The Americans Recap: With Contras and Christ

The Americans
Episode Title
Martial Eagle
Editor’s Rating

In episode nine of the first season of The Americans, Philip and Elizabeth announced to their children that they were separating. In last night’s episode, the ninth of season two, Philip and Elizabeth once again separated.

This time, that separation wasn’t related directly to the status of their marriage. They’re still living in the same Falls Church home with their two children: Paige, the generously donating Bible thumper, and Henry, the kid who has apparently replaced his obsession with playing Astrosmash on the neighbors’ Intellivision with good, old-fashioned card tricks. But in terms of where they are emotionally following their attempt to expose the U.S. Contra-training program dubbed Martial Eagle — an operation that gave this week’s hour its name — it’s clear that metaphorically if not legally, Philip and Elizabeth are pretty much divorced right now.

The infiltration of the military base that opened yet another propulsive, narratively rich moment in FX’s increasingly intense spy game did not go as planned. Philip — disguised as a septic guy who quite literally didn’t smell right to the guard at the base’s entrance — got his coveted photos of Contra rebels being trained to do their thing at the harbor in Managua. But in the process, he also wound up slitting the throat of an American who honestly didn’t look much older than his own daughter; shooting two additional soldiers; and discovering that Lewis — the truck-driver informant he and Elizabeth previously tied to a tree and, at Philip’s insistence, opted not to kill — wound up dying anyway from being out in the early spring chill for too long. Subtext: This war is cold, and that cold war will lead to casualties. Subtext, part two: “Wimpy” Americans like Lewis (and, perhaps, Philip?) cannot handle the brutal frigidity of dealing with Mother Russia.

Philip has been struggling for a long time to reconcile the increasing discrepancy between what his duties as a Russian operative require him to do, and what his heart and conscience tell him is right. As a result, he’s become increasingly convinced (and never more so than in this episode) that his entire life’s mission is a load of ... well, the kind of stuff that a guy who works for a septic-tank company has to deal with every day. “Jesus, that smell is worse than the shit they try to cover up,” the military guard remarked to Philip, inadvertently summarizing how Philip would feel minutes later about causing so much additional death on behalf of a government to which he feels less and less connected. It’s a feeling that Elizabeth does not share, and that’s created an increasingly uncrossable trench between them. “It’s just easier for you,” Philip said abruptly when Elizabeth tried to address his post–Martial Eagle sense of anguish. Ultimately, the only woman able to bring Philip any comfort was Martha, his wife but also not-wife. (More on Martha later.)

The hunger to believe in organizations and communities — and the possibility that those organizations and communities could be nothing more than brainwashing factories — was the thematic gel that filled every crevice of this week’s episode. Over and over, we saw individuals seeking purpose and guidance from outside entities: churches; Alcoholics Anonymous; Dr. Ruth Westheimer; EST meetings that, in Sandra Beeman’s case, introduced her to a man with whom she might find a satisfying adulterous relationship. (Side note: Sandra never identified her mystery potential lover, but when Stan asked who he was, she did pointedly crack, “What are you going to do, go arrest him?” Which may be a hint that EST Guy is someone attempting to use Sandra to get to Stan. Remember what Stan said about the way the KGB works: they are “masters at exploiting weakness.”)

Over and over, we also saw individuals courting the trust of others, trying to mind-meld them into believing they’re all playing on the same team: See Agent Gaad’s failed effort to convince Arkady Ivanovich that Gaad’s potential firing/imprisonment is really their mutual problem, or Elizabeth’s attempt to bond with the AA speaker who just happens to work for DOD stealth-defense bidder Northrop, or Fred’s assertion to Agent Beeman that “I would never betray my country.” Fred spoke the truth. Beeman just didn’t realize he was referring to Russia and not the United States.

The institution that caused the most conflict for the Jennings this week was Paige’s church, a place where the expression on Philip’s face during Pastor Tim’s sermon looked more hardened and judgmental than Rust Cohle at a tent revival. Philip clearly wasn’t buying the hippie-haired pastor’s speech about how Jesus sacrificed so the rest of us could know true contentment. But what really upset him wasn’t those words, nor the subsequent realization that Paige gave $600 of her money to the church without telling her parents. What bothered Philip was, on a surface level, that he had become a person possibly beyond all that shiny happy redemption Pastor Tim talked about, and, on a deeper level, that what he heard that Sunday morning was just a story. Okay, sure, it was a Christian interpretation of the meaning and purpose of human existence, one that many people around him seemed to fervently believe. But it was still just a story in the same way that the mythology Philip bought into years ago — the one that told him contentment could only be found by sacrificing, again and again, for his homeland — was also just a story.

