Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Martial Eagle’

A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I wake up up to clean the fridge…

“I'm not here to be saved.” -Philip

The driving question of “The Americans” season 1 was “How real is this marriage?” And at different points in the season, Philip and Elizabeth would have each given you very different answers. That tension hasn't entirely gone away in season 2 – witness the mess caused when Elizabeth hears about Clark and Martha's sex life – but for now they are treating each other as a genuine spouse, and instead the question they keep asking themselves is an even harder one:

“What kind of a person am I becoming?”

It's not that they are questioning the mission itself. Elizabeth never has, and when Philip has at times, it's been more about wanting to protect his family than about believing they are on the wrong side of things. They don't. These two remain loyal to Mother Russia, angry at what the Reagan administration is doing, fully in support of the cause.

But it is one thing to believe you are doing the right thing in the abstract and quite another to be confronted, again and again and again, with the violent, direct consequences of your actions.

“Martial Eagle” opens with Philip and Elizabeth finally making their assault on the contra training base, an operation that was designed to have some casualties, but not as many as actually result. A young American soldier stumbles across Philip and dies because he refuses to stay quiet. And when they return to the woods where they left the real septic truck driver tied up – against Elizabeth's wishes – they discover that he died of exposure, left out in the cold forest for too long with too little protection.

It is one civilian casualty too many for Philip – who has already killed an innocent busboy and an innocent computer programmer for the sin of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and something breaks in him as a result. He spends the rest of the episode in a dark and angry place, raging against Paige, against the deity his daughter now finds so comforting (which goes against everything he and Elizabeth were raised to believe), against poor Martha(*), against the minister at Paige's church, and against Reverend Tim's god.

(*) I love whenever the show presents a situation where Philip or Elizabeth seem to be acting out their problems but are actually working a mission. At first, Philip appears to be playing Martha the doctored tape of Agent Gaad calling her ugly just to fill her with the same self-loathing that's consuming him, but it becomes clear in the next scene that it's more complicated than that – that Philip is now feeling so impatient to move this operation along that he no longer cares about hurting Martha if it will make her a more useful ally. Similarly, when Elizabeth chats up the woman from AA, you can be forgiven for a few moments for thinking she's found a way to go into therapy without anyone knowing, but instead it turns out her “sponsor” is a Northrop employee she'll try to exploit to get to the stealth technology.

Elizabeth has her own problems with what went down, and with finding out that Paige gave so much money to the church, but she hasn't gotten her hands as dirty this season and has never been as conflicted as her partner, so she's able to work out most of her frustration by lecturing Paige about what it's like to grow up without, and forcing her to do chores in the middle of the night.

But Philip wanders between despair (going back to the boardwalk in his Rust Cohle disguise just to stare at the surf) and rage (tearing up Paige's Bible) until he shows up at the church, not in disguise, but looking like a man who means business. And we know already what tends to happen to people who see Philip Jennings' face after he has done something bad, and it seems not impossible at all that he might do some fatal harm to Reverend Tim, or anyone else unfortunate to cross his way. (That this seems possible in an episode where he's feeling terrible about killing innocent people speaks volumes about how warped and backwards Philip's entire situation and mental condition is right now.)

There's a moment where Philip comes to look at the painting of Christ on the church wall, and it seems like we might be in for some “Two Cathedrals” action of Philip taunting the great and powerful Christian deity. But that's missing the point. Philip does not believe in the existence of God, of an afterlife, of any of the concepts that his daughter is, to his great frustration and bewilderment, turning to for comfort. He has no need to vent his anger at a character who is as real to him as Bugs Bunny is to you or me. But he is looking for… something, anything, to become the outlet for all fury, and instead all he finds is the gentle, patient clergyman, who speaks to him of God's forgiveness but also of the more earthly matter of getting Philip's temper under control. And the words don't do a thing to ease Philip's pain, but they at least seem to break the spell he's under and send him out of the church without incident.

It has been a very bad period for Philip, and with Andrew Larrick looking very unhappy at learning what happened at the training site, I imagine things have greater potential to get worse than to get better. More people will have to die, I suspect, and probably at the hands of this very efficient, very unhappy Soviet killing machine.

It is, needless to say, a gut-wrenching tour de force performance from Matthew Rhys. In an ideal world, this incredible second season would find a way to break the Emmy drama logjam, Rhys and Keri Russell would get nominations, and Rhys could submit “Martial Eagle” for voters to look at and at a minimum have second thoughts about automatically voting for Matthew McConaughey or Bryan Cranston. I have no idea if that will actually happen, and after an hour like this, I don't much care, to be honest. Emmy voters may see it or not, and the poorer for them if they don't. But I got to see it, and it was phenomenal.

Some other thoughts:

* You may have noticed that the episode gives a shared story credit to Oliver North, who was one of the most infamous figures associated with the Iran-contra scandal. As Dave Itzkoff from The New York Times explains, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg reached out to North to get some insider detail about the operation, and he wound up giving him so much that they felt he had earned the credit for this one (which was otherwise written by Tracey Scott Wilson).

* Oh, the bitter, bitter irony of Stan pumping all the stealth scientists for secrets the KGB might use to blackmail them, when of course the KGB already has its hooks into Agent Beeman and will soon be in position to tap him for all this wonderful information he's gathering. “No one ever imagines they will” betray their country, Stan tells Fred, having no idea that he's about to be forced to.

* Of the many disguises Philip and Elizabeth have sported over the years, Elizabeth as a male soldier has to be the least convincing. Keri Russell can plausibly transform into many people, but a member of the opposite sex is not one of them. That said, it was in a situation where she really didn't have to fool anybody, but simply move around in the dark and kill anyone who got close, so it's probably okay; it's not like they have her approaching a secured gate in broad daylight in that get-up. But I'm guessing we won't see Philip crossing over to the other side of the gender line, unless it's to mourn the cancellation of “Bosom Buddies,” which happened in the spring of '82.

* Gaad and Arkady finally meet, and it's everything you might have hoped for from the bosses of the respective sides. Gaad makes his big play, and though it seems like an effective one, Arkady takes it completely casually to put some doubt into his opponent's mind. That said, the show has put so little effort into establishing Stan's new boss as any kind of character (we've barely even seen him), that we have to be heading towards Gaad getting his job back, right?

* Not a ton of early '80s references this week, but Sandra Beeman is listening to celebrity sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose radio show was syndicated by 1982, and whose first TV show launched that year. (Here's a 1986 clip of her discussing sex with a young Jerry Seinfeld, for those of you too young to have experienced the strange but wonderful Dr. Ruth phenomenon in its prime.) And, of course, she's listening to it as she's packing to go off and have an affair with a man she met at EST, which is the absolute least Stan deserves for everything he's been doing (and hasn't been doing) to her of late.  

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at