Henry and problem parenting in ‘The Americans’
Keidrich Sellati, who portrays Henry Jennings.

Remember Henry Jennings? The intelligent, if unobservant, son of super spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, he’s known all along that his parents are not easy to understand.

One (Philip) usually more gregariously loving, the other (Elizabeth) caring, yet somewhat remote. Due to the unpredictable growth spurts experienced by Keidrich Sellati, the actor portraying Henry, he’s been a sporadic presence on the show, but when time permits, he’s demonstrated his performance chops.

In “Rififi,” he’s given a significant share of the running time, which Sellati kills—not perhaps the best word to use in a season where bodies are dropping everywhere.

American TV viewers are educated to view parents as adults who are emotionally and physically ever present in their children’s lives.

We know that reality doesn’t mirror TV’s obsession with this parental state of being. Real parents, whether single or plural, have pressure coming from all directions. Their need to keep the family healthy, solvent, and afloat is a paramount concern. Their people skills, maybe not that great.

And so it is with the Jennings family. Henry has found fulfillment through his friends, and on the hockey rink at his expensive private school. Told by Philip (Matthew Rhys) last episode about financial problems that might cause him to miss out on his final year of high school, Henry is full of ideas on how to fix the situation.

As Philip drives him home from the bus station for the Thanksgiving holiday break, Henry broaches the idea of him taking a summer job down south at a tannery. Plus there’s the possibility of earning a scholarship. In addition, Henry talked to a friend whose wealthy father had also failed at times in business. Perhaps Philip can hear some ideas from the man on how to bounce back.

Philip isn’t ready for Henry’s mature, non-condescending advice. He yells, “I’m not a failure.”

But in one important aspect, he is. All along he has failed to understand the fundamental nature of American-style capitalism. The boom, the bust, the boom. Would-be business owners need social and classist connections, as well as chance and sudden opportunities, if they are to prosper throughout an economic cycle. Their hard work and good health aren’t enough to guarantee success.

Philip over-expanded the travel agency that had only been supposed to serve as a cover for his and Elizabeth’s spy operations. The past three years, he’s been playing businessman, and in this episode, he has to fire several employees.

Philip is in no mood for advice from his son, and his earlier conversation with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) didn’t end any better.

Last episode, Elizabeth asked him to break his spy sabbatical and finally seduce his long-time contact, Kimberly, the daughter of vital CIA officer. He did the deed, but later called and warned her not to travel to a communist country on her holiday break. He didn’t tell her why (to avoid a KGB drug frame-up intended to suborn Kimberly’s father) or explicitly reveal his identity, but coming this close to outing himself can’t possibly end well.

Elizabeth is furious, tired, and close to her breaking point. On another subject, she clarifies the story neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent, told Philip about last episode’s killings of a married pair of Soviet defector/traitors. No, she didn’t kill them in front of the couple’s son.

Philip points out pedantically, “He saw them covered in blood,” then he offers some more of his pop psychology babble, which Elizabeth calls bullshit on. She did her best despite a skeleton team and having few resources, something’s that’s been true throughout her weeks upon weeks of botched missions.

But now comes what may well the most dangerous mission of her life, and the call comes as she and her family are preparing for a Thanksgiving meal across the street with Stan—yes, that Stan—and his wife and friends.

A fellow Soviet spy, living in Chicago, thinks he is under surveillance and needs extraction. So, after the barest of explanation to Phil and Paige, who know all too well the vagaries of a spy’s schedule, she’s off to Chicago. Henry’s well used to this routine, even if he has no idea as to the real cause, and his refreshing normality about the blowup by a valuable travel agency client sells the situation to Stan and his wife, the always enigmatic Renee who reeks of eau de plot device.

Seated around the table with his children, the Beemans, FBI agent Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) and wife, Phil is ready to tackle the turkey when Stan delivers a miniature sermon about the greatness of America and Ronald Reagan, and how her enemies want to destroy this beautiful country. That sort of thing. Philip seems uncomfortable with the saber-rattling.

He’d have been utterly poleaxed if he had witnessed what’s happening with the FBI’s rapidly escalating Operation Harvest, which is investigating several Soviet-tagged events in recent months. The killings of the traitorous Soviet defectors, the unfortunate murders of a trio of security guards at a Department of Defense-connected corporation warehouse—deaths directly caused by Elizabeth.

