The Americans: The Oath

“An oath is both a statement for the present and a promise to the future.”

This was a quiet episode for a spy drama, an interesting choice for the penultimate of the season. No one died; there were no OMG moments; there was nothing meant to shock or alarm us. Instead, we were treated to a tightly written, beautifully performed character piece.

Two themes were at play this week. The first, obvious from the title, is about the oaths we take and the promises we make. When is it acceptable to break these promises? What is the justification for entering into promises that we know are false? The hour was filled with characters taking oaths, breaking them and choosing which ones they will honor. Viola, choosing her faith and her trust in her boss, was the obvious example.

Elizabeth clearly stated the second, “We see what we need to see in people, things that aren’t really there.” This is a complicated idea and difficult to portray, but it is a strong truth. When we fall in love, be it with a person, a country or an idea, the thing with which we fall in love is a reflection of who we are and what we need. Not only do we love whatever it is we love, we love the person we are when we are involved with it. It becomes a reflection of us.

Never is this more clearly stated than when the FBI is looking at the various sketches of Philip and Elizabeth. These are people who live their lives in disguise, even at their most basic level. The sketches themselves are, by definition, a reflection of the person making them. Of course they will be different, and not just because of the disguises worn. Viola’s sketch is coming from a place of fear; Patterson’s is coming from a place of lust.

Everything about Philip and Elizabeth’s lives is false, and thus their unreality becomes the reflection. But finally, what is there to reflect? Philip is not in love with anything right now. He has never been all that loyal to his country and Elizabeth has chosen not to be with him. He is able to stand and make an oath to Martha knowing that the words are empty and that any feelings he may have for her are hollow.

Similarly, Elizabeth is struggling. Her strongest loyalty has always been to her country, yet Granny has completely undermined that. Two men we know she loved are dead and the other man for whom she has strong feelings has just married someone else in front of her.

The two themes were illustrated beautifully by the juxtaposition of Nina’s story with Martha’s. Both are women who work for their country and both are women who are looking for love. Yet, the different choices they make and the people to whom they choose to make their oaths set up the final episode.

Nina has been conflicted since we met her. All she has wanted is to do her job and, hopefully, find a nice guy with whom she can settle down and be happy. Instead, she is forced to spy against her will and she becomes involved with her handler, a man who is not only an American, but who is married.

The first time through the episode, I thought that Nina’s confession and willingness to be a double (triple?) agent came a bit quickly. The second time through, however, I realized that it was the culmination of three events that enabled her to take such a stand.

The first is the oath (“a bond that never can be broken”) she took to be loyal to Russia. Clearly, it affects her. You can almost watch the loyalties shift in her eyes as she speaks the words. The second was the small conversation she has with the other secretary about Vlad. She learns that her friend wanted to date her but thought she was out of his league. We know that Nina had feelings for the man, at least as a good friend, and I think she was seeing what could have been.

Finally, Nina may be many things, but she is no fool. She knows that Stan is lying to her about killing Vlad; the proverbial straw. She has become good at being what Stan wants her to be, plays him like a fiddle and sleeps with him before going back to the Rezidentura to change the game. In the end, Nina chooses the oath she made to her country.

In direct contrast, Martha chooses love. Poor, poor Martha. She is so desperate for a “steady Freddy” husband that she can show off to her parents, she is ignoring all the obvious signs that something is very, very wrong with this relationship. Sadly, she can’t even see what is happening when she, herself, writes it all down on a piece of paper. The truth is, literally, staring her in the face. Which made the wedding all the more heartbreaking. She and Clark make their vows (oaths) to each other, but they are meaningless. Ironically, Clark and Martha’s marriage is real in the sense that it is, at least at some level, legal; Philip and Elizabeth’s is not.

Assuming that relationships should be built on at least a modicum of trust, these are doomed to fail. Nina has never completely trusted Stan and now knows the truth; Stan is too wrapped up in his feelings for this woman to see even the possibility that she will turn. Martha completely trusts Clark, to the point of planting a bug for him; Clark is not even Clark. Even Elizabeth’s relationship with Russia is tenuous these days. She distrusts Granny so much she is going around her for information.

The only relationship we see right now that has at least a level of truth is Philip and Elizabeth’s. They know who the other is and where they stand, yet they lie to each other as well. Philip asks her directly if she is all right with him in the apartment; she lies when she tells him she is. These two never took an oath, never made a promise to each other. As such, there is nothing to break. Except, of course, that there is and the looks on their faces in the church tell us all we need to know.

I liked this one, even more the second time through. Three out of four bugged pens and clocks.

Observations:

-- The “Previously On’ section was a good recap of the entire season. This is a show to which you have to pay attention. We have not seen Viola since episode two, but here she is again.

-- Great play of the pen being put in Gaad’s office just as the bug is found in Weinberger’s home.

-- Very sweet scene with Philip and Paige playing in the apartment, but I’m not sure of the reason behind that bad band scene. Pretty awful rendition of “Mississippi Queen” and, trust me, Sarah does not really play the guitar.

-- Although it could be seen as romantic, even Clark’s proposal was in code. Interesting that Philip did not need to say the words aloud.

Voices on Tape:

Philip: Are you OK with this? With the apartment?”
Elizabeth: “Absolutely.”

Granny: “I enjoy the maze part, and the eating-without-eating part. Pac-dots are calorie free.”

Elizabeth: “No knock on your charms there, Romeo, but there’s no way she’ll go for that.”
Philip: “She’ll go for it.”

Philip: “Me and my ex-wife, we… we didn’t care enough.”

Martha: “What do you mean?”
Philip: “What I mean is, we cared about each other, but we didn’t know how to be married.”

Elaine Hanson: “I can see the family resemblance.”

Elizabeth: “You and I were never really married.”
Philip: “No.”
Elizabeth: “It’s funny. I know they’re just words people say. Do you think things would’ve been different between us if we would’ve said them?
Philip: “I don’t know.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.

1 comment:

Jess Lynde said...

Great review, Chris. I've been thinking for days about what commentary I could add, but you pretty much covered the bases.

I will say that the juxtaposition of Nina's and Martha's situations weighed heavily on my mind this episode. Lots of focus on the toll of the spy game on its 'victims' and 'assets' this week. I was thoroughly delighted to see Nina attempt to take control of her destiny, and to remove some of the fear she lives with daily, and I was simultaneously horrified by how far down the rabbit hole 'Clark' was willing to take Martha. When he proposed and when they actually got married, my stomach was really twisted in knots. I feel utterly sick for her, and have decided that as things stand at the moment, I feel much worse for Martha and much more anger towards Phillip than Stan. I'm rather dreading next week's finale.