“The Oath” answered the chaos and misery of last week’s episode “Covert War” with a kind of dark solidity; picture hot lava hardening into rock. Last week, I was worried The Americans was killing off too many major characters and burning through too much plot too fast, to the point where it risked turning into a still-entertaining but shamelessly desperate second-season disappointment, like the somewhat similar Homeland. I don’t think we have to worry about that now, because so much of this episode is about reconfiguring the universe of these characters, establishing who’s up and who’s down, and hinting at how the plot might shift in season two based on those changes.
Nina, who’s still grieving over the murder of her colleague Vlad, gets a promotion at the consulate; now she’s in charge of overseeing “the illegals,” which I think refers to the posing-as-Americans spies (Elizabeth, Phillip, and their ilk). Nina’s reaction as she recites the oath of allegiance and accepts her boss’ pin is terrifically real and realistically tangled: a mix of pride and anxiety. In the space of a few months, she’s gone from a thief fearing deportation (or worse) to a woman of influence. “With every heartbeat, with every day that passes, I swear to serve the Soviet Party, the homeland, and the Soviet people,” she recites.
That this is a battlefield promotion, like so many on this series, clearly gnaws at her. Vlad didn’t just love her — he loved her–loved her. “Vlad treated me like his sister,” she tells her Sonia. The response: “Because he knew that you were out of his league.” Her rise in prominence makes exfiltration unnecessary for now; she’s important enough that the Consulate wouldn’t get rid of her, professionally or bodily, without an extraordinarily compelling reason. I suspect she’s also in a better position to learn the identity of Vlad’s murderer: her lover, agent Stan Beeman. “Did you kill Vlad?” she asks Stan during an encounter in their safe house/love nest. “I would never do anything to hurt you, you know that,” Stan says, as richly evasive an answer as any murderous liar boyfriend has given. Her dream — that she had a dream that she was waiting for Stan to save her, then woke up — describes her trajectory as a character. (What a great part, and Annet Mahendru is terrific in it. She’s as strong as Emmerich, though less acclaimed because she’s not as familiar to viewers; I have yet to see her hit a false note.)
Phillip and Elizabeth are still separated, and Phillip is digging himself even deeper undercover as Clark, fiancé of Martha and the KGB’s unwitting (or maybe half-witting?) spy. I trust Phillip to be ruthless, and I don’t believe he has anything like authentic feelings for Martha; for the most part I see his proposal of marriage as the Russian spy version of what Americans would call a Hail Mary pass: a way of controlling a woman whose ethics are fungible but who needs to feel she’s being used for romantic as well as patriotic reasons. (Phillip’s marriage proposal — tracing “Marry me” upside down on Martha’s palm with his finger — suggests that the KGB sent him to Suave School.)
This Clark-Martha marriage subplot is the closest The Americans has gotten to raised-eyebrow sitcom contrivance. It makes the show’s not-so-secret agenda (examining marriage and partnership while seeming to be about spies) hilariously clear. Clark’s justification for why they can’t be publicly married, and why he has to continue to behave furtively, is a Seinfeldian masterpiece of self-serving bullshit: “I can’t even tell my parents.” “We won’t be able to live together.” “No one can know about this.”
Still, I have to wonder if the proposal isn’t partly an unconscious reaction to his separation from Elizabeth. He’s been acting surprisingly okay with it — to a degree that seems to have rattled Elizabeth — but when I see him playing the role of Clark so enthusiastically, to the point of constructing an alternate life for himself, it seems like there’s more going on here than mere tactics. When he tells Martha that his first marriage didn’t work out (“Me and my ex-wife, we didn’t care enough; what I mean is, we cared about each other, but we didn’t know how to be married”), he’s lying by telling the truth. It sounds like a confession. When you stand back from the show’s marriage plot machinations, it gets even funnier: Phillip was in a sham marriage that felt like a real marriage, but that collapsed anyway as a result of professional pressures that created the sham marriage in the first place. Now he’s getting into another sham marriage, partly (it seems to me) to expiate his guilt over the failures of marriage No. 1.
The marriage at city hall, with Elizabeth posing as Phillip’s sister and Claudia pretending to be his mother, is a little masterpiece of deadpan perversity that braids the show’s fascination with marriage, promises, lies, and performance together. (“An oath is both a statement for the present and a promise for the future,” the minister says — the second “oath” in this episode.) The scene shifts from absurdity to melancholy when the vows are exchanged and focus shifts to Elizabeth. She’s been wanting to ask Phillip to come home but hasn’t, because she has too much pride, or maybe because she’s just not the sort of woman whose personality allows for rapprochement. And now has to watch her fake husband/real husband/future ex-husband exchange actual wedding vows under an assumed identity! Her face doesn’t say, “Well, we’ve certainly gone down the rabbit hole now!” but something more like, “That should be me standing there.” Sometimes you don’t realize what you really want until someone else gets it. (Good as this sequence was, I could have done without Elizabeth’s question to Phillip: “They’re just words people say. But do you think things would have been different between us if we’d said them?” We get it, Americans; you don’t have to go all Boardwalk Empire on us.)
We see Phillip settling into his new bachelor apartment and even having Paige over for a little father-daughter hangout. I love when Elizabeth arrives “early,” but actually on time; it doesn’t just cement her perfectionist character, but it also gives us a sense of how keenly she regrets the separation and how aware she is that while the kids love both parents, Phillip will always be the more warmly regarded of the two. He’s flat-out easier to like. Elizabeth, even at her most vulnerable, reminds me of the description that brainwashed soldiers give of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate: “The kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Meaning, not.
The episode’s most touching scene (for me, anyway) highlights the kids’ parental affection gap: Elizabeth and Paige’s heart-to-heart about that Joan Jett chick zooming in and effortlessly out-cooling her during Matthew Beeman’s band practice. “Feelings come and go, honey. It doesn’t mean the battle is lost,” Elizabeth tells her, a perfectly sound, if vague, bit of motherly advice. She continues, “We see what we see in people, things that aren’t really there.” “Is that what happened with you and dad?” Paige asks. Here, as well, the dialogue feels too on-the-nose — as if the scene is analyzing itself so you don’t have to — but the sentiments are valid. A big part of marriage, or any other kind of partnership, is seeing one another clearly, and finding a way to be affectionate and loving without idealization. Then again, what do I know? To quote Henny Youngman, “The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.”
“Marry Me Upside Down” would have been a good alternate title for this episode.
Odds and ends
- I didn’t get into all the stuff about Sanford Prince and the rigamarole about the “Star Wars” missile defense system because (1) it just wasn’t as interesting as the Stan/Nina and Philip/Elizabeth/Martha personal material, and (2) it’s just a means to an end on this show anyhow. But if you want to discuss it in the comments, I’ll join you.
- I keep worrying that if Stan doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth and Claudia are spies soon, he’s going to seem so stupid as to become unsympathetic. But then again, I worried the same thing about Hank on Breaking Bad, and the show did a good job of answering or at least working around those concerns. So, fingers crossed.
- Please, somebody make a GIF of Claudia playing Ms. Pac-Man.
- Speaking of Claudia, her character has deepened with each passing week. I think the last three episodes have clarified her position toward her agents: She views them as employees first, human beings second, and ultimately disposable if ordered to think of them that way by her superiors. But I think she does care what happens to them, if only out of professional pride. She cares in the way that an infantry platoon sergeant or ship captain might.