The Americans has had more than its share of WTF moments, but then, the concept of the show leads to extreme situations. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are Russian spies living undercover in Washington, DC with their two children, Paige and Henry. Their neighbor, Stan Beeman, is an FBI agent, and their marriage, while initially arranged by the Centre, has become the real deal over the course of five seasons. This would seem to make their job easier, but nothing goes smoothly on The Americans.
Between differences of opinion on how to raise their kids, jealousies over assets on the job, and a range of emotions when it comes to how committed they should stay to the cause, Philip and Elizabeth have had their hands full. Terrible things happen to them regularly, and terrible things happen to other people because of what they do in the name of their country. Neither side can honestly say they’ve made all the right calls, and that’s the twist of writing an American show where the main characters are fighting against capitalism.
With one more season to go before The Americans says “Пока” (“bye” in Russian), here’s a look back on the show’s most WTF moments.
15 Elizabeth getting her tooth pulled (“Open House”)
Should you have any fears about going to the dentist, The Americans’ extraction of Elizabeth’s tooth rivals Alias’ episodes with torturer Zhang Lee for most painful tooth pulls ever. Elizabeth needed her tooth removed, and Philip agreed to do it to bring her relief. The method, however, is exactly the same, pliers without anesthesia, since going to the hospital isn’t an option when your tooth was infected from a tussle with the FBI director.
One of the reasons this scene is tough to watch is knowing Philip wants to make it happen as quickly as possible, yet watching it seem to take forever. He has to go back a second time, when the tooth doesn’t come out whole, and their children are asleep, so Elizabeth is staying quiet. This is a woman who doesn’t flinch at anything, and the love and trust they demonstrate as a couple, going through this operation, is a prime example of what makes them strong partners.
14 The FBI wanting to turn Oleg into a double agent (“What’s the Matter With Kansas?”)
Oleg provided Stan with information on the glanders virus because he believed Russia wasn’t equipped with the technology to handle a bio weapon of its deadliness. He did what so few are able to do: put national loyalties aside for a moment to do what he thought was right. But the FBI are wildly off base if they think his one-time intelligence is a sign he can be turned.
Oleg’s loyalties to the Soviet Union haven’t changed, but the FBI want to blackmail him and make him pay for the crime of helping them. In the most hopeful WTF moment on this list, Stan puts his career on the line to get the FBI to back off, choosing not to look at Oleg as the “enemy,” against whom anything goes, but as a man who shouldn’t be made to pay for this – other things, perhaps, but not this.
13 Philip having to maintain an ongoing operation with a 15-year-old girl, Kimberly (season 3+)
Probably the biggest source of backlash for the show to date, Kimmy was introduced in season three as the daughter of a high ranking CIA officer. That she was the same age as Philip’s daughter, Paige, didn’t escape Philip or fans, but could be one reason the op took place mostly off screen in seasons four and five.
Despite being too old for her, Philip encouraged their friendship in order to bug her father’s briefcase. Their relationship has toed the line ever since, with Kimmy developing a crush on the man who’s been around more than her dad. Its placement on the list lets you know that Philip's safely walked the line, but if it ever became a question of losing access, his job would require him to cross it. Philip’s not alone in hating this prospect.
12 Elizabeth and Philip planning to move their family to Russia without telling Henry beforehand ("The Soviet Division")
The plan actually falls through, because Philip’s operation with Kimberly pans out, but until then, Elizabeth and Philip had every intention of going through with the move. They were debating telling Paige, because they thought she could handle it, but they were going to spring the news on Henry once they’d arrived in Russia. This way, Henry couldn't seek recourse, or tell their neighbor, Stan, what was going on.
Paige doesn’t have much to keep her in America (knowing her parents’ secret has seen to that) but Henry made it through season five without finding out what his parents really do for a living. It’s an insult that they once again minimize his intelligence after finding out how smart he is, but on top of that, Henry has got his heart set on attending a new high school for academically gifted students. This relocation would negate his scholarship, after they said he could go.
11 Agent Gaad dying ("Munchkins")
Nina’s absence from this list will probably be the most controversial. Her sudden death was WTF in how unfeeling it was, but truthfully, her surviving into season four was the bigger surprise. Agent Gaad, on the other hand, had gotten out. True, it was more like pushed out, after his secretary, Martha, was found to be a KGB asset, but he had embraced early retirement to do some traveling with his wife.
