Part of it was the surprise for Elizabeth, but it was largely the humanity facing her that she connected with in a way she had rarely been able to do so before. Joshua Brand (who also scripted this episode) found a unique pathos in that instance but after the episode had closed, there was little reason to believe that that specific juncture in Elizabeth and Betty’s life would come back once more and certainly not in the fashion that it did. The FBI on The Americans isn’t what someone would call fool-proof or even fairly efficient or groundbreaking. They’re another middling bureaucracy that just transitioned from having a major departmental embarrassment with their former leader to having a typical bureaucrat take the reins. They’re a bit slow on the uptake, one could argue, but they’re certainly not the complete dimwits they at times have seemingly been. Agent Aderholdt finds a correlation between the Mail Robot’s repair and the death of a woman named Betty in that very office. He noted that the death was certified as having occurred due to natural causes but every since Martha’s departure, all coincides must be looked into.
The dinner sequence finds that coincidence in a hilariously tense sequence that adds itself into a litany of television’s best dinner table sequences effortlessly. Nicole Kassell’s direction is especially taut here, carefully noting the awkwardness of the seventh chair fitting into a table meant for six. As far as moments of symbolism go, it’s a little on the nose but when the results are so thrilling, it’s hard to really argue. Stan, used to being the man who comes crashing for a home cooked meal and some beers with his pal, happens upon a dinner Elizabeth and Phillip host to smooth things over with Pastor Tim and Alice as a precautionary measure. It’s not a measure that requires fixing in any significant sense but Elizabeth and Phillip, having lost so much control over so many things, understandably wish to retain a bit of in this insane instance. I f they could keep one more aspect of their lives in a calm form of stability, then it makes perfect sense to do so (I do have to note that I find it immeasurably impressive that Elizabeth has the time to actually cook on a regular basis with everything else that is happening). Henry welcomes him in enthusiastically in what is assuredly a storyline waiting to implode and Pastor Tim and Alice find out for the first time that the Jenningses are living right next to an active FBI agent. Phillip and Elizabeth are careful to behave absolutely calmly and not look in any significant direction while this vital piece of information carefully unspools. Where that information goes remains to be seen, especially considering that The Americans is fantastic at misdirection, but it’s a quietly simmering fire wafting across the dinner table, waiting to be given the spark that would set everything on fire.
Speaking of fires, the destruction of Young-hee’s and Don’s marriage may arguably be the most cruel act the Jenningses have ever committed. As a plot device, the mission doesn’t make much ostensible sense because the entirety of it seemingly hinges upon access to Don’s office, which I feel like could be accomplished in a significantly easier fashion. But emotionally the episode is absolutely devastating and Brand’s script manages to find yet the most heartbreaking voicemail from Young-hee. She’s breaking apart and her best friend has just disappeared. Elizabeth is left alone and throughout the hour, she approaches Pastor Tim as a confidante, a source of comfort. There’s always the shadow of doubt as to what degree Elizabeth’s interactions with Pastor Tim are real but as the hour comes to a close, it’s impossible not to see a real desire from Elizabeth’s mind to garner some semblance of the friendship she had garnered from Young-hee in her relationship with Pastor Tim, to find a degree of camaraderie from someone she had viewed as a threat but was coming to see him instead as a sort of anchor. That camaraderie might be far more vital in its immediacy, however. As Paige and Elizabeth are walking home, they’re accosted by two men. Elizabeth hands them her purse but when it becomes clear that won’t deter at least one of them from assaulting Paige (in what is a terrifying callback to an earlier scene with a much younger Paige and Henry). Elizabeth knocks one of them out in about two seconds flat and then wrangles the other would be assailant before stabbing him in the jugular with a knife. Paige looks upon her mother with a horrified expression as the man bleeds to death, the red pooling out onto the dark, frigid concrete. The other would be assailant had run away, but at that moment it didn’t matter to Paige. She only had eyes for the figure of her mother standing right before her, standing as someone she had barely come to know once more,
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“I was terrified that no one would ever find me.”
+“The mission has to go forward.”
+Stan talking about Gaad’s murder
+“You are safe here, Elizabeth. You can talk to me.”
+“I felt like I was coming apart.”
+“I did something terrible.”
+“I don’t want you on my conscience, too.”
+“Things don’t always go according to plan.”
+“My wife’s with her boyfriend.”
+“That you’re out on a limb and you’ve handed yourself a saw?”
+“Curious is a curious word.”
+“I need to talk to you. Where did you go? I need to talk to you.”
+“All that matters is how we treat each other.”
Episode Title: Dinner for Seven
Written by: Joshua Brand
Directed by: Nicole Kassell
Image Courtesy: Vox