“The Committee on Human Rights” intertwines the fates of two characters at opposite ends of their lives: Paige (Holly Taylor), still coming into her own, and Gabriel (Frank Langella), reflecting on the choices he’s made with no small amount of regret. Though they meet only once, for afternoon tea, they share a certain kinship; the grandfatherly warmth he displays is a fleeting glimpse of the bond the pair might’ve forged in more ordinary circumstances. That there is no room now for such pleasant thoughts is in line with The Americans’ gestalt, of course, its sense that the most honest interaction must also contain at least one lie. This is the shadow the series casts on its characters, the oblique angle at which their secrets intersect with the wider world, to the point that the neighbor’s new girlfriend, the long day at work, even the notions of “courage” and “sacrifice” appear as if through a glass, darkly.
It’s apt, then, that tonight’s episode, the season’s midpoint, should act as a line of symmetry, defined by double meanings: As the FBI’s new source says to Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), ”’Possible’ is word Americans use when they don’t want to make promise.” What are we to glean, for instance, from the fact that Paige echoes Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) own description of the relationship, “better,” when she speaks to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin)? Is the repetition of the term its confirmation, or merely proof that the promise it contains—proof of progress, of acceptance—is easier to hear than the truth? What of the sequence in which the Jennings decline to correct Paige’s understanding that the U.S. plans to starve the Soviet populace, its staging reminiscent of their more candid conversation in “The Midges”? Who is this fiction protecting, exactly, parents or child?
As Stan withholds details from Renee (Laurie Holden), or as Elizabeth spies Stolbert (Brett Tucker) with another woman, the falsehoods in “The Committee on Human Rights” seem to pile up faster than the characters can manage, and their first instinct, as always, is retreat. Despite dealing in nighttime missions in rural Mississippi and surreptitious meetings in Rock Creek Park, The Americans’ interest in espionage is its reflection of more common sentiments, of the ways in which disguises and cover stories are not part of the Cold War condition, but the human one: To hide the truth, to hide oneself, is a familiar form of armor against the risk of pain. “It’s OK to care,” Philip reassures Elizabeth as they procure a sample of “super wheat” for Gabriel to bring back to Russia. “No, it isn’t, Philip,” she replies. “Not for me.”
That Philip can see through his wife’s stiff posture, or that Deirdre (Clea Lewis) can see through his own, underscores the futile nature of such self-protection: No armor yet developed can ward off heartbreak, fear or grief. (At least the series approaches the latter with a sense of humor: Lewis’ divine delivery of “Mmmm… probably this would end” had me in hysterics.) It’s no surprise that Paige hasn’t come to understand this, particularly given her parents’ example, and so she proceeds to end her relationship with Matthew (Danny Flaherty) as if she hasn’t already been hurt. Anchored by Taylor’s assured, poignant performance—perhaps her finest hour in more than four seasons of strong work—the exchange throbs with Paige’s inner turmoil, torn between the desire to be seen and the desire to hide: “You don’t know me,” she laments, tears in her eyes, wincing at the revelation. But for all the effort she expends to maintain control, to wear her disguise, Paige, like Philip and Elizabeth, can’t disappear completely, and when he tries to grab her hand, she pushes him, hard, as her training bubbles up to the surface.
In retrospect, her reaction—to recoil in horror at what she’s done—is as important in the scheme of the episode as her first (and last) meeting with Gabriel, far more than Philip’s unconvincing assertion, which he knows is simply another fiction, that she’ll “get used to these things.” As Gabriel prepares to depart, for now and perhaps forever, “The Committee on Human Rights” returns to his apartment to find that his “heart heat” has, as I wrote last week, become too much to bear. The episode’s final reflection across the line of symmetry, with Gabriel’s confession following the image of Oleg (Costa Ronin) researching his mother’s long-ago imprisonment, is the one interaction to contain no lies, and the truth is stark indeed. “It was bad,” he says to Philip of the Stalinist purges:
Worse than you can imagine. People were shot, worked to death in the camps. Some were counterrevolutionaries, but some, some hadn’t done anything. Just people. I did it, too… The organization was filled with people who were scared and confused. I believed I was acting in the service of a higher purpose. But I was just scared. It was terrible, terrible times. A lot of us didn’t make it, either.”
It’s here, as in the Beemans’ foyer, that “The Committee on Human Rights” illustrates the series’ unmannered power, its extraordinary force. The Americans this season turns out to be summative, not declarative: Each episode constructs its crescendo so quietly you might fail to realize it’s knocked you flat. “It adds up,” as Gabriel admits. “Some of it’s OK, Elizabeth. Some of it isn’t. But it adds up.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.