“Do Mail Robots…” is a powerhouse episode and every bit the revelation for Keri Russell that “Martial Eagle” was for Matthew Rhys.
You think doing this to me will make the world a better place? That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.
Wow. Just wow.
It’s funny how these things just sort of drop into your lap. Last week I spent time discussing the difference between the Jenningses and other spies that they interact with from time to time. Elizabeth and Philip are our protagonists. They’re our spies. They’re players in a dirty game, and some of that dirt is sure to rub off. They do what they have to do to get the job done – dark as that may be sometimes – but they’re almost never cruel or evil. We’ve seen other spies be that way. Just last week Reuben Ncgobo set a man on fire for the hell of it. But that never seemed to be Elizabeth and Philip’s way.
So, of course, the show goes and drops an episode like “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” in our laps.
That title is more than just cute, too. Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (and it’s film adaptation Blade Runner) follow protagonist Rick Deckard as he hunts down replicants (read: robots) that look like humans and sound just like humans, but can be told apart from their models via a test that checks a subject’s emotional responses. The replicants possess no sense of empathy, thus forcing them to feign emotional reactions. This conceit allows Dick to probe if it’s our emotions that truly make us human.
And how apt that is for what Elizabeth is about to put us through. But first, we should start from the top.
“Do Mail Robots…” begins with Elizabeth telling Hans that she suspects Todd may have seen him during his interrogation last week. If that’s true, then Hans can’t be involved in ground operations anymore. Todd could quickly identify him in the future, and his cover would be blown. Elizabeth says that even the small possibility that Todd saw him will force Hans to the sidelines. It’s a risk that they can’t take. Hans will have to help in other ways.
Elsewhere, Philip has dinner with Martha, who confirms something that was hinted at last week: she knows “Clark” is lying about what he’s doing. Clark’s cover was always that he is watching the department for leaks and bugs, but when an investigator came in last week and it wasn’t Clark, that cover was blown. Clark didn’t even know who Walter Taffet was, further hurting his credibility. But Martha seems oddly at peace with this revelation. Is she playing a long con on Philip? It’s possible, but it’s more likely that she realized that she’s fully committed to his scheme whether she wants to be or not. Where could she possibly turn? Her best case scenario if she turned Philip in would still be a long prison sentence and a treason conviction. She’s overexposed at this point, and she has nowhere to turn except to her real feelings for her husband. “Clark” isn’t an investigator like he originally claimed, but that doesn’t entirely negate the feelings of love and affection that she’s formed for him over the last year. She even alerts “Clark” to the repairs being done on the mail robot that Agent Gaad destroyed last week, before pouring two glasses of wine and offering a toast to “turning the page” with Clark. Love and marriage are complicated things.
Gabriel urges Philip to maintain the status quo with Martha once Philip reveals her discovery of him to Gabriel and Elizabeth. Philip admits that her feelings for him may stop her from revealing his secret, and that he still trusts her. “She may still be useful,” Gabriel admits before telling Philip and Elizabeth to find and bug the out-of-commission mail robot.
Elizabeth, for her part, is naturally jealous of the relationship that Philip and Martha have. We’ve seen this vulnerable side of her before this season, when she and Philip discussed the difficult nature of having to fake sexual pleasure and love with targets. She couldn’t help but ask “is that how it is with me?” Despite their unconventional and often turbulent relationship, there’s still a part of Elizabeth that longs for a loving marriage to Philip. She’s obviously hurting when she tells Philip that “It’s only natural for [him] to have developed feelings” for Martha.
She should talk. Love entanglements are part of the job – something she should know from firsthand experience. Hans hunted down and killed Todd at his job the night before, murdering him so that Todd’s possible identification of Hans won’t be an obstacle to his continued work with Elizabeth. “I will do whatever is asked of me. For the cause,” he says, before adding his real motivation: “For you.” That Hans made a mess of the killing will probably only complicate things down the line. His shooting only injured Todd but didn’t kill him, and Hans was forced to finish the rest of the job by hand when his gun jammed. Let’s be honest here. Hans has never really been that good at the spy work.
Nina and most of the Rezidentura both get sidelined this week, but “Do Mail Robots…” does make a slice of time for a Stan story after he was mostly absent from last week’s episode.
Harkening back to Oleg’s attempt to kill Stan in an alley in revenge for getting Nina deported, this week’s episode gives an update to the possibility of the two men working together to get their mutual lover back. As Stan previously told Oleg, a hostage exchange could be arranged to swap Nina for Zinaida if they could prove that Zinaida was actually a double agent, merely pretending to have defected. It’s obviously a long shot, but it seems to be their only chance (the two are clearly unaware of Nina’s current reduced sentence and her possible pardon if she can get useful info out of Baklanov).
Oleg recommends that he and Stan attempt a plan together to force Zinaida to reveal if she’s actually a double agent, and Stan accepts. When Stan takes her back to her hotel room for the night, Oleg (in disguise) confronts her in her room and promises to kill her for her crimes against the USSR. Zinaida, however, doesn’t crack. Oleg deals Stan a scripted blow to the head and gets away, leaving the two men as empty-handed as they were before. You have to imagine that Oleg hit Stan a little harder than was really necessary since Oleg still holds him responsible for Nina’s deportation, but their plan ultimately fails to elicit the hoped-for revelations from Zinaida.
Now at the plant where the mail robot was sent for repair, Philip sets about bugging the sidelined robot (is it dreaming of electric sheep in its comatose state, I wonder?) while Elizabeth keeps guard. There’s a noticeable tension in the air between the two with Elizabeth still annoyed at the relationship between Philip and Martha. Any simmering annoyance between the two has to be put on the back burner, however, when Elizabeth sees a light come on in an upstairs office and goes to investigate.
