A Bloody Chicago welcome, in this week’s ‘The Americans’
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys in “The Americans.” | Eric Liebowitz/FX

Sometimes, even though a mission is thoroughly hopeless from the start, you still soldier through to the thankless end.

For Marilyn, who has been a solid team member of Team Soviet for several years, her work has largely consisted of surveillance, and scoping out places later to be visited by Philip Jennings or, after he largely quit spy work, his wife, Elizabeth.

Marilyn is an actual American, and thus, her decision to help the Soviets is by usual definition the action of a traitor. A coward, however, she is not.

As “Harvest” opens, she’s been stationed in Chicago with Elizabeth, waiting to go into action. Then Philip shows up.

But before we see how the plan comes apart—for in this season of debacles, we expect nothing but the worst—let us see how Philip made his way to the Windy City.

The Jennings’ FBI agent neighbor, Stan Beeman, is finally becoming suspicious, after years of noticing the couple’s odd working hours, and most recently, Elizabeth’s sudden ditching of Thanksgiving in order to tend to a travel agency client in Houston.

That’s the story, at any rate. Since he knows that the FBI is currently tying together a series of Elizabeth-caused killings, and is trying to find linkages to a recently uncovered Soviet spy operation in Chicago, he wonders if the Jennings are linked, as well.

Maybe his concerns might have ended with idle speculation, but when Philip comes to his door claiming he has to also travel to Houston, Stan’s concern ramps upward.

“It’s not going well,” Philip says, “so I’m going to have to fly out and help.”

Stan quickly agrees to drive son Henry Jennings back to his prep school in Connecticut. Since Stan is trained in reading a suspect’s emotional state, Philip, flayed raw by his conflicting desires to help his wife and to flee from what has to be done, is for once unable to fool his closest of friends.

“Is something going on?” Stan asks. “Something’s up with you, ‘cause if something is going on, you know you can trust me.”

Philip finally offers up a partial truth, that his business is failing. The moment ends with a hug. Stan knows something more is going on, and during his drive to Connecticut with Henry, he uses the classic friendly interrogation technique of asking innocuous questions until his true topic is uncovered.

Henry is blithely discussing the rich lifestyle of a classmate, remarking, “It must be nice having your mom at your beck and call.”

There’s the intro Stan needed. In short order, he learns that Henry has never met any of his other relatives and he is well accustomed to the frequent absences of his parents.

Stan is building a case, but not yet to the point of pulling out the handcuffs.

Up in Chicago, Philip has arrived at the motel where Elizabeth is staying. He’s already in full disguise. This time out with blond-streaked hair, facial hair, and a rough complexion.

“You didn’t have to come,” Elizabeth says by way of a greeting.

“Are you staying?” is his answer. She is, and so is he. After eating at the least colorful diner in Chicago, they return to the room and get ready for bed.

He reveals that Stan gave him a hard time. “He said, there’s something you’re not telling me. I told him about the business not doing so good.”

“Did it work?”

Elizabeth normally wouldn’t be satisfied with Philip’s nonchalant “yeah.” This isn’t an ordinary time for the couple. Her freak-outs have to be prioritized in order of importance these days.

She gathers his hand. Perhaps they sleep. More likely, they don’t.

The next day, they scout out a busy city street which we gradually learn is the best spot in which Elizabeth’s team can collect their Soviet agent, who is under close FBI surveillance.

“I’ve been through this every way. I feel a lot better about our chances with you here,” she says.

That evening, back in their motel room, she finally shows Philip the locket containing a cyanide pill she is supposed to consume if she is about to be captured.

Still doesn’t tell him what her mission is about, for she’s already revealed more than what the Soviet general said was allowable. Even the estimable Claudia, their Soviet handler, is decidedly in the dark about the Soviets’ mission to collect a radiation sensor vital to their effort to counter U.S. nuclear aggression.

Elizabeth shoots down Philip’s desire to flush the pill down the toilet. “Why did you tell me?” he asks.

“You’re always wanting me to talk. So, I did.”

How often has Philip’s delicate nature over the years forced her to be the strong one, pushed her to have the bloodiest hands? Hard to know, in the end. Right now, in that moment, in Elizabeth-speak, she is telling Philip how frightened she is by the mission and by the deadly stakes facing them tomorrow.

Does he understand how much she is unburdening herself? Possibly, but there’s no time to debrief emotions and subtexts.

The next morning, we see Philip and frequent team member Norm, both disguised, in a truck picking up day laborers.

Next scene, the other team members appear. Now, Philip is behind the wheels of a city transport bus, one that Elizabeth boards.

Loyal Marilyn has her own ride, one that will soon play a vital role in the mission.

The Soviet agent, a handsome man with delicate features, is driving along the city street we’ve seen scouted by Philip and Elizabeth.

The day laborer truck has come to a halt as the workers schlep boards to the sidewalk. Elizabeth steps out of the bus, quickly collects the Soviet agent, aka Harvest, and off the bus goes, leaving behind the agent’s car, now driven by one of the apparent day laborers, who hopefully earned a decent payday for being a momentary diversion.

The FBI agents quickly figure out Harvest has booked it, and rapidly close in on the transport bus. Philip, Elizabeth and Harvest pile into a nondescript van, but two FBI agents are on foot about to shut off the street.

