The Americans: Martial Eagle

“I feel responsible.”

This episode was co-written by Oliver North. Yes, that Oliver North: the man whose name instantly makes me picture my eighth-grade history teacher’s long-winded rant about this “Iran-Contra” thing that had happened a few years before, when most of us were young enough to watch Disney movies with wholehearted enthusiasm. I won’t go into the details here: this is a good explanation of the whole debacle.

North’s contribution to this episode is ambiguous: did he fill them in on backstory? Explain how operations like Martial Eagle worked? The New York Times article on North’s involvement doesn’t shed much light on those questions, but it is worth reading just for the tidbits. North tends to refer to himself in the third person, of course. He also believes that The Americans is “a great opportunity…to showcase the man [Reagan] who changed the world for the good, for my kids and my grandkids.”

Any other week, any other episode, and I’d disagree with vehemence. This week, I’m not so sure, because I’m not clear on why Philip was so upset about killing the American soldier. To contextualize my confusion, I’m going to quote myself (hey, if Ollie North can talk about himself in the third person…). Here’s what I wrote in my review of the first episode of this season:

That life appears to be taking its toll on Philip, who revealed himself to be quite willing to kill if necessary, as he did with the Afghans in the restaurant, but unwilling to kill in cold blood: his tone as he queried “Take them out?” showed just where he wishes he could draw the line. He can’t draw the line there, of course, because it’s not just the motherland at stake, but the safety of his own family. And while he and Elizabeth have clearly rekindled some elements of their relationship, he finds more solace in talking to his “real wife” Martha, who has no idea who he really is or what he really does.

Killing the soldier was necessary for Philip and Elizabeth to get to safety, and necessary for this small skirmish in the greater Cold War. How was this American soldier different from the Afghans Philip killed weeks earlier? None of those people are non-combatants like the septic guy.

Maybe the young American soldier reminds Philip of the 160 dead “navy boys” whose deaths he had a hand in due to his involvement in the faulty-propeller plans. Maybe Philip feels more of a connection with an American soldier than an Afghan soldier because he likes America. Maybe the body count is piling up, and Philip is feeling the weight—maybe all killing is inimical to him now, in the wake of his friends’ deaths at the end of the season opener.

All of those ideas sound valid. But I can’t help thinking: “Or maybe the show wants to have its cake and eat it, too.” Maybe it wants us to accept Philip’s regret, or sadness, or confused emotional response to killing the American soldier because: American! Soldier! And then, by Ollie-North-style correlation: Reagan! Good! But if the show trusts us to pick the easy side, how are we supposed to root for any happiness in the lives of these fictionalized Soviet spies who steal plans from the US and then blame the US when the plan backfires?

All of that is me coming, long way ‘round, to my main point: this is an episode about responsibility. Philip feels responsible for the death of the young soldier and the Russian navy boys. He has been responsible for other deaths, but this is one that hits him hard (or the one that brings all those dead chickens home to roost). The death of the septic guy makes it worse.

Philip tells Elizabeth that it’s harder for him. It is. Philip sees (most) people as people, whereas Elizabeth sees people as ideology in action. Just think of her response to Lucia in their conversation about their fathers last week. Elizabeth described her father first as a “worker”; only after Lucia pressed her did she get more specific (coal-miner). Elizabeth sees her dead father as a proletariat, a man who never got the full power he deserved and would have gotten under perfect Marxism. He’s a representative of a social class more than a vivid, complex person.

Those perspectives explain their different reactions to Paige’s “Teenage Sunday” at church, and the revelation that she spent her savings on salvation-through-charity. Elizabeth hated the idea of church, of the church’s trickery, and—above all—of the opiate-like promises of “joy” that it promised. Elizabeth believes this is a terrible world, but that there is grace in misery. Grace, if you will, in a little midnight fridge-cleaning.

Philip, on the other hand, doesn’t attack the ideological roots of religion. He attacks the man at the lectern. Pastor Tim’s ability to quickly get to the root of Philip’s anger was a little ham-fisted (look, the man of God knows Philip better than Philip knows himself!), but it was effective. Philip has shown himself to be willing to beat up people to protect Paige before, but maybe now he realizes a little hope and joy isn’t a bad thing. After all, he is certainly not providing that for his family. He is not living up to his paterfamilias responsibilities.

Neither is Stan. His victory over bureaucracy was Pyrrhic: just as he gets access, he is confronted with the part he played in getting Gaad fired (and possibly jailed), and in ruining his marriage without realizing it. Both Gaad and Sandra call Stan out, and Stan deserves it. He tells Philip’s source that “no one ever believes they will” betray their country, but Stan has betrayed his country (giving the surveillance files to Sergei), betrayed his mandate (committed murder), and betrayed his wife (with Nina and with disengagement). He has created a situation in which his wife wants to try out an “emotional connection” she made with another man, and his boss has to try to blackmail the Russian embassy into helping him.

Perhaps because this episode already ran long, we didn’t get a chance to see Stan with Nina after Sandra’s revelation. I’m curious to know how he describes the situation to her, and how he reacts. Philip certainly brought a lot of his unbalanced work/life “home” to Martha’s. As in the season premiere, he attempted to find solace with Martha, but he wound up using her as a whipping boy instead by playing that awful tape and then abandoning her. Even Martha cannot provide comfort this week. And, of course, no one ever comforts Martha.

Elizabeth’s went to an AA meeting to pick up a new source on stealth technology (which makes me picture my third-grade classroom, where we read an article with pictures of a Stealth Bomber—the boys were so excited and I was so bored). You’ve probably heard the AA Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We, the viewers, have the wisdom to know which parts of this show matter and which don’t; since it’s all consigned to the great unchangeable archives of history, our wisdom is useless. See the link to the Iran-Contra affair, above.

Philip, Elizabeth, and Stan don’t have the benefit of hindsight, but they also all lack serenity: they cannot change their lives or their jobs, not in any meaningful sense, and so they are perpetually somewhere on the spectrum between uncomfortable and distraught. The courage they all share manifests itself in their work, but rarely in their home lives. Stan was so disengaged from his wife that he didn’t realize she had realized he was having an affair, and Philip has lost the easiness he had previously exhibited with his children. None of them seems to have the courage to say, “I’m responsible, let’s make amends and try again, let me tell you how I feel.” And that, sadly, is making all the difference.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


Anonymous said...

This was the worst episode yet .. very disjointed.

ChrisB said...

Watching Philip fall apart during this episode made me very uncomfortable. I understand that he is hurting, guilty, and stressed out. But, what he did to Martha was nasty beyond the telling of it. I found myself turning against him and I really, really don't want to.

I was moved by Elizabeth's talk with her AA "friend" about how she would like to help Philip. I do hope she finds a way.