Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Americans: “Martial Eagle”

Illustration for article titled The Americans: “Martial Eagle”

Todd: One of the raps those who don’t like The Americans have against The Americans is that it’s a cold, emotionless show, one where the viewer is never told precisely what to feel and the characters themselves can seem like robots. In its quest to seem completely non-manipulative, the show can come off as dry and analytical to a fault, approaching emotions like it does everything else: through its big, stupid brain, instead of its big, dumb heart. Now, this probably says more about me than it does about The Americans, but give or take an episode of Mad Men, this is the show that moves me more than any other on TV right now. There’s so much in this show about what it means to love and be loved, and what it means to believe in something you’re not sure cares the slightest about you, that I’m sort of predisposed to love it as much as I do. And yet I think an episode like “Martial Eagle” is a superb example of how the show’s emotional core exists, even if it’s distant and occasionally unknowable. To get to it, you have to completely give yourself over to the show’s emotional reality. But the results are rewarding.

What’s interesting is how pointedly The Americans is not about plot-driven tension. A lot of shows would have had Philip and Elizabeth’s infiltration of Operation Martial Eagle take up the whole hour—or at least build to it being the final 20 minutes or something. But “Martial Eagle,” instead, makes their raid on the camp into its first act. Things go wrong, but not disastrously so, at least in terms of numbers dead or our protagonists getting caught. We don’t really fear for their lives. But the toll of the mission seeps into the characters’ souls, particularly Philip’s. He’s spotted while skulking around at the camp, and he has to kill the young man who spots him, then the two guys who come looking to see what’s happening. (Elizabeth’s murder of her target goes off without a hitch.) And after the two of them return to see if the driver they tied up in the woods has survived the bitter cold, they learn that to hope so was likely always pointless. He’s as dead as any of the men Philip killed so immediately, only his death was much more protracted.

This season of The Americans has featured a lot of death—to the degree where I might think of it as overly manipulative if I didn’t think the show were so good at making us feel something for all of the people who stumble upon Philip and Elizabeth in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Notice how the soldiers that Philip and Elizabeth kill—actual combatants in this war—are given no real personality beyond their uniforms. This is what they signed up for. But it’s not what the guy who drives a septic truck did.) And the show has done an exceptional job of portraying the weight of all of that death on both of its main characters respectively. Philip and Elizabeth go immediately from the camp in the middle of the woods to another engagement with the enemy as they head to church, but where another show might make the two of them have some glimmer of religious feeling or something, hearing the pastor’s words about goodness and sin only curdles the two even more against what their daughter has gotten herself into. And that all erupts once they find out Paige has given away the $600 she saved to travel Europe someday to the church.

Matthew Rhys is such an internal, quiet actor that it’s legitimately frightening to see him explode at Paige like he does in this episode. But Philip’s anger boils out of him in a way we rarely get to see on American television. He takes it out not just on his daughter but on organized religion in general. “You respect Jesus more than you respect us?” he asks, and he’s so close to the unfiltered person he must truly be, the angry man that the preacher sees in him at the episode’s end. He pulls back from that point, but all of these pieces are getting mixed together and scrambled thanks to the mission he’s undertaking. Just as Elizabeth’s ability to perform her job has been adversely affected by her newfound feelings for Philip, his ability to perform his job has been hurt by his inability to keep everything compartmentalized anymore. He goes to Martha’s place to try and talk to her, to get some ears out for information on the stealth program, but when he finally plays that tape for her, it seems almost like cruelty, like he’s trying to make someone feel as bad as he does. And when it comes time to spend the night with her—even non-sexually—he simply can’t. He’s splintering but hasn’t admitted it to himself yet.

What’s more, by virtue of coming ninth in a season of 13 episodes, “Martial Eagle” also starts to give us a rough sense of how the rest of this season plays out, and stories are starting to come together in interesting ways. Stan is investigating the deaths of Emmett and Leanne, while Martha knows he’s looking into the stealth program as well (and could presumably let that slip to Clark). And even as I’m relatively certain Stan will learn about Nina’s involvement with Oleg in the next few weeks, he also learns that his wife is contemplating an affair with a man she met from EST, which puts much of her behavior in perspective, too. “Martial Eagle” moves pieces around more than some other episodes this season, but it does so in a way that always keeps that emotional core in mind, and that makes it so devastating.

I think a lot of this comes back to that final scene at the church, Genevieve, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that. Do you think it put a suitable capper on Philip’s journey here?


