The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. —Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963)
If the details of Natalie Granholm’s collaboration with the Nazis reminded me of Adolf Eichmann, the unsparing sequence that caps “Dyatkovo” recalls The Americans itself. In “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”—Season Three’s most exceptional, and excruciating, installment—Elizabeth (Keri Russell) meets the matriarch of an American family, a machinist’s widow working through the wee, small hours on the company’s books. It may be that Granholm (Irina Dubova) is not so dissimilar from that other captive, near-contemporaries so changed by the war; it may be that the re-appearance of the mail robot, as Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) tour the FBI, sets the line that reels us in. In truth, though, it’s the confrontation with the nature of evil, and the evolving refraction of Elizabeth herself, that binds the episodes together across time and space. “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things,” the woman in “Mail Robots” says of Elizabeth’s justification for murder, and the return to that sentiment lends “Dyatkovo” its historical weight.
So, too, does the presence of Philip (Matthew Rhys), left in the earlier entry to complete the mission on the warehouse floor: Here, he must bear witness, and the heft of the occasion is too much to lift. In a sense, The Americans has spent multiple seasons building up to this moment, in which Elizabeth pulls the trigger because her husband cannot; his discontent surfaces in “March 8, 1983,” “Travel Agents” and “Lotus 1-2-3” only to be tamped down again, but “Dyatkovo” sees it burst forth as if from Pandora’s box, impossible to put back where it came from. The hour’s suspense emerges, to a significant extent, from watching Philip replicate his entire arc in perfect miniature, edging toward the line in the sand before pausing to consider what it might mean to cross it. He’s unimpressed, for instance, when Claudia (Margo Martindale) attempts to leaven the news that the Centre weaponized the Lassa virus by noting that it’s been named after William; he hesitates at each stage of the Granholm operation, first paralyzed by the fear that they have the wrong woman, then unmoved when he learns she’s the right one.
In “Dyatkovo,” after all, no ideal is safe. Stan responds to Henry’s glowing report on the FBI with wry humor (“Laying it on a little thick, if you ask me”), before shifting into regret: “Some people trust their wives,” he says of his colleagues. “I didn’t trust mine. I don’t know why.” Similarly, Oleg (Costa Ronin) and his partner, interrogating Lydia Fomina (Julie Emelin) about the incriminating ledger in her desk, must face the fact that the system they’re defending is one they don’t understand: “This is how the whole country works,” Fomina says, criticizing the KGB’s “high and mighty” stance. “It’s how people get fed. It isn’t going to change.” This is the episode’s animating question, echoed by the incredulous Elizabeth inside the Granholms’ house: Can people change? Or is the impression of transformation just another disguise, hiding the person we really are underneath? “She’s made a nice life for herself,” Claudia remarks of Natalie Granholm, though of course it is, as Philip and Elizabeth confirm in the end, a double one: Nazi/nurse, monster/mother, traitor/wife.
The final minutes of “Dyatkovo” thus condense this season’s attention to the past’s long reach—the flashbacks and faint memories, the stories of conflicts and compromises not so long ago and far away as we might like to think—into one of The Americans’ most searing interludes, an examination of the problem of evil that slices into the series’ marrow. The Eichmann that Philip and Elizabeth encounter in Newton, Massachusetts is, as Arendt described the original, “terribly and terrifyingly normal”: When the Nazis invaded Dyatkovo and murdered her family, Natalie Granholm was no older than Paige, and in the decades since she’s rebuilt some semblance of the moral life; in between, in the war’s cruel crucible, she participated in the deaths of hundreds of Russian prisoners. “You’re lying,” Elizabeth snarls, before the prospect of Granholm’s husband’s return elicits her confession. “Your life is a lie.”
That the same might be said of the Jennings is at the core of “Dyatkovo,” and of The Americans; it is the unspoken accusation that shadows their marriage, their children, their friendships, their careers. If not exactly Eichmanns, Philip and Elizabeth are nonetheless complicit in any number of crimes, not least the death of that old woman in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” As with Natalie during the occupation, or Gabriel during Stalin’s purge, each has made the case for extenuating circumstances, noble convictions, but in the end the Jennings are monsters, too: “You want to know who we are?” Elizabeth asks, emphasizing the subsequent statement by using the Russian. “We are them.”
And so the question remains: Can people change? Has Natalie Granholm? Has Elizabeth? Has Philip? Have you? Because Arendt’s point, in describing the banality of Eichmann’s evil, is that we’re all capable of it under duress, and that we cannot know whether we’d pull the trigger until the gun is in our hands. For Philip, seeing his father, or himself, in Granholm’s atrocities, it turns out that the task before him is a bridge too far; even for Elizabeth, slipping into her rage as if it were a coat in the back of her closet, the act dredges up a desire to “go home” to Russia that she’s resisted all season. “Dyatkovo” is no apologia for collaborators—Granholm ultimately offers up her life, hoping that the Jennings might spare her husband—but it is clear-eyed that our choices are, in the main, contingent, which is why the defiance of inhumane orders is always such a courageous act. Against the risk of standing up for what’s right, evil is easy, and once its residue settles on the skin, it can never be scrubbed off.
It’s not that we cannot change, then—it’s that there is no rewriting the past, only reckoning with it. “No, please. He doesn’t know,” Granholm says of her husband, setting up a line so shattering I suddenly burst into tears. “He thinks I’m wonderful.” By the time the camera pulls back from the Granholms’ dining room, Philip and Elizabeth framed in the door with that tableau of two corpses, their pools of blood, it’s hard not to see “Dyatkovo” as an explanation—though not a justification—for the season’s emotional turmoil, for it edges up, as Philip does, to fatalism. For Henry, ignorant of his parents’ identities, the die is not yet cast, but for the rest of the characters there is no going back.
“I wanted to be the person you thought I was,” Natalie Granholm admits to her husband before the reports of the bullets, distinguishing between her self and her longtime disguise.
“We are them,” Elizabeth says, doing much the same.
As it happens, the fear Philip expressed in “Lotus 1-2-3”—the fear of what they are, or have become, despite seeming terribly and terrifyingly normal—is as potent as ever. “It’s us, Elizabeth,” he corrected her then, a notion that “Dyatkovo” unmistakably echoes. “It’s us.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.