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The Americans: Divestment

“What were they asking about?”
“They said I couldn’t say.”

This episode was centered on a series of interrogations, some of which were masquerading as conversations. Although some ended more violently than others, each tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte left both participants fundamentally changed.

Ncgobo, Philip, Elizabeth interrogating Eugene Venter was the bloody highlight of this episode. Venter’s death was horrific enough that even Elizabeth acknowledged it. But it’s also one of the least ambiguous deaths we’ve seen—ever—on this show: with the benefit of hindsight, we understand the importance of ending apartheid and (pace the episode title) encouraging corporate and academic divestment from brutal regimes. This is a fight, in other words, where we agree with Philip’s and Elizabeth’s ideologies.

And yet The Americans doesn’t make it easy on us. Venter burning to death was brutal; I turned away. It was illegal. It was likely immoral. (I don’t know enough about 1980s politics to have anything resembling an opinion, much less an answer, about that.) But it was also a reminder of what is at stake (individual lives and the lives of cultures and countries) and the cost of fighting political battles.

Philip’s conversation with Ncgobo emphasized both the costs and unexpected benefits of such battles, though. Ncgobo explained that he missed his wife: a simple, poignant moment from a man who just burned another man to death. Ncgobo sacrificed marital happiness for political necessity. Philip’s marriage was a political necessity, but he has found some happiness within it.

Elizabeth’s conversation with Gabriel revealed that happiness. Gabriel was surprised that Elizabeth knew about Misha, Philip’s son. And thus Gabriel learned something new: while he was away, Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage changed. Will that alter Gabriel’s approach to managing his spies? Is he wondering whether or not his divide-and-conquer approach to the question of Paige becoming a spy was the wrong one? Frank Langella communicate a wealth of mental activity in Gabriel's subtle reaction to Elizabeth’s revelation; I’m not even sure she noticed.

But if Gabriel became an inadvertent interrogator who learned more about his subject during a routine request for a favor, Aderholt’s interrogation by Taffet was managed perfectly by Aderholt himself. Everything Taffet said was about Aderholt being black, and everything he said pretended to be about something else. Aderholt picked up on it right away, and threw terms like “being new” and “new blood” back in Aderholt’s face (exactly where they belonged). Will Taffet suspect Aderholt just because he’s black? I certainly hope not, but—as Paige’s research emphasized—American civil and social rights were better than South Africa’s in the 1980s, but they were hardly perfect.

Highlight for an off-topic rant: In fact, they're still not perfect. Aderholt went to Berkeley, but that flagship school, like its prestige counterpart UCLA, has a phenomenally low enrollment rate for black students; so low, in fact, that it can be considered a violation of the UC charter, which dictates that each UC must serve and represent its community. Rant over.

Martha, too, was subject to the Taffet gaze. Their conversation about pens was absurd—it evoked various criminal trials and senate investigations in that way—but it is also, to me, ambiguous: was Taffet able to discern Martha’s guilt? I thought she actually held herself in pretty well. She was obviously nervous, but that might be a reasonable reaction to such a responsibility. And Taffet didn’t take her seriously as a threat, because she’s just a woman/secretary in an office full of men doing manly labor. See above, re: civil and social rights.

Martha’s own interrogation of Clark was more effective. She knows he’s lying. She called him out on it. And he fell back on the weakest of answers: their love is real. We know, of course, that it isn’t, and that makes it easy to underestimate Martha. She seems like such a patsy, so willing to accept the flimsiest of excuses for why she can’t live with her husband. But that doesn’t make her story any less tragic, especially as she is now realizing what she has done. What has me wondering, though, is what she will do about it.

Nina’s conversations—especially the one with the Very Important Person (Minister of Prisons? And her father?)—were the tensest. VIP felt betrayed, and accused Nina of using her beauty to get what she wanted. But that’s not how I read her character: her beauty is formidable (and counterpoises nicely with Martha’s lack of beauty), but I do believe that Nina loved Stan, and loved Oleg. She just also loves nice things, as evidenced by her going immediately to the chest of drawers with the cosmetics and brushes on it, and loves her own freedom.

Who doesn’t?

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. No, The Americans definitely does not make it easy on us, Josie. That’s why I love it, and probably why its ratings are so awful. Alas.

    I, too, am wondering what Martha will do next. It would seem from that final shot that she doesn’t completely buy into what ‘Clark’ tried to sell her once confronted. Last week I was surprised she didn’t tell him about the bug being discovered, because I didn’t put it together that she realized the presence of Walter Taffet meant that “Clark” likely wasn’t who he claimed to be. Knowing that, I’m now surprised that she confronted him. But I guess she just had to know. To put the question on the table, hoping to get an answer that wasn’t what she feared. I don’t think she got the answer she wanted. So now what? When will her gun finally come into all this? Will she use it on herself? On Clark? On both of them?

    The second man that Nina met with wasn’t her father. It was Vasili, her original boss at the Rezidentura. The man she slept with on Stan’s orders, and subsequently framed for her own betrayal. He’s in that place because of what Nina did to him. It made that scene so deliciously uncomfortable! I love that we got a moment like that. Forcing her to deal with some of the pain she’s caused, even though she was forced into doing those things. And all because she likes the nice things that, as you say, any normal person would. So twisted and tragic.

  2. Oh, right! Thanks, Jess. It's been so long since all that happened that I couldn't place him.


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