The Americans Recap: The Terror of Knowing

The Americans

Clark's Place
Season 4 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating *****
Alison Wright as Martha, Matthew Rhys as Philip. Photo: FX

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Or a painful thing. Or, in Stan’s case, it can just make you really good at Trivial Pursuit. Unfortunately for most other characters on The Americans, knowledge tends to be much less innocuous than the name of Howdy Doody’s twin brother.

Just look at Martha, Paige, and Oleg, all of whom spend “Clark’s Place” wrestling with knowledge they may wish they never had in the first place. What Martha knows about Clark — and what she doesn’t — represents the most immediate threat, hence the name of the episode. But Paige is also beginning to verbalize, with a nudge from Elizabeth, the idea that maybe it would be better if her parents had never told her the truth about themselves. And Oleg is consumed by what he does know about Nina’s death — she was executed for being a traitor — and how that squares with his memories of her, and his opinion of his home country. Ignorance would be bliss for any of these characters, but they’re not ignorant, and it’s agonizing.

Given that we’re only a week out from the series’ most shocking death (#NinaLives), it seems imprudent to return once more to speculating about Poor Martha’s fate. But “Clark’s Place” puts none too fine a point on the imminence of Martha’s doom unless circumstances change drastically for her, and quickly. Consider this: The first and last times we see Martha in this episode, she is taking the Valium she was prescribed for a panic attack in the wake of her dinner with Aderholt. Also, a gun was introduced into Martha’s apartment last season, and has been referenced several times since (including in this episode, when Stan is telling Aderholt about what he discovered in her apartment). Philip knows about both the pills and the gun, and given the increasing likelihood that Martha’s cover is blown, or will be very soon, he has everything he needs to get rid of the problem in the same manner he got rid of his last Martha problem. At this point, staging her suicide the same way he staged Gene’s would be the cleanest solution to Directorate S’s problems. Philip knows this, and is visibly tormented by the idea of what he may have to do to a woman with whom he’s developed an emotional connection despite himself.

Elizabeth almost certainly recognizes this too — witness the way she scrutinizes Philip as he talks to Martha on the payphone — but it’s unclear whether that influences her own hope that Martha isn’t spoiled as an asset. Although Philip is convinced that the signs point to the worst — Gaad’s comments about the Xerox machine, plus Aderholt pumping her for personal information, plus Hans’s semi-certainty he caught a tail on her — both Elizabeth and Gabriel are still hoping that the confluence of all these events is coincidental. (That’s another thing about knowledge: Having a single piece of information, or even many pieces, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll know how it fits into the larger picture.) Losing Martha would be a huge blow to Directorate S, and Elizabeth and Gabriel cling to the idea that she may still be able to provide them with surveillance reports by taking photos or memorizing them — both incredibly risky suggestions, and Philip tells them as much. But there’s also a sense that, on some level, Gabriel and Elizabeth are hoping to keep Martha in the picture for Philip’s sake as much as the sake of the mission. Philip’s increasing dissatisfaction with his work has been the character’s main story line this season, and given the attention that’s been paid recently to the bond between him and Martha, it’s safe to say her death could also be his breaking point.

Peter Ackerman’s script provides a funhouse-mirror version of Philip and Martha’s plight over in Oleg’s story line. Like Philip, Oleg was never an ideal fit with his mission. From his very first appearance, it’s been established that Oleg has taken to American culture in a way that would make his countrymen quite uncomfortable. That’s echoed again tonight, when Oleg’s father, disgusted at Oleg’s petulance over Nina and the suggestion that he didn’t try hard enough to help Yevgeny, tells his son, “Go back to America, to your clothes and special favors.” The government’s unwillingness to provide military honors at Yevgeny’s funeral, because doing so would be an admission that he died in a covert war, has both men visibly frustrated. However, the twin losses Oleg has suffered — Yvegney and Nina — has him feeling more distanced from his homeland than ever. He returns “home” to America before his dad even finishes his unsanctioned 21-gun salute, looking for sympathy from his fellow Fan of Nina, Arkady, and finding none. (“They don’t execute people for nothing, Oleg.”) Oleg is struggling to reconcile his feelings toward Nina with his country’s beliefs, the same way Philip is struggling to reconcile his feelings toward Martha with the demands of his mission.

The Martha situation is out of Philip and Elizabeth’s control for the moment — they’re waiting to hear back from the Center about next steps — but they can exert some control over the Pastor Tim situation, with the help of a very talented priest/actor. Philip and Elizabeth have no idea who Padre Rivas (David Anzuelo) really is, but they don’t need to know; all they need is his fabricated story about how their covert human-rights work “protects” him and his congregation. It may not be the ultimate solution to the Pastor Tim problem, but it seems to work in the short term, as does their nudging of Paige to play nice.

Despite Philip and Elizabeth’s efforts, though, both Paige and Pastor Tim seem to sense that they’re being manipulated — they just can’t put their finger on how. They’ve been given all the right information, everything they need to make sense of what they know, but it just doesn’t feel right to either of them. Paige has the knowledge she wanted about her parents, but all only made her more confused. Elizabeth’s comments earlier in the episode — “We tried to tell you everything and that hasn’t worked out so well, wouldn’t you agree?” — are clearly ringing in Paige’s head during her conversation with Pastor Tim, along with the string of emotional agonies she’s encountered since learning the truth.

Paige is just one of the many, many open questions in Philip and Elizabeth’s lives right now. I haven’t even touched on the stuff going on with Young Hee — she’s back, briefly, and still pretty damn funny! — and William. (He’s apparently undocumented too, and has been in the country for 25 years, accomplishing, in Gabriel’s words, “virtually nothing.”) Life has never been anything other than complicated for the Jenningses, but those complications have grown increasingly personal and dangerous this season. In the early going, The Americans drew most of its emotional drama from the state of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage, but with the exception of a few Paige-centric hiccups, they’ve been steady as a couple lately, leaving room for other personal complications to work their way in. Even a repaired relationship — Philip and Stan’s — offers up new complications in the form of Stan’s partnership with Aderholt, whom Elizabeth recognizes from her tussle with him and Gaad. One chance encounter between Philip’s wife and Stan’s colleague could mean the end for these two — just another piece of potentially disastrous information they must now navigate.

It’s a lot to deal with, and Elizabeth appears to recognize that the pressure of Martha, Paige, Stan, et. al. is slowly crushing her husband. And so we get “Under Pressure,” the latest David Bowie music cue to infiltrate TV in the wake of his death, which brings with it a none-too-subtle suggestion of these characters’ emotional states. While Martha turns once again to wine and Valium to deal with the pressure of what she does and doesn’t know, Philip receives a pressure-release of a very different kind from his wife. Their crazy, end-of-the-world sex could be interpreted as a power-play on Elizabeth’s part — as if to say, “Your real wife can give you crazy sex and companionship, too” — but there’s something more to Elizabeth reaching out to Philip in this way. She can’t fix the things that are weighing on him, but she can give him a moment of blessed escape and relief. It’s sweet, really. And very, very loud.

Let’s just hope Paige wasn’t home. Lord knows the state of her parents’ sex life is the last bit of knowledge she needs right now.

The Americans Recap: The Terror of Knowing