Almost every episode in the third season of The Americans has featured at least one scene that is excruciatingly painful for the viewer to watch. These cringe-inducing scenes, from the disposing of Analise’s body, to Philip’s dental work, to Nina’s betrayal of Evi, to last week’s necklacing, have become hallmarks of the series. But even given the high bar they’ve set for themselves in this regard, last night’s meeting between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Betty (Lois Smith), an elderly bookkeeper who “picked a bad time” to pay the bills, was stunning. When a series can cause a grizzled curmudgeon like myself to yell, “That’s it, I hate you, Americans!” during an episode, you know they’ve hit close to the bone.
A lot of other important developments went down in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” a playful title with deeper resonance, but I’ll save those comments for later. There’s just too much to get into regarding the conversation between Elizabeth and Betty. Elizabeth encounters the aging widower when the Jennings attempt to bug the mail robot (the clear breakout star of Season 3) after it is sent for repairs following Agent Gaad’s (Richard Thomas) senseless act violence. Betty is working late at the factory because that’s when she feels “most in tune” with her deceased husband, Gil, the company’s founder.
As Elizabeth guards over her, Betty recounts her life’s story. With a keen, idiosyncratic intelligence, Betty discusses her two marriages to Gil, (the second, “without sugar in their eyes”), how WWII changed him, her father’s occupation, her son, her religion, and her current mental state (“All marbles present and accounted for”). Lois Smith’s performance is simply mesmerizing. Smith, who debuted next to James Dean in East of Eden, creates one of the most endearing characters I’ve see on television this year.
Betty’s personality is so compelling, she even touches Elizabeth. Not enough to stop Elizabeth from murdering her, mind you, but enough that Elizabeth seems legitimately and profoundly moved. We saw the beginning of Elizabeth’s softening last week when she spared Todd’s (Will Pullen) life (a lot of good that did, Hans) and pleaded to Gabriel (Frank Langella) on behalf of Philip’s son. Her newly found openness even carried over to this week when she emotionally reaches out to Philip (Matthew Rhys) regarding his situation with Martha (Alison Wright).
But those instances of empathy are nothing like what Elizabeth seems to experience, as communicated almost exclusively through Keri Russell’s eyes, in her interaction with Betty. From the start, Elizabeth feels a kinship with her. Both are mothers, both of their fathers were laborers, and both have remarried the same husband (Betty, literally, and Elizabeth when she and Philip decided to become a truly married couple at the end of Season 1). They even share a name (the only time we see Betty’s name is on her medicine bottle). Betty is meant to represent an elderly, alternative Elizabeth. So when Betty explains to Elizabeth that her justification for committing horrible crimes — that it makes the world a better place — is merely what all “evil people tell themselves when they do evil things,” Elizabeth is troubled. Maybe killing a kindly old woman is qualitatively different from murdering a South African intelligence officer.
Looking back, it seems that Elizabeth has been on this arc all season. Unyielding early with regard to Paige and Kimberly, the last few episodes have seen a noticeable shift in Elizabeth’s perspective. The question is, will it stick? My one complaint about The Americans is that sometimes characters will reach what seems to be irreversible epiphanies, only to have them walked back the following episode (e.g., Martha sure did recover quickly from having her world turned upside down last week, didn’t she? Though my money is still on Walter Taffet (Jefferson Mays) forcing someone’s hand before the season is over). If this is the case with Elizabeth, and Betty’s death winds up being no more than the cause of a bad night’s sleep, then it will be difficult not to view last night’s scene as nothing more than sadism on the writers’ part, an excuse to torment the audience for no real purpose. But as the season heads for home, and as Philip undergoes his own transformation, it seems like there is the possibility that the two might come together and take The Americans in a surprising, yet organic direction.
Other notable events from “Do Mail Robots Dream of Sheep?”:
The title comes from Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Sheep? which was also the basis for Blade Runner. Both the book and movie feature an empathy test to distinguish robots from humans, a particularly relevant topic for Elizabeth this week. I’m not sure she would have passed that test earlier in the season. Now, at least, she’s seems to have a fighting chance.
“The problem? You’re the problem, Gabriel.” The episode’s final scene between Philip and Gabriel was also hair-raiser. It’s taken most of the season, but Philip now seems prepared to stand up for himself and his family in a way he hasn’t been willing to previously. Or maybe he was just feeling his oats after slapping down a 59 point word in Scrabble (and yes, “sphinx” was a little too on point for describing Gabriel’s role this season).
Hans’s (Peter Mark Kendall) infatuation (okay, obsession) with Elizabeth is another plotline that seems likely to rear its head again before the season draws to a close.
With Elizabeth and Philip’s prolonged absences, Paige (Holly Taylor) has essentially become Henry’s (Keidrich Sellati) mother, reminding him “how he gets when he doesn’t get enough sleep.”
I’m not liking the look Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) and Gaad give one another after Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) stunt with Oleg (Costa Ronin). This trap for Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova) looks like it could backfire on one, or both, of Nina’s ex-boyfriends.
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.