The Americans: Covert War

… in which Elizabeth’s superior and mentor is murdered and she seeks revenge.

After a run of pretty strong episodes, we were bound to get one that wasn’t quite up to snuff. While ‘Covert War’ certainly continued spooling out cautionary tales regarding the dangers of letting personal feelings interfere in your spy business, I found the episode incredibly scattered. It felt oddly adrift after the intensity of the last few.

Other than the central thread with Elizabeth trying to exact revenge for Zhukov’s murder, the story mostly flitted between small check-in moments. We got the opening with the FBI continuing to escalate the “covert violence exchanges,” and then various beats checking in on the Beemans, Philip and the kids, Martha and Clark, Nina’s job, and finally a status check on Stan and Nina’s liaison. Kind of an overall roundup to mark time before kicking off the final few hours of the season.

Initially, I felt like the flashbacks with Elizabeth and Zhukov contributed to the scattered tone and pacing, and didn’t really do much to enhance the overall story. But when watching the episode a second time, it was these scenes that I found the most engaging, and ultimately the most enlightening. Knowing the full arc of Elizabeth’s story in this hour put these interludes into a clearer context for me, and actually helped me to empathize more with Elizabeth’s situation and to understand the terrible cost of a life spent immersed in a world of lies.

Elizabeth clearly thought that Zhukov was trying to express his love and affection for her, and perhaps he was, after a fashion. By trying to help her truly embrace life and to find happiness beyond her work. In describing his relationship with his dog, Zhukov wanted her to see that if she allowed herself to care for and put trust in her partner, “you will discover that you love this creature, and your life would be empty without him.” But she didn’t understand he meant Philip, and seemingly interpreted his comments as expressing his love for her. Later, he tried to get her to enjoy her children, and to be happy knowing they can experience “the pleasure of playing” that she never could. He wanted her to know that even though “we all die alone,” she could make choices to not be alone before then. And, finally, showing her his favorite garden before it was about to bloom, he desperately wanted to steer her away from the lonely path he had chosen. He wanted her to stop viewing everyone as an enemy and to enjoy life while she could. “I lost my way a long time ago. I have lived for my work, for the Party. Now I miss what I never had.”

Tragically, Elizabeth spent all those years unable to understand what her mentor was trying to tell her, only to finally see the light after losing him. It was his death, and her quest to avenge him, that helped her to see what her life had become. Patterson calling her out --- “Your life is a lie. You kill. That’s who you are, that’s what you know, that’s what you do. […] You have no heart, no soul, no conscience. Your hands are covered in blood. Do you care about anything? Do you love anyone?” --- shocked her into recognizing that she had lost her own way. Two men she loved deeply had just died in service of her work, and she had pushed away the other people she loved (her kids) and could potentially love (Philip) in the interest of being a better operative. So she opted to make a different choice. To let Patterson go, and to re-open herself to life with Philip. To bring him home and put her family back together. But, sadly, it may be too late.

Other Thoughts

Gaad: “They kill us, we kill them. It’s the world we live in.”

Letting Patterson live seems like an exceptionally big risk for Elizabeth and Philip. Killing him would likely have resulted in the shadow war continuing to escalate, which would have been bad in the grander scheme. But letting him go after he got a reasonably good look at her seems risky. They put a lot of trust in those glasses and wigs.

Henry: “What does this have to do with insurance?”
Phillip: “The insurance company pays for the show.”
Henry: “Do we buy their insurance?”
Phillip: “No, we just watch their show.”
Amusing commentary on the current television funding model.

So, Sandra seems to be done with Stan. I feel really bad for her. She held on for so long while he was undercover, and now that he’s back it’s all gone to hell. Heartbreaking. But I don’t feel bad for Stan. He very much came across as the “bad guy” in this episode, and I had very little sympathy for him. He’s not doing right by Sandra, or his son, or Nina.

Speaking of doomed romances, I just feel worse and worse for Martha every week. If she doesn’t get killed by someone else first, she’s probably going to become suicidal when she discovers the truth about Clark.

Larry from Three’s Company is Martha’s dad. Whoa.

Claudia: “I do not agree or disagree. I follow orders. […] Defying orders is never the right thing to do. You’re lucky that your act of street theater didn’t bring down the entire operation. Sometimes the smartest officers do the stupidest things.”

Nina did not tell Stan about the bug in Caspar Weinberger’s library, likely because she knows he’s lying about Vlad. Maybe I should feel a little bad that Nina is using her sexuality to manipulate Stan, but I just can’t. He’s using her in so many ways, he murdered her friend, and he’s put her in a terrible position overall. I kind of have to applaud her efforts to exert some measure of control over her situation.

Nina: “I don’t have anything anymore, Stan. No country to go back to. My family there I will never see again. I only have fear … and you.”

Superficial nitpik: the stray hair from Elizabeth’s wig was driving me nuts in the bar scene. It was stuck to her lip or something. You’d think she would have brushed it out of the way! (Update: Apparently that "stray hair" was a fake facial scar. Oy.)

Claudia: “You’re still new at this, my dear. So much to learn.”
Elizabeth: “This isn’t gonna go well for you, old lady.”

