This post discusses plot points from the April 24 episode of The Americans.
I’d been feeling a little anxious about The Americans over the past few weeks, given the good scorching Homeland gave me — and I suspect many of you — last season. But last night’s episode riffed on the conventions of spy dramas in a way that was a sharp contrast with the way Homeland too often gave into them. And it did so in not one but three storylines that argued that fear, pain, and greed aren’t the only things that motivate people in high-stakes scenarios. Sometimes faith, ideology, and emotional attachment — as well as accidents — are just as important as anything else.
The accident comes first. There’s something grimly funny about Elizabeth, Phillip, and Claudia getting tremendously anxious about whether or not to believe that Sanford’s recruited a source, or to decide that he’s trying to extort $50,000 from them to feed his gambling addiction, only to have him get popped on an entirely unrelated result of his own shiftlessness. “Not FBI. Failure to pay child support,” Claudia tells Elizabeth, exasperated. So much of spy drama depends on the idea of an almost machine-like efficiency of the parties on both sides that they forget to acknowledge how easy it is for grit to get in the works. It’s nice to see The Americans acknowledge, as it so often does, that spies are people too, with families, and day jobs, and personal passions, and all of those obligations can tug them away from a laser-like focus on espionage. And even if their focus is squarely on their tasks, their bodies or minds can fail.
And their motivations can change. The first person to behave in an unpredictable manner is Viola, the Weinbergers’ maid. Elizabeth and Phillip may have largely put the damage they did to her conscience, her sense of security, and her son out of their minds since she agreed to plant the clock. But she has clearly not forgotten. And after listening to her pastor explain that sins “weigh down our hearts with sorrow and corruption. They banish us from the kingdom yet to come, now and forevermore,” she decides to risk her employment rather than her soul, and come clean to her employer. “I was afraid. Not for myself. For Greyson. They made him very sick,” she explains to Gad when Mrs. Weinberger takes her to the FBI offices. “They said they could help him, that they were the only ones who could help him. But if I said anything Greyson was going to die. He put a pillow to his face and said he’d be dead in 15 seconds. I begged him. I begged him to stop. So I said I’d do it. I put the clock back into Mr. Weinberger’s office.” Rather than being fired or arrested, Stan tells her “You’re a very brave woman.” And the FBI examines the bug and decides to keep it. “Now that we know they’re listening, we’ll know what to say,” Gad explains. With some of her fear removed, Viola’s faith wins out. And at least for now, it’s rewarded.Unlike Viola’s Christianity, Nina’s loyalty to the Soviet Union has been a more inconsistent force in her life. But it’s renewed when Arkady grants her new responsibility — and when events force her to reevaluate her feelings about Vlad, and her suspicions about Stan’s involvement in the young man’s death. “I had a dream about you,” she tells Stan, whose promises to extradite her and build her a new life seem very far away now. “I was in a fire. A burning building. The Redizentura, maybe. There was so much smoke. I couldn’t see anything. But then I saw you. You came through the fire and the smoke and everything.” “Did I save you?” Stan wants to know, puppyish in his eagerness to still be her white knight. “Who knows? I woke up. I was safe, but you were gone,” she tells him. And when she asks “Did you kill Vlad?” his answer isn’t the one a white knight would give, a long pause, and an “I would never do anything to hurt you. You know that.” Whether it’s that conversation or the trust Arkady placed in her, Nina, like Viola, behaves unpredictably, less in the interest of her own safety than of ideology and emotion. “I have been spying for The Americans. I was sending things back to Russia without permission. I was caught by the FBI, I was afraid of the consequences. I was turned,” she tells him. “Arkady Ivanovich, I deserve to be sent back to Moscow to be punished for my crime. I am guilty. I have no defense….The FBI agent who caught me, who handles me, has become my lover.” nina “Arkady Ivanovich, you can kill me. Or you can let me redeem myself in the eyes of our beloved Russia.”
These stories about intangibles are tied into Clark’s proposal and marriage to Martha by the title of the episode, “The Oath,” and a meditation on what creates emotional commitment between people and organizations. Arkady asks Nina to recite an oath that appears to touch her deeply: “Deeply valuing the trust placed upon me, and grateful for the decision to send me to the sharp edge of the struggle for ht einterest of my people. As a worthy daughter of the homeland, I would rather perish than betray the secrets entrusted to me. With every heartbeat, with every day that passes, I vow to serve the Soviet Party, the homeland, and the Soviet People.” At the wedding, the minister marrying Clark and Martha tells the couple “An oath is both a statement for the present and a promise to the future. It is the means by which we humans tell each other ‘I’m in this for the long haul.’” And afterwards, Elizabeth, posing as Phillip’s sister to give him the illusion of family — along with Claudia, in perfect Mother Of The Groom drag — muses on might have happened if she and Phillip had been legally married. “You and I were never really married,” she tells him in the nave. “It’s funny. I know they’re just words people say. Do you think things would have been different between us if we would have said them?” And Nina’s affected by words unspoken, too. “Vald treated me like I was a sister,” Nina tells one of her coworkers at the Rezidentura. “Because he know you were out of his league,” she tells him.
But what creates loyalty, be it to a cause, a country, or another person is ephemeral. And it’s a question that touches everyone, even Paige. “I don’t want to fight for his feelings, Mom. Either he’s into me or he’s not. And he’s not,” she tells her mother sorrowfully after her afternoon hanging out with the Beemans’ son is interrupted by Sarah, an interloper who’s a hot hand with a guitar. Elizabeth tries to minimize the hurt. “Maybe you like the way he looks at you, underneath all that hair of his,” she tells Paige. “But the thing to understand is that we see what we need tos ee in people. Things that aren’t really there.” It’s a strategy that only raises more questions for Paige. “Is that what happened with you and Dad?” she wants to know. “Did you need to see something in him that wasn’t really there?” “No. It was there,” Elizabeth tells him. But she’s noticed it too late. And that’s the secret of loyalty. For an oath to have meaning, there needs to be someone there for you to swear it to.
A side note: Elizabeth and Claudia’s meet in the arcade was my favorite character-building moment of the show, and maybe of any television show airing this year. “You’re good at games, I’ll give you that,” Elizabeth told her handler, who was poking vigorously at the controls of a Pac-Man console vigorously. “I enjoy the maze part,” Claudia told her. “And the eating without eating part. Pac dots are calorie-free.” I love the idea that she’s a regular.