Genevieve: Man, that last scene is a doozy, and there are a bunch of different ways to slice it. But what I kept thinking about during Philip’s conversation with the pastor was how it both echoes and contrasts a similar moment from the first season of The Americans, when Philip goes after another perceived threat to his daughter. That creepy guy in the mall who leered at Paige in the first episode of the series, the one Philip beat to a pulp in his own backyard, couldn’t be more different from Pastor Tim on the surface, but Philip interprets them both as threats to his daughter’s safety and agency, and responds with violence. Or at least that’s how it seems he intends to respond when he enters the church with black gloves on and locks the door behind him. Philip’s clearly not quite in his right mind when he embarks on this plan, and his heightened state is reflected in Alik Sakharov’s wonderful direction of that moment where he enters the church, a dark figure creeping through the shadows while well-lit religious iconography looms over him. (The visual of Philip’s face bifurcated into light and dark by shadow is familiar bordering on cliche, but it just works so well in this context.) I particularly like the touch of Philip first spying a well-lit, peaceful-looking Pastor Tim through the gauzy white curtains of his office, and then the angle switching to view Philip, all in black, through that same diaphanous white frame.

But violence doesn’t come as easy to Philip as it did just 20 episodes ago, particularly when he’s confronted with the outspoken, preemptive forgiveness of Pastor Tim and his good buddy Jesus. That’s not to say Philip’s been converted by Pastor Tim’s words, far from it—if anything, he seems even more agitated than he does when he first enters the office. But he’s obviously been shaken by the events of this episode and the preceding ones, and when his internal anguish over the mounting body count he’s responsible for comes up against Pastor Tim’s absolute faith, it seems to short-circuit his already fragile emotions. Not only is Paster Tim not cowed by Philip’s threats, he responds with mercy. Contrast that with Philip’s last attempt at mercy: leaving that septic tank driver tied up to freeze to death rather than shooting him. Sometimes mercy is more difficult to achieve than violence.


Faith—in your country, in your partner, in yourself—is a recurring theme in The Americans, and the introduction of organized religion into the mix is an interesting wrinkle, particularly when that religion preaches forgiveness, something Philip is having an increasingly difficult time providing for himself. It’s notable that Philip enters the church as Philip Jennings, not in one of the disguises he’d normally don for such a mission. Granted, that could just be because Pastor Tim got too good a look at him earlier to be fooled by a wig and eyepatch or whatever, but there’s something powerful about someone who manipulates and controls others from behind a series of masks being confronted, as himself (or the closest version thereof), by something he can’t control, or even understand.

The themes of faith, betrayal, and forgiveness pop up again in Stan’s storyline this week. There’s the Sandra thing, of course—which, before we move on, can we all just pause and applaud Mrs. Beeman? Her response to Stan’s incredulousness that she’s planning to have an affair—“Go ahead, tell me you’re not having an affair”—is so perfect, and a long time coming. Stan’s been hiding in a bubble of his own obliviousness for so long, and it’s gratifying to see her pop it so definitively. But I’m thinking more about Stan’s conversation with Fred, Leanne, and Emmett’s old DOD contact, who ably fibs that he would never betray his country, to which Stan replies, “No one ever imagines they will.” Stan’s dogged pursuit of Oleg and the stealth program is looking increasingly desperate in light of how deeply he’s dug himself into a hole with the Nina and Vlad situations; it’s as if he’s trying to absolve himself of his betrayal to his country (oh, and his marriage too, I guess) by getting the bad guys all by himself, and reversing the damage he did in giving Oleg FBI information. Stan still sees himself as a “good guy,” despite the various bad things he’s done, and his inability to accept his own wrongdoing is blinding him to its effects. When he comes upon Gaad cleaning out his office, he offers a meek, conciliatory “I feel responsible,” which Gaad assures him that he is—but so is Gaad. Accepting our sins is the first step. (The second step for Gaad, apparently, is ambushing Arkady and threatening to blackmail him. We’ll see how that plays out.)


I’m sure it’s not at all a coincidence that this episode also features Elizabeth pursuing a new mark at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that advises its members to seek healing through self-acceptance and the embracement of a higher power. Both Philip and Stan are floundering trying to get a handle on their own actions, and neither is finding easy answers—certainly nothing that could be achieved in 12 steps. I’m not equating either of their dilemmas to addiction, which is an entirely different issue this episode is smart to keep as background color only; but the AA scene is an interesting offshoot of this episode’s themes.