Inside she finds an elderly woman named Betty Turner who’s come in at night to do the repair company’s billing. In fact, she’s the widow of the man who founded the business, Gil Turner. Her son Andy now runs the place. “Sitting here in the dark is where I feel most in tune,” she tells Elizabeth once her captor has disconnected the phone and flashed her pistol. When Elizabeth inquires as to what exactly that means, Betty says that the nighttime hours at work is when she feels the most connected with her deceased husband.
The ensuing chat between the two women is the real meat of “Do Mail Robots…” and covers the majority of the episode’s second half hour. What unravels between the two is a masterclass in writing, directing, and acting. These are some of the best scenes that you will see on television this year, and nothing I can say will adequately describe them, but it’s my job to try.
Much of the two women’s conversation subtly reflects what’s going on in Elizabeth’s life. She, too, had a turbulent marriage. In fact, she divorced Gil once only to remarry him after his second wife passed away. But her second marriage to Gil was much less sugar-coated. The two were older and had more experience in love and marriage. As Betty says, there was none of that “why can’t you be the person I want instead of the person you are” business. Such statements are like a mirror to Elizabeth’s life with Philip. As is Betty’s revelation that her husband refused to ever discuss his second wife with her since Elizabeth is busy dealing with her feelings towards Philip and his “second” wife, Martha.
The two discuss their personal lives, what their parents did, and their children. If poor Betty hadn’t realized that Elizabeth was revealing too much about herself to ever let Betty walk free, that changes when they speak about their mothers. When Betty asks where Elizabeth’s mother is and Elizabeth replies with “Russia,” Betty finally sees the writing on the wall. The atmosphere is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Every secret that Elizabeth has revealed is one more piece of information that makes it impossible for Betty to ever walk free. She’s seen Elizabeth’s face, knows her name, knows her past, and knows what country she really represents. There’s no other way out than the inevitable.
Betty’s earlier need to take a heart pill provides Elizabeth with an easy avenue for eliminating the old woman. “This is not how I expected it to end,” Betty says when confronting her pile of pills as Elizabeth instructs her to take them all. “Oh well,” she says. “It’s better than falling down in the street…and I hate hospitals.” she says. It’s truly heartbreaking.
It all takes us back to the thought that the Jenningses are our spies — that they’re good people doing a dirty job. How much harder is it to say that as Elizabeth forces an elderly woman to slowly down an entire bottle of heart medication? Is that the work of a good woman? Are Elizabeth and Philip really any better than their associates? Or do we just want them to be?
As Betty slides in and out of clarity while the drugs take effect, she confronts Elizabeth with a harsh reality and asks her how she can do this job with children. “You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” she asks. When Elizabeth admits that she ultimately does, Betty cuts back “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things,” before finally succumbing to the overdose. Despite Betty’s continued ingestion of the capsules, it’s Elizabeth who’s left with the bitterest pill to swallow.
When The Americans has its most incredible moments, they’re rarely the plot-driven ones. Last season’s revelatory finale never really held a candle to the emotional entanglements of the earlier “Martial Eagle.” “Do Mail Robots…” is much the same way. The most powerful moment of the season thus far doesn’t play out in an intense car chase or a hail of gunfire. It occurs in a dimly lit back room as Elizabeth has to come to terms with her own morality while forcing an elderly woman to overdose on her medications. That episode was a tour de force for Matthew Rhys and everything he brought to the table as Philip Jennings, and “Do Mail Robots…” is every bit the equal for Keri Russell. She’s downright staggering. Amazingly, guest star Lois Smith is every bit her equal portraying Betty Turner. She’ll surely leave a mark on the show despite only appearing in a single episode. If Philip K. Dick was right, and it’s our emotions that make us human, what does that say about Elizabeth in a moment such as this? Where is the humanity in what she does to poor Betty, a woman who just wanted to feel in tune with her departed husband?
Ultimately, it’s Philip Jennings who gets the episode’s final thought as he sits down to play a game of scrabble with Gabriel after the mission. Gabriel attempts to wrap things in a nice bow for Philip, using a language and scrabble to demonstrate that “love” and “wedlock” derive from two different languages and represent strong passions and eternal battle respectively as a metaphor for Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage.
Philip, however, is having none of it, and plays the word “sphinx” on his turn – representing the harmonious combination of two different and unlike things. He then goes on to tell Gabriel that his biggest problem is not Elizabeth, but rather Gabriel and the KGB that he represents, for bringing these problems and missions into he and Elizabeth’s lives.
It’s funny how things are turning. When we first met Gabriel he was an alternative to the uncaring Claudia; Gabriel was an old friend. How things seem to be changing on that regard. Gabriel always wants to play scrabble, but what’s his real end game? Season Three is beginning to hit on all cylinders, and we may soon have an answer.
The Dead Drop
- Another fantastic episode nine. “Martial Eagle” ran in the 9 spot last year, and “Safe House” in season one. Surely that not an accident. Episode 9 magic!
- Can Martha really be a player in the game? I can’t imagine that constantly nervy Martha can be consistently steely when need be.
- This is the marquee episode of the series for Keri Russell. Just phenomenal. Hopefully she can finally break into the ever elusive Best Actress category at the Emmys. She is that good.
- Speaking of Emmys, this episode also deserves a writing nod for how all of the issues facing Philip and Elizabeth continually overlap with the spy storylines. It’s exquisite.
- Has anyone else noticed that Hans looks a lot like a young Benedict Cumberbatch?
- How many picturesque run-down buildings can there really be around Washington DC? Philip and Elizabeth always seem to find one to meet contacts in, and they’re all starkly gorgeous on camera.
Until next week!