THE AMERICANS: “Martial Eagle”

Cranston and McConaughey might have reason to worry at Emmy time. Matthew Rhys is a revelation in “Martial Eagle.”

“You respect Jesus, but not us!?”

-Phillip, to Paige

I ended my review of last week’s episode “New Car” with a quick recap of the murders Phillip and Elizabeth had committed/allowed to happen during the episode, and I said that while the spy game may be healthy for the wallet, it’s hell on the soul. It’s a nice dramatic line that I really liked even if I didn’t completely earn it over the course of the article, but I decided to leave it in despite a few reservations. Now I’m glad that I did. It’s a line that seems particularly prescient in light of this week’s episode, “Martial Eagle.” If last week was the appetizer in terms of emotional turmoil, then this week is definitely the main course. There’s no two ways about it: Phillip Jennings is unraveling.

There’s a wonderful shot in “Martial Eagle” that reveals the faces of the Jennings family as they attend church together. It’s Youth Day at the church (or “Teenager Day” as Elizabeth incorrectly and somewhat dismissively calls it), and the entire family is tagging along. Paige wants to share her newfound faith with her family, and Phillip and Elizabeth want to see where their daughter is investing all of her free time. Poor Henry is just along for the ride. The camera focuses on Paige’s profile as she beams during the service. She’s enraptured by the pastor’s teaching, and her face is glowing with light. Then the camera pans left to reveal the rest of her family’s faces: Henry would rather be anywhere else. Elizabeth is attentive with a mother’s suspicion. Phillip is completely stone-faced with a brooding dismissiveness dancing in his eyes. All three of them are bereft of Paige’s light. As enraptured as Paige is with the pastor’s message of a selfless, loving God, Phillip is having none of it. Recent events have drawn selflessness and devotion to a master into sharp focus for Phillip: he’s given his entire adult life to the Soviet cause, and now it’s breaking him down. Despite the episode’s title, this, not the long-awaited titular mission, is the heart of the episode. Phillip Jennings is at a breaking point. The secrets, deceptions, and killings are adding up, and something as innocuous as his daughter’s church attendance (and financial activities) is suddenly a life or death struggle with each party’s unspoken idealism in the balance. It’s proper that this episode takes place in winter because it’s a brutally cold, magnificent hour of television.

The episode opens with the titular “Martial Eagle” mission. Disguised as a septic worker, Philip gets onto the base using Larrick’s intelligence and starts taking pictures of the practice missions for American-taught Contra activities in Nicaragua. The base guard gripes about how bad the chemicals in Phillip’s truck smell, and the stench keeps him from finding a hidden Elizabeth in the back of the truck. Spy work always seems to be kind of shitty. This time it’s just literally so. Real life Iran-Contra participant Oliver North (yes, that Oliver North) shares a story credit for the episode, and showrunner Joe Weisberg says that North was brought in to authenticate the feel of the military training base sequences. I can’t say how much credit North really deserves, but the base does feel ominous. It’s incredibly dark, with much of the light coming from flares shot off in the distance from training participants. Men in fatigues march across the base with rifles in hard while Phillip snaps away with a camera, but it’s barely any time at all before Phillip is discovered and forced to kill several young cadets to get away. Barely escaping the base, the Jenningses make it back to their rendezvous point to find the septic truck driver they’d left tied up in the woods dead from exposure. While Phillip had begged Elizabeth not to kill the truck driver in last week’s episode, he dies anyway, and probably much more painfully than a bullet to the head would have been. Last week Elizabeth watched a presidential press conference and decried Ronald Reagan as a cold-blooded murderer over the deaths of “our boys” in a Soviet submarine mishap, and now Phillip has multiple deaths on his hands; three young men and an uninvolved bystander. How’s that for collateral damage?

But Phillip still isn’t off the hot seat just yet. The couple gets word that defense contractors are being called into Washington DC to be evaluated based on their vulnerabilities to the Soviets. This includes Frank, the asset of the deceased Connors family. Phillip, again in his best Rust Cohle disguise, meets with Frank on a seaside boardwalk to discuss his options before urging him to attend the meeting anyway. Anything else would be too suspicious. Alone in his disguise, Phillip is left to contemplate his sins, the repercussions of the botched mission, and his disintegrating family life. His web of secrets is stretching him thin, and his eyes are vacant as he stares at the sea. As much of the second season has focused on the battle of loyalty between family and country, it’s also delved into just what kind of effect this type of work has on the people who do it. And Phillip is all but broken. When he learns that Paige has donated $600 (her entire savings for a trip to Europe) to the church, he violently starts ripping her Bible to pieces and screaming accusations that she claims to respect God but not her parents. Matthew Rhys’s acting is usually so quietly intrinsic that it’s a startling moment of aggression. He’s like a wild animal unleashed, and the surprise only adds to its effectiveness. Elizabeth takes a different route and wakes Paige in the middle of the night to clean the kitchen. Spending money like an adult requires you to work like an adult, she says. And being an adult is about being tired and doing things you don’t want to do all the time. With all that Phillip and Elizabeth have sacrificed in the name of Soviet idealism, their own daughter has been seduced by American religion right under their noses.