Although Marilyn has prepared for her next act, her face betrays the tension of the moment as she drives straight at the agents. A bullet to the face finishes her, but she has provided enough of a distraction for Philip to shoot them dead and collect Marilyn’s body.

With Elizabeth at the wheel, the Soviets make a pulse-rushing getaway. But Harvest has been badly wounded. Although Philip applies pressure to the stomach wound, Harvest, speaking largely in Russian, delivers his last messages. First, tender words intended for his mother, then intel about the sensor schematics being kept at a base in Lascaux.

Thanks to the Internet, I can provide further intel. Harvest may be referring to Chambley-Bussières Air Base, which started life as a U.S. base then was turned over to the French. During the ‘80s, the base supposedly was no longer under U.S. control. Perhaps the show is suggesting that the French maintains an undercover arrangement with the U.S.? Wouldn’t be the first time.

Harvest has but one more message to impart, that of anger toward his heartless father. In the previous episode, we’re given to believe Harvest had a gay relationship with a U.S. contact. Is he venting a last-breath retort toward his heartless father?

Unknown, because Harvest bites his cyanide pill in half and shudderingly dies. Elizabeth is busy driving and unable to witness Harvest’s last moments. Then again, even seeing how cyanide works might not be a game changer for her. Elizabeth is made of sterner stuff—had to be made of sterner stuff, given her upbringing, and the role she’s played in her half of the spy marriage.

Harvest’s death is unlikely to tip Elizabeth’s resistance. Then, in an almost deserted parking lot, they park the van, Philip breaks out a fire rescue ax and carries out the last act involving Marilyn.

They don’t want her to be identified. The less connection to Washington, D.C., the better. With help from Elizabeth, Philip hacks off Marilyn’s hands, and then takes several whacks to take off her head.

He pauses midway. Elizabeth is alert and watchful, but she’s not telling him what to do in the moment.

A pedestrian strides across our view, gets into a car, and drives away, never seeing the decapitation in the process of happening. She may never know how close she came to dying.

Philip gathers himself and finishes the job. They quickly change clothes and store head and hands in a bag, then drive away, leaving behind Harvest in the van, and the remains of selfless, and now headless, Marilyn.

I wonder if another motivation Philip had for axing Marilyn is his hope the FBI might conclude that Marilyn is the female Soviet illegal they’ve been hunting.

Philip and Elizabeth pull off the road and dump the bag in a ravine, then they’re off to O’Hare airport, where a now elderly-looking Elizabeth is seen dutifully working on a drawing.

Erica, the cancer patient Elizabeth has been caring for (as part of a mission), has been passionately teaching this most practical of women how to draw.

While their plane is in the air, Stan has decided to lockpick the back door of the Jennings residence and look for evidence of a secret life.

For a moment, he lingers by a family photo, recalling the last words of a dying William, a longtime illegal captured by the FBI. William is feverishly remembering his unnamed compatriots. “Two kids…the American dream…she’s pretty, and he’s lucky.”

After checking out the bedrooms, Stan visits the garage, but even though he opens the fuse box, he doesn’t figure out it’s a cover for their spy supplies.

He’s found nothing significant, but his suspicions remain.

Finally back in town, Elizabeth can’t catch a break, for she’s needed at Erica’s house for hospice-level care and perhaps to snoop through the husband’s top secret papers.

Tonight, though, there’s no time for spy work. Erica is failing rapidly, but her raging against the dying of the light is unabated. She must keep drawing, no matter what.

She rebuffs Elizabeth’s attempt to medicate the pain, then demands to see Elizabeth’s latest work.

Erica gives a mostly positive appraisal, then digs deeper. “You don’t know what you see. You need to bring yourself into it. If you don’t, what’s the point. If you do, there’s a moment when it’s not you seeing it—something comes through. You need to bring all of yourself to it. That’ll let you get out of your own way.”

Elizabeth’s reluctance over these past few weeks has morphed into a sincere desire to learn. A woman with zero fucks to give is showing another hard-edged person the way to a deeper mode of being.

Is it too late for Elizabeth? Three episodes left, so much plot to get through, and yet, this moment between two women tells us much about what in life matters. Something may come through for Elizabeth, may help her get out of her own way, but this may well be far too late for her redemption.

Later, Elizabeth goes for a walk with Paige and tells her that Marilyn, her frequent surveillance partner, was shot dead during the Chicago mission, along with the agent they were trying to rescue.

“Your dad is okay. The whole thing just went to shit,” Elizabeth tells her, and then she realizes the time has come for tough talk about Paige’s desire to work for the Soviets.

“You’re going to have to make a decision. A commitment you have to make for life. Are you willing to give up friends, relationships, and even your life, because that’s what’s being asked of you?”

Elizabeth confesses, “Your father, he made a mistake when he committed to this life. He was young, younger than you. Paige, it’s okay if this isn’t what you want.”

When Paige calmly assures her that she’s ready, Elizabeth says it is time for Paige to apply for an internship at the state department. Paige nods and walks away, leaving the shelter of her mother’s umbrella.

At home, Philip is mournfully remembering back when he and Elizabeth were wed in a secret ceremony by the soulful Andrei, a D.C.-area Russian Orthodox priest.

Over the past few episodes, he has both stood by his wife and betrayed the country for which she stands. He’s never been so close to walking across the street and telling Stan, “There’s another thing that’s been bugging me…”

Catch The Americans each Wednesday on FX.


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.