It was in Thailand that Gaad got approached by three Russians with a proposal. Almost the first thing they said was that they didn’t want to hurt him, but Gaad ran, straight into a glass door. Falling on a piece of glass, he bled out, and the Russians’ apologies couldn’t change his fate. Gaad wasn’t a character viewers were emotionally invested in like Nina, but his life was taken randomly and too soon.
10 Paige telling Pastor Tim that her parents are Russian spies ("March 8, 1983,")
At the end of season five, Paige attempted to throw out her cross necklace. Elizabeth fished it out of the trash, but that’s how much Philip and Elizabeth ruined religion for their daughter. Initially a refuge, religion's slow crumble began with her telling Pastor Tim the truth. A quick decision made after she’d recently learned the news herself, Tim and his wife give Paige a crash course on self-preservation and needing to lie in order to secure a person’s silence.
The worst is when Ted disappears and his wife thinks they had something to do with it. Delivering the threat that they have a condemning cassette tape, should anything happen to them, their power over the Jennings makes them unbearable, and the man Paige trusted enough to share her secrets with ends up, in a sense, holding her hostage.
9 Mischa getting all the way to America just to get sent back to Russia (“Lotus 1-2-3”)
Mischa has had to fork over money without confidence, be smuggled across borders, and basically enjoy life in a cold sweat trying to leave the Soviet Union. Finally in America, instead of meeting his father, he meets Gabriel, Philip’s handler, who shuts down any chances of Mischa meeting his dad in the states. He’s not allowed to stay, either, but gets sent back to where he came from, making his journey a complete waste.
Philip doesn’t know this went down, and about the only thing to come out of Mischa’s trip is Gabriel decides to return to Russia, too, because he’s feeling guilty. A recipient of Gabriel’s apology tour, Mischa is introduced to other members of Philip’s family as a consolation prize. It’s pitiful, and since Philip and Elizabeth are in more danger without Gabriel around, this change does not bode well for the Jennings.
8 Elizabeth and Philip having to fold up a girl in a suit case (“Baggage”)
Death doesn’t always bring an end to the horrors on The Americans, and when Yousaf said he wanted to see Annelise more often, she proceeded to tell him she’d been spying on him. Annelise wasn’t thinking about the operation. Her conscience kicked in, and she believed Yousaf’s feelings were true. They weren’t, and instead of appreciating her honesty, Yousaf understands her betrayal. He strangles her dead.
Annelise wasn’t ready for a honeypot, and Philip recommended her, not because he thought she was especially suited, but because it fell to Elizabeth to do otherwise. In order to blackmail him, Philip helps Yousaf get rid of the body by breaking Annelise’s bones so she can fit inside a suitcase. Wheeling her out of the hotel unnoticed, nobody’s body should be treated to such desecration.
7 Finding out who killed the Connors family (“The Echo”)
When you’re considering telling your daughter the truth about what you do for a living, and the Centre wants to recruit her as a spy, the last thing you need to hear is a story like Jared’s. Born into a similar family situation, the question hanging over season two is why his parents and little sister were killed. The answer is worse.
Told by Elizabeth and Philip’s then-handler, Kate, that his parents were Russians spies, the Centre got what they wanted – Jared decided to join the family business – but at a terrible cost. His parents should’ve been the ones to break the news. Instead, he got to find out from someone else that his life had been a lie. It’s not the cause he’s angry at, but his family, and when they’re not receptive to the idea of him becoming a spy himself, he kills them.
6 Elizabeth killing the guy in the parking lot in front of Paige (“Dinner for Seven”)
In an incident completely unrelated to Elizabeth’s career as a spy, she and Paige are approached by two men in a parking lot who are up to no good. At best robbers, at worst rapists, Elizabeth leaps into action and slits one of the predator’s throats. At this point, Paige knew her mom was a spy, but in no way did she realize that she was physically capable of murder.
Elizabeth goes on to teach Paige how to fight, which seems to distract her from the ease at which Elizabeth took a life in front of her. That and the claim she’s only killed before in self-defense are some comfort. It’s an interesting scene, though, for considering gender biases. One wonders if it would have been such a shock if Philip had come to her defense.
5 Tuan convincing Pasha to commit suicide (“The World Council of Churches”)
Tuan was assigned to work with Philip and Elizabeth on observing a Russian defector to the US, Alexi. Born in Vietnam, Tuan built up a friendship with Alexi’s son, Pasha, from knowing what it was like to be the new kid at school. Meanwhile, he arranged for other teenagers to bully Pasha, secretly making Pasha's life miserable so he would work on his mom to return to Russia. Unsuccessful, Tuan came up with a new plan, solo: teach Pasha to slit his wrists and time it so his parents would find him before it’s too late.
His commitment to the cause brings him to put another teenager’s life at risk, and Tuan never apologizes for his tactics. Pasha and his mom return to Russia, and he reports Philip and Elizabeth for acting emotionally after finding out his strategy. At least Elizabeth gets to tell him off, and plant the idea in his head that he will never survive as a spy without a partner, but Tuan’s ability to justify his actions is unaltered.
4 William and the glanders virus (“Persona Non Grata”)
William had reservations about giving the glanders virus to Russia, but when the FBI caught him before the scheduled handoff to Philip [because of Oleg’s reservations, see #14], his loyalty to his country won out. Fully aware of what the virus would do to him, William injected himself for a death certain to put a dent in the FBI’s plans to question him.
William doesn’t get to be hero. Aware of his capture, but not his self-injection, the Russians fear he is going to spill secrets, not the possibility that he will fall on his sword. Gabriel recommends Philip and Elizabeth quit and move their family to Russia, that’s how little faith they have in William keeping quiet. From the glimpses we see of him dying in agony, you understand why he had his concerns.
3 Betty Turner's death (“Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep”)
Betty Turner was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but as she would come to pin Elizabeth for, it’s not exactly the 'wrong place, wrong time' if it’s your son’s business and you enjoy doing the books at night. Philip and Elizabeth broke into their shop because the FBI’s mail robots were there for repair. While Philip bugged the machine, Elizabeth realized they weren’t alone.
Both spies have killed plenty of people, but usually the deaths were instant. Betty has a chance to explain some of the family photos on her desk. She’s smart, she never begs, but won’t make it easy for Elizabeth to take her life. As Elizabeth gives Betty her real name, Betty knows she’s going to die, and rather than a bloody end, Elizabeth has her take too many pills for her heart condition. At 87, nobody expects foul play when they find her the next day, but it’s a staggering performance by Lois Smith (True Blood).
2 Martha having to move to Russia because of Philip/Clark (“The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”)
It doesn’t get much harsher than finding out your marriage was a sham, especially when that person was someone you loved. Martha loved Philip, or Clark, as she knew him. She believed he worked for internal affairs and put a bug in her boss’ office based on that belief. As secretary to the FBI director, that was no small sell, but the bug is discovered, and Philip’s Clark persona reaches its final legs.
Vanity could explain why Clark wore a wig, but a hunt for the FBI’s mole put a kibosh on his cover story. Suddenly, Martha realized where her information had been funneled, and her life in America was over. Unable to reach out to family, she's smuggled away to live in Russia, where she doesn’t know the language and her husband isn’t coming with her. Everything happens so fast, but up to the moment she boards that plane, it’s telling that Martha holds onto the hope of staying with Clark through all these revelations.
1 Elizabeth ruining Young Hee Seong’s life (season 4)
Knowing doesn’t make it better, but in the end, Martha at least understood what happened to her. A season five cameo lets us know she might be adopting a baby and there’s hope she could eventually find some peace. Young Hee, however, will never understand why her family fell apart.
Elizabeth spiked her husband’s drink and led him to believe they had sex while Young Hee was out. Feeling guilty over his forged infidelity, their marriage grows distant, and when Young Hee calls Elizabeth, upset and needing someone to talk to, Elizabeth cuts out of her life. This allows Philip to blackmail Young Hee’s husband for level four clearance at his work, where the glanders virus is developed. Young Hee’s friendship meant a lot to Elizabeth, but she went through with the job anyway.
Which moments from The Americans had you saying WTF? Share them in the comments.