THE AMERICANS: “Divestment”

There’s a whole lot of interrogating goin’ on, and there are plenty of secrets that need divulging. Put the gasoline down, Ncgobo!

Being married and being at war do not always go together

– Reuben Ngcobo

After last week’s frantic, messy ending, Philip and Elizabeth now have two hostages under their watch and a whole lot of questions they want answered. Thus, it makes sense that “Divestment” largely revolves around a series of interrogations. Philip and Elizabeth, along with their apartheid-fighting South African cohort Reuben Ngcobo, captured two men at the end of last week’s episode when they walked into a trap while attempting to assassinate Ngcobo. One of the men is Eugene Venter, an operative for the current South African government. It’s the same government that Gabriel fingered as “the most racist government on the planet” and a major embarrassment to President Reagan and his fight for “global freedom” last week. The other man is Todd, a young South African student noticed by Elizabeth’s protégé Hans a few episodes back. What were these two men planning in Washington, DC (other than killing Ngcobo)? And is there still time to stop it?

Venter isn’t talking, which isn’t much of a surprise to any of his interrogators. Venter is an experienced operative. He was trained for exactly this kind of thing, and he won’t divulge his secrets no matter how much of a beating he gets. That means that any useful information Philip, Elizabeth and Ncgobo need is going to have to come from Todd. But what’s the best way to get it? And how can they know that the information they’re getting is the truth? The three decide to use Todd’s fear to their advantage, and they take him to an outside room where Venter is tied up and tell him to watch closely.

It seems obvious that the three spies intend to kill Venter, and use Todd’s fear to get their info, but what’s shocking is just how it happens. Elizabeth offers Ncgobo the chance to kill his rival, presenting him with a pistol, but Ncgobo turns it down. “I have my own way,” he says. “You have your own country. You wouldn’t understand.” He then proceeds to douse Venter in gasoline and light the South African operative on fire. Venter spouts off a rant about racial superiority before he succumbs to the flames. It’s easily one of the darkest scenes to ever appear on The Americans. In our hearts, viewers always know that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are “bad guys,” or that they at least work for America’s enemy. But they’re also our protagonists. They’re the KGB spies that we actually root for, and while their work is often dark and violent, we’d like to imagine that they’d never do anything like this. Ncgobo could have simply shot Venter, but he killed him in the most heinous, painful way possible instead. We’d like to imagine that that isn’t how “our spies,” Philip and Elizabeth would have done it.

And maybe it’s right to think that way. A naturally terrified Todd soon cops to Venter’s plan to detonate a bomb on the local college campus and blame the carnage on anti-apartheid protestors. Todd was reluctant to actually plant the explosive device, and Philip soon retrieves it from the terrified student’s dorm room. Once that danger is passed, Philip and Elizabeth decide to let Todd go despite Ncgobo’s protests. “He can’t recognize us,” Elizabeth promises. “After what he’s seen today, he’s out of the game,” they assure a still unsure Ncgobo. Ncgobo can only see Todd as another apartheid-supporting white South African, but the Jennings see him as an impressionable young man who still has time to change. In the end, Philip and Elizabeth let Todd go free. Something tells me that we haven’t seen the last of Todd yet. Time will tell if Philip and Elizabeth were right, or if Ncgobo knew what he was talking about all along. Maybe Elizabeth and Philip should have nipped the Todd problem in the bud while they had the chance. Sure, we’d like to believe that “our spies” actually have some heart, but is that the right way to act in the high risk spy game?

Philip and Elizabeth certainly aren’t the only characters dealing with an interrogation this week. Walter Taffet is beginning his investigation into the bug found in agent Gaad’s cup holder from a back room of the FBI office. Weird as he is, I can’t help but love Taffet, played exquisitely by Jefferson Mays. He’s a weirdo and a loner, but that’s exactly the type of man you want running an in-house investigation. A man in his position isn’t going to make many friends.

Instead, he interviews Martha, asking all manner of questions about office supplies. “Are you responsible for maintaining Agent Gaad’s pens?” he asks. Martha, for her part, isn’t even sure that she knows what that means. “Do you refill the ink?” he asks instead. Martha can only say that she occasionally gives him a new pen if he asks for it. Later, Taffet interviews agent Aderholt and asks him all sorts of uncomfortable questions, attempting to discover if Aderholt has any grudges against the FBI. “Your father is a janitor?” he asks. “Not everyone here had to work as hard as you did,” he says, insinuating that Aderholt might have an axe to grind against the department. Like I said, Taffet isn’t going to be making any friends.

Martha holds everything together during her interview, but she seems to break down when she gets home. The stress of knowing that she’s the one who put the pen in Gaad’s office is slowly breaking her, and she again finds herself wondering why she’s risked so much for Clark, a man that she doesn’t really know all that much about. When “Clark” finally arrives at her house later that evening, she breaks down crying, asking him who he really is. Philip is able to put off her onslaught of questions one more time, but even he seems to wonder just how much longer she can keep it together. Walter Taffet doesn’t seem to be the kind of man who just gives up. He’ll keep searching and probing like a tenacious bloodhound until he finally finds what he’s looking for. And when he does finally get to Martha, she knows a good deal of information that could be dangerous to Philip. In an episode titled “Divestment,” I couldn’t help but wonder if Philip was going to divest himself of Martha. Not this week, anyway.

Finally, Nina has finally reentered the plot in an interesting way. Having helped the KGB get a confession out of Evi, her treason sentence is reduced to 10 years in Soviet prison — but it can be reduced even further if she helps the government with one more project. Our old scientist friend Anton Baklanov, who we last saw being forcibly repatriated to the USSR by Philip, is working as a technology expert, but his work is progressing slowly. The Soviet government wants to know if it’s because of technical difficulties, or if Baklanov is purposely working slowly to subvert them. If Nina can figure it out, her sentence will be commuted. And how, exactly, is she going to figure it out? The provided makeup and lingerie in her dorm room at the technology factory seems to provide the answer.

Baklanov is a stubborn man, not taking heed of her early advances. He’s too busy with work. “Are you a scientist?” he asks her. “Then how can you help me?” Making matters worse is that Nina’s factory is managed by Vasili Nikolaievich, the former Resident that she sold out while working for the FBI. In yet another of this week’s interrogations, Vasili tells her that he will never forgive her. It seems like Nina’s past has come back to haunt her in more ways than one, but I’m thankful that she’s back in the plot in a meaningful way. Nina with a goal and a plan is always more interesting than Nina in a cell.

Near the end of “Divestment,” Philip and Ncgobo converse in a car as they wait for Ncgobo’s ride to come and pick him up. The talk turns to the women in their lives, and Ncgobo thinks about how Elizabeth must be getting home as the two men sit together in the car. He relates that he hasn’t seen his own wife in a long time. He’s been away fighting for a long duration, and he even wonders if his wife has taken up with another man in his absence. “It’s not all bad,” he says. “She’s a strong woman. Being married and at war do not always go together.”

He may be right. The emotions of marriage have often complicated Elizabeth and Philip’s spy work, and their children have only added to that burden. How much easier would it be if Philip were working alone and away from Elizabeth? If he weren’t having to worry about spy work’s impact on Paige and Henry? Paige, for her part, seems to have all the skills for spy work whether Philip wants her to or not. After hearing about Gregory from Elizabeth a few weeks ago, she looks up old news articles about him at the local library, and discovers a more complicated man than the one her mother spoke of in the process. “The papers said he was a drug dealer,” she tells Elizabeth later that night. Elizabeth demurs, saying that fighting against evil is complicated, but do those newspaper articles also say that Gregory was a suspected Soviet asset? And, if so, what will Paige think once she discovers such? Paige is smart like her parents, and you can expect that she’ll put all the puzzle pieces together if she’s able to find them.

A showdown over Paige is looming. You can feel it growing every week. Paige is bound to figure out the nature of her parents’ work eventually, and there are some huge questions facing the Jennings family once she does. Elizabeth remains adamant that Paige should join the KGB like them, but Philip still craves the ability to keep her safe from the dangers of the spy game.

So how much easier would it all be for Philip if he didn’t have the family issues to deal with? Seems like a hell of a whole lot. Does Ncgobo have another seat in his car so Philip can get away, too?

The Dead Drop

-There’s a minor storyline this week with Oleg’s father contacting Arkady from Moscow again, reiterating his desire for Oleg to turn home. Despite their early rivalry, there’s definitely a father-son bond growing between the two.

-Just a token appearance for Stan Beeman this week. He’s busy at the memorial for his recently deceased ex-partner. I’m sure he’ll get his own sit down with Walter Taffet in the coming weeks.

-I was relieved to finally put the details of Philip, Elizabeth, and Ncgobo’s operation together. It took a lot of work, and I’ll reiterated for the second week in a row that the show needs to do a better job of explaining the spy operations.

-Walter Taffet’s question to Martha about if she’s responsible for maintaining Gaad’s pens couldn’t help but remind me of a scene in my own life, when a doctor in the operating room came to the front desk and asked if I was responsible for overseeing the staplers. I think my response was almost exactly the same as Martha’s.

– Thankfully, we haven’t had to check in on Kimmie in TWO WHOLE EPISODES!!!!! Small miracles, right?

Next week brings the exquisitely named episode “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” I’ll see you all then.

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