That’s why, in this episode’s most emotionally explosive moment, Philip ripped into Paige and then ripped into the pages of her Bible. Right then, he wanted to destroy not just Bible stories, but the whole notion that belief systems, his included, can be built on mere narratives. And that’s why, in the episode’s most uncomfortably suspenseful scene, a gloved, irate Philip walked back into that church, whose white, prominent pillars resembled the ones found on U.S. monuments, and asked Pastor Tim if he really believed that grace and forgiveness is available to everyone. “I do,” Tim said, using the same words Philip, as Clark, once said before another man of God, on the day he married Martha. Philip is a man crying out for a spiritual anchor.

He’s also a man who’s been building to a breaking point all season long, one who has the potential to threaten his work and blow his and Elizabeth’s cover. While he didn’t fully reach that point this week: Wow, he came awfully close. The fact that his sadness projected straight through that fake mustache and ponytail so clearly that a nearby old man actually asked if he was okay — well, that’s not a good sign. Philip is coming undone, and that’s starting to draw unnecessary attention to himself, the last thing any covert operative wants to do.

While Philip dealt with the Martial Eagle debacle and Paige/church episode by lashing out and questioning his belief system, Elizabeth's response was completely different. She did what she had to do on that base — shooting a man without a moment’s hesitation or, seemingly, much of a second thought afterward — and she did what she had to do with her daughter, forcing Paige out of bed in the middle of the night to do some character-building manual labor. “Being a grown-up means doing things you don’t want to do, all the time,” she barked. “It means working when you are exhausted and almost never getting what you want when you want it.” If Philip’s way of refuting Pastor Tim’s sermon was to metaphorically tear it up, Elizabeth’s method was to demonstrate that all those words about peace and happiness don’t mesh with reality. Elizabeth is not soft, and she won’t let her daughter be, either. Her approach was practical, ruthless, Russian. Philip emoted, fretted, questioned. You know, classic American stuff.

Perhaps that’s why the only person who truly understood him, or the Clark version of him, anyway, was Martha. The trajectory of that relationship, which started as comic relief more than anything else and has turned into one of the more fascinating and moving elements of this show, has been a consistently satisfying revelation. Philip may have been playing his Clark part this week, talking about the horrors of his job and using that terrible recording of Gaad to scrape more flecks of intel from Martha. But it was obvious in this scene that, while he was wearing his Clark glasses, he was speaking as Philip. When Martha told him that she’s not afraid of his different sides and, later, tearfully professed her love for him, Philip didn’t seem to be hiding behind his Clarkness anymore when he said he loved her, too. He had found the overlapping point in those two identities, where Clark and Philip merge into the man he actually is. Philip realized he might actually be in love with his wife. The problem is that wife is Martha, not Elizabeth.

Philip wasn’t the only spouse incapable of expressing his real feelings to the person who needs to hear them. When Elizabeth spoke to her new AA friend, spinning a fantastic tale about how she wanted the opportunity to show her husband she could be there for him, she was technically talking about her imaginary AA altar ego’s spouse, but really, she was talking about Philip. Elizabeth has gotten alarmingly good at merging her truths — her relationship issues and recollections of brutally being raped — with the concocted stories she needs her marked targets to believe. (Again, everything’s just a story, right?)

Stan Beeman followed the same pattern regarding his marriage, too. When Sandra asked if he was having an affair, he couldn’t muster a yes or a no. He just stood there, his mouth dumbly moving with no sound coming out. He said nothing to the woman he’s shared a life with for decades: He didn’t apologize for cheating on her, didn’t beg her to stay, didn’t suggest that maybe they could listen to a little more Dr. Ruth and see if that put them in a sexy mood. Yet when he encountered Agent Gaad doing some packing of his own, Stan was immediately capable of expressing regret for the situation Gaad faced. “I feel responsible,” Beeman said. Yet later, he couldn’t take any responsibility for a marriage that just up and broke, also because of his mistakes.

Stan is living a life that involves as many costume changes and false faces as the ones led by Elizabeth and Philip. That’s one of the key points of not just this episode or even this season, but The Americans as a whole: that in a way, all of us are living a life undercover. At some point, though, covers can get blown. (By the way, did you notice that Oliver North, an expert, for obvious reasons, on all matters Contra-related, got a story credit on this episode? Like I said: We all live undercover. And sometimes, covers get blown.)

For all his obliviousness to what’s happening in front of him much of the time, Stan Beeman started to put some 2s and additional 2s together regarding that stealth meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, and the death of Emmett, Leanne, and their daughter. Is it possible he’ll finally trace Emmett’s family back to Russia and, further, back to Elizabeth and Philip?

Much of the initial tension in The Americans revolved around the prospect of Stan uncovering the Jennings’ true identities. But with so many other plot and subplots boiling over, that one got stuck on low simmer and has stayed there for a long time. Before this season ends, maybe that will change. Maybe Stan will once again rethink the story of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings and start to wonder whether it’s something to believe or something to question, the same way a jaded, guilt-ridden man might wonder about the promises made by a pastor on a chilly Sunday morning.