It’s telling that we’ve written almost 2,000 words with only a passing mention of the actual Martial Eagle mission that begins this episodes. As you say, Todd, “Martial Eagle” is much, much more about the toll the titular mission takes on these characters than the mission itself, which is interesting—and, frankly, a little confusing—given that Oliver North is given a co-story credit on this episode. I admit, I’m not sure what to make of North’s contributions here, such as they are: This New York Times article says North provided “detail and color” for the episode, and was given a story credit in return. Given North’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, I can certainly understand the value Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields must have seen in talking to him about the inspiration for this season’s major plotline; but what is it about this episode that earns a story credit? Is it simply about that first act, the infiltration of the Contra training camp? Perhaps it was North’s idea to have Elizabeth hide in the back of the septic truck, her smell masked by the chemical stench. Is that the “detail and color” we’re talking about here? I realize I’m being glib, but I really don’t know what to make of this. Any insight, Todd?


Todd: Well, unless Oliver North has masked a surprising insight into emotional connection (or the lack thereof) between human beings all this time, I’d imagine he was mostly there to help out with that opening scene and perhaps the one where we ominously see Larrick learning of the deaths at the camp while ensconced in Nicaragua. (I suspect that this scene is setting up Larrick being rather unhappy with this turn of events, but time will tell. Otherwise, why have it in there?) Most likely of all is that North was brought on to advise on these particular matters, and in return, he was given a story credit on one episode that featured more of it than some of the others, so he could get his payday. The episode’s teleplay is credited to Tracey Scott Wilson (who also co-developed the story with North, credit-wise), and the vast bulk of it reflects being written by one of this show’s bevy of terrific playwrights. It’s tiny and intimate, and it turns less on matters of brute force than on people trying to get their foot in each other’s mental doors. That kind of intimacy is common in live theatre but less so on television. I think one of the reasons The Americans turns so much on scenarios like this hinges partially on its genre, sure, but also on the fact that it has so many playwrights on staff.

I’m sure North’s involvement will only bolster the arguments of those who refuse to watch (or love to watch) the show because they believe it to be some sort of Reagan and/or CIA apologia that’s meant to portray the Soviets as bumbling fools. (I find this particular reading hard to square with the show, but I’ve seen it enough times now to know that I can never predict these sorts of things.) I ultimately have trouble with this reading simply because the show has always struck me as weirdly apolitical, given what it’s about. The Americans is much more concerned with drawing us into the emotional lives of its characters, with dragging us ever deeper into their constantly fraying and rebuilding connections. And yet the show does so little work to bring us to it, insisting, instead, that we carry all of our own baggage with us, that it can be easy to get lost along the way. A lot of people have already written this one off as the “Oliver North episode,” and that’s too bad. I’d rather remember it as the episode that put Philip through hell and ended with him re-entering it.


Todd’s grade: A-
Genevieve’s grade: A-

Stray observations

  • Another interesting tidbit from that NYT article: North thinks The Americans is “‘very accurate” in the success of what he called “Ronald Reagan’s strategy for doing in the Evil Empire.” He added, “What a great opportunity it is to showcase the man who changed the world for the good, my kids and my grandkids.” Just goes to show, there are many ways to interpret this show. [GK]
  • The scoring of this episode is omnipresent in a way I’m not used to with the show. It was very effective, perhaps because it was so oppressive. [TV]
  • Ultimately, I think Elizabeth’s method of waking Paige up in the middle of the night to make her do housework, because that’s what adults do, is more effective than Philip’s meltdown. And more awesome. [GK]
  • Even though this is ostensibly Matthew Rhys’ Emmy tape (as if the Emmys would pay attention to this show!), I agree, Genevieve, and it’s a great example of Keri Russell’s general greatness this season. She’s scary in that scene, but in an entirely different way than Rhys was. She’s like the Ghost of Paige Yet To Come. [TV]
  • Also perfect: the facial expressions of all of the Jennings family members during the church service. And Elizabeth subtly referring to the service as “Teenager Day,” which sounds vaguely totalitarian, because that’s totally what she imagines Christianity to be. Of course, the actual name, Youth Day, is somehow even worse. [TV]
  • Henry cheats at magic. Philip does not approve. [GK]
  • Tonight’s Martha is the poor-Martha-iest Martha. [GK]