I don’t quite understand Claudia’s angle. Was Elizabeth right that Claudia wanted to bust her for defying orders again? She certainly seemed unhappy that Elizabeth wasn’t as predictable as she thought. (And what a glorious little moment that was for Margo Martindale. Just a very slight shift in her expression when Elizabeth revealed she let Patterson go. A hardening of the eyes that made her go from looking mildly pleasant to very displeased. Awesome!)

Final Analysis: A scattered episode that wasn’t up to the standards set by the last few weeks, but which played somewhat better on a second watch.

Image credit: Spoiler TV

Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.


Suzanne said...

As usual, Jess, I thoroughly enjoy your reviews. I agree that this episode wasn't as strong as some of the others but any episode of this show is so much better than a lot of other shows.

I, too, enjoyed the flashbacks since they helped to humanize Elisabeth. I think she saw the General as a father figure, so it didn't surprise me that she reacted as she did. It makes me wonder how she will react if something happens to her children, God forbid. Speaking of the kids, I enjoyed their interaction with Phillip. Rhys plays his role as their father so naturally. I loved the scene where they spotted a man going to the bathroom in public. There was nice little moment of suspense after Henry says "Dad" where you thought it might be connected to his spy work as it would be on most shows and then the camera turns to the man. It was humorous and the kids reaction to Phillip's reaction was delightful.

I wasn't crazy about the way they handled the mistaken perception at the end about the suitcase. That felt too soapy for my tastes. Why couldn't Elisabeth have asked him directly to come back?

Lastly, I wondered what was one her face, too, in the bar scenes. I read someone on another site refer to it as a fake scar. Do you think it could be true? If so, make-up isn't Elisabeth's forte.

Jess, I love seeing reviews from you! What a treat to get some from you, some from Billie, and from the other great reviewers who share this column with you.

Jess Lynde said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Suzanne! It's been great fun covering the show with a group. I've enjoyed getting different perspectives each week.

I, too, saw a comment elsewhere about the "stray hair" being a fake facial scar, so I just went back and checked. I think it is supposed to be a facial scar. But the bar lighting initially made it look like a stray hair to me. Either way, really, really distracting. Maybe distracting to the mark, too? Enough that he won't be able to give a good description of his captor?

ChrisB said...

The scene between Phillip and Elizabeth in the hotel room broke my heart. Although I can hardly blame him for being wary, Phillip does seem to have very little feeling left for Elizabeth.

Likewise, the final scene with Grannie. Although she must be a difficult woman to trust, part of me thinks that Elizabeth is transferring a lot of her own issues onto the older woman. Having said that, I have not been in the spy game all my life and may be too trusting.

Your thought about the insurance company made me smile. Nature and insurance -- there was only one combination in the early '80s. I'm wondering if the show was unable to license the name.

Poor Martha should never have introduced "Clark" to her parents. As soon as she opened the door, my heart sank. She is not long for this world.

Jess Lynde said...

I've been thinking about the interesting juxtaposition of Nina and Martha. Both are essentially secretaries in their respective governments' spy agencies and both have been functioning as information sources for the other side. The main difference is that Nina has been forced into knowingly committing treason, whereas Martha has been unwittingly co-opted. And it is really hard to judge which woman is in a worse situation. Probably Nina, since she's had to knowingly prostitute herself, has been cut off her family, has no chance to ever return home, and lives with constant fear. Martha at least gets to dwell in a "happier than she's ever been" mental state for the time being. But the fall is probably going to be so much harder for her, because she can't see it coming. Whereas Nina clearly sees the inevitable end of the path she's on, unless she can find some way to avoid it.

Similarly, how do we judge Phillip and Stan, the men using these women? Who is the worse monster? Both are liars and manipulators. Both are "cheating" on their wives; one with his wife's knowledge and consent, the other without (sort of the flip side of their relationships with their assets). I tend to be more sympathetic towards Phillip than Stan, but I honestly can't decide if it is worse for Phillip to completely delude Martha into a false state of happiness, or for Stan to take advantage of Nina when he's essentially stripped of her life and forced her to live in a constant state of fear.

So many fascinating layers to this show to ponder.

ChrisB said...

Fantastic comment, Jess! The varying shades of grey are what make this show such a joy to watch. I am already looking forward to a re-watch this summer. I am interested to see how much foreshadowing I missed the first time through. My guess? A lot.

Billie Doux said...

That line on Elizabeth's face during the bar scene was very distracting and seemed to be gone later in the warehouse scene. I was sort of surprised that, after all the heavy duty stuff they've done, Elizabeth didn't go ahead and kill the guy.

Poor Martha. This won't end well. I hope she doesn't wind up dead. I am also worried all the time about Nina, whom I like more than Stan. One thing this show does very well is make us care about the characters.

Terrific review, Jess.

Miguel said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one distracted by the "fake scar". I wasn't sure what it was and kept wiping my computer screen thinking it was dirty. It makes sense to me now that she would have a fake scar as a disguise (first thing he would say to someone when trying to ID her), but she usually doesn't do stuff like that so I was thrown off thinking my screen was messed up.

I agree that the episode was not up to par. I found myself kind of restless during it. I found that ending scene with Grannie the most fascinating. Was Elizabeth right, or is she being paranoid? It'd be interesting if Grannie was secretly out to get back at Elizabeth for beating her face in.