She’s no angel, never has been, but this recent, tragic trend is leaving far too many crumbs for the FBI to follow, plus there’s the situation in Chicago.

A defense industry engineer has been convinced by a Soviet agent to share vital intelligence about a radiation sensor intended to give the U.S. a potentially fatal advantage in the nuclear arms race.

The engineer and the agent, both male, are involved in an affair—a fact of which agent Dennis, true to the times, is snarkily dismissive. The FBI are figuring out the Soviets’ modus operandi on safe houses, rental cars, and the like, working out a pattern, and weaving a net that could well snare Elizabeth. The FBI is operating on home turf with massive manpower and resources. The Soviets, however skilled, are overmatched.

Philip knows how hard Elizabeth is working. Her record amount of cigarettes smoked should be an indication of her stress level. It takes his son, after a puzzling, yet thoughtful, phone call from an out-of-town Elizabeth, remarking, “I don’t understand why she’s so unhappy,” for Philip to finally understand that Elizabeth in her own way is crying out for help from her husband.

Not that he understands this at first. He spends much of the episode wrapped up in his miseries. Even an outing of slot car racing with Henry peels off a layer in Philip’s psyche when he shouts, “Fuck!” over the flipping of his little plastic car.

Caring about others isn’t being soft; it’s simple economics. The wellbeing of one person is a socioeconomic butterfly whose momentum can flip sideways to impact many other people.

Take Philip, for instance. His burnout break from spying now has him indulging in a Gorbachev-based flirtation with ex-KGB agent Oleg Burov.

Oleg and others in Gorbachev’s clique want to cut a disastrous deal with the U.S. in upcoming nuclear arms talks. Since Elizabeth is working at the behest of another faction to gain vital intel about those talks, Philip has been asked to find out what he can about her efforts. They’re at cross-purposes, even if Elizabeth has no idea how far Philip has slid to the other side.

With Elizabeth out of town, he visits their storage room, where they usually stop off to change clothes and wigs at the start and end of missions. While going through her materials, he comes across her drawing of a vase. An acceptable level of skill for a beginning art student. All those bedside instructions she’s been receiving from cancer-ridden Erica (the wife of a U.S. arms negotiator) are beginning to pay off.

He finds a notepad, apparently with intel, does a code translation, then goes over to the usual dead drop to leave a note for Oleg to pick up.

In Chicago, Elizabeth is at a motel discussing mission plans with her assistant, Marilyn. “What are the chances we pull this off?” Marilyn asks.

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth tells her. She’s not one for puffery.

Elizabeth takes pad in hand and works on her drawing. She treasured her phone conversation with Henry. They haven’t talked much recently, he being busy with school, and she with a brutal schedule. There’s talk of Thoreau’s “Walden,” and a few other topics, but their conversation lags. There’s much she wants to say, and much he’d like to hear. The silence aches even after she hangs up the phone.

A woman who never cared about hobbies has found a vital emotional release. Perhaps far too late to heal the wounds in her life.

Then comes a call from Philip, who now better understands the excruciating pressure under which she’s been operating.

Asked in code-speak if everything’s alright, she responds, “I don’t know, not really. It’s a hard one…I’m not sure I can accomplish what I came here for. It’s gonna be tough.”

“Are you asking me to come?” Philip doesn’t speak with the tone of petulance that has crept into his attitude as of late.

“I’ll handle it. This is my side of the business.”

When Philip asks her to come home, he sounds like a concerned husband instead of the self-satisfied pop babbler he’s been in recent years.

“What’s happened to you?” she responds.

“Nothing, I’m just the same asshole as always.” One hears a gentle resignation in his voice, and when Elizabeth, also without rancor, tells him she’s staying, Philip basically tells her he’s coming to the rescue.

Somehow, his words don’t come off as him only looking for intel to hand off to Oleg. He’s in husband mode. His wife needs him.

The title of this episode is from “Rififi,” a classic French film directed by blacklisted American director Jules Dassin. Unable to work in the U.S., he found creative expression abroad, as in his deeply humane film about bank robbers and the impact their actions have upon those around them.

During this episode, Elizabeth sees the film while working undercover on a cinephile target. Both she and Philip are experiencing the consequences of their actions upon themselves and upon so many others.

Their marriage may be in flame, this mission may kill them both, but for the moment, Philip and Elizabeth are single-slotted and hurtling down a deadly track.

Catch episodes of The Americans each week on FX.


CONTRIBUTOR

Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.

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