Meanwhile, Stan Beeman is back to doing actual detective work. As much as he’s been duped by Oleg and Nina lately and turned on his own country, it’s strange to remember that he’s actually a really good FBI man. Finally given access to the stealth project, he interviews each scientist working on it and probes them for the secrets that make each one most viable to Soviet manipulation. One of the interviewees is the aforementioned Frank who urges Stan that he’d never turn on his country. “No one ever imagines they will,” Stan says while reflecting on his own betrayals. But Stan isn’t a moron (at least on the case, anyways – more on that later), and he’s eventually able to realize that the DOD contractors were in town the same weekend and near the same location where the Connors family was killed. It’s the first tangible clue to the murders in weeks, and I can’t help but wonder how long it will take Stan to connect all the dots and realize that Emmett and Leanne Connors were spies. More interestingly, will he think that the couple is the same one that he was chasing at the end of last season (reality: it was Phillip and Elizabeth) and finally close the book on the case that’s haunted him all season? Agent Beeman’s powers of deduction don’t extend to his family, however, and he’s floored to find his wife packing and listening to Dr. Ruth’s sex radio show. Sandra’s taking a trip with a man she had an emotional connection with at her self-help classes to “see what happens.” She’s packing a sultry red dress. What exactly does he think is going to happen!? Even with all his covert skills he hasn’t noticed his wife’s approaching affair right under his nose. When she challenges him to admit that he isn’t having his own affair, there’s nothing for him to say. The Beemans moved to the DC area to reconnect and try to save their marriage, but now they couldn’t seem farther apart.

In the episode’s closing minutes, Philip goes to confront his daughter’s problems head-on, and he breaks into the church. It’s incredibly eerie as he sneaks through the building, cast in shadow against the room’s illuminated icons as he reaches the study where he confronts Pastor Tim. “Were you really coming here to beat me up?” the pastor asks. Worse, he doesn’t realize that Phillip was possibly coming to kill him. He doesn’t know just how dangerous of a man Phillip can be. When he warns Pastor Tim to stay away from his daughter and the pastor responds that the church is merely a place of sanctuary, Phillip responds with pure venom. “I’m not here to be saved. Not by you, or your god,” he says while pointing at the pastor with unsubtle black gloves. Pastor Tim is weirdly, calmly creepy, and he meets Phillip’s implied threat with quiet confidence and assured divinity behind him. He’s every bit Phillip’s ideological equal, and equally concerned for Paige’s protection, even urging Phillip to get help for his anger. For a man whose entire life is based around the idea of appearing friendly, but forgettable, threatening a pastor is a completely bizarre move, and it speaks to just how much Phillip is floundering right now.

While a lot of shows might have chosen to plumb the plot movement resulting from the botched “Martial Eagle” mission, The Americans is content to delve into its characters’ emotions, and the result is a rich, rewarding episode. I can’t help but feel that I haven’t done it justice. Matthew Rhys is just a marvel, and this episode will surely be his submission when the time for Emmy submissions arrives. Seriously, he’s great here.

Stray Thoughts:

-There’s so much left uncovered from this week’s episode! Gaad is about to be forced out from the FBI, and meets with Arkady in an effort to ease the pressure from the Soviets for an unsolved murder. They may be on different sides of the struggle, but they’re in this together. If Gaad goes down he’ll try to take Arkady with him.

-Phillip finally plays Martha the altered tape from the FBI office to destroy her loyalty to Gaad and his men.

-The tragically underused Nina is nowhere to be seen in this episode. She must be off snuggling with Oleg who’s also missing.

-The show often uses subtle music, but this week’s wonderful score really captures the emotions our characters are dealing with this week.

-Elizabeth is trying to turn an aircraft development worker that she meets at an AA meeting.

BAH! The recap is a day late and still a complete mess! It’s a testament to how involved the show is. Admittedly, though, that’s a good problem to have.

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