[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
Although the basic structure of ‘Divestment’ is built around the idea of interrogation and placing characters in situations where their freedom (and life) is very much on the line, The Americans funnels the ideas contained in a very busy, tense, and compelling episode into a single horrific realization by Martha: one that ostensibly leaves her in the ultimate lose-lose situation.
It is a dramatic but inevitable shift for one of the show’s longest running assets; a move that not only demonstrates how the series handles building tension over the long term (as it has done all season with Paige’s recruitment), but it also encapsulates the episodes title. Martha is effectively stripped of everything she had believed in with regard to her relationship with Clark – and in the process, forced to become a traitor to her country (and to the job that, in many ways, is what defines her as a person).
Technically, Martha’s problems began when the bug was discovered in Gaad’s office. However, beyond the threat of being caught planting a listening device on an FBI agent, it’s the arrival of Walter Taffet blows up her personal life. Martha’s problems worsen when Taffet interrogates her, as it not only becomes clear she’s been duped – seduced by a man who is likely a spy for a foreign government – but that her actions leave her with no recourse whatsoever.
Coming clean to Taffet will only result in charges being brought up against Martha, and letting Clark in on the discovery of the bug puts him in the kind of position where her fate seems like a dark one indeed. It is no surprise then that after her discussion with Clark, where she tearfully accepts his story of having fallen in love with her (despite knowing it is more subterfuge), Martha is literally stripped, lying naked next to the man who just days prior was her loving husband. But the episode plants seeds that suggest Martha’s story doesn’t necessarily end with her in prison or being carted off to an undisclosed location in a piece of luggage.
Last week’s episode ended with Philip and Elizabeth participating in the capture of two members of the South African apartheid movement; their interrogation by the couple, and by Rueben Ncgobo (Dwayne Alistair), basically shows how things could go. Venter (Neil Sandilands) remains unchanged by his current predicament; he is almost accepting of his fate, even though it leads to a nasty execution in the form of a “necklacing” (the same form of death featured on an episode of Elementary not too long ago). But Todd (Will Pullen), the young college student who was talked into planting a bomb that would discredit the anti-apartheid movement, finds himself being given a second chance after he acquiesces to Philip and Elizabeth’s demands – and considering he witnessed Venter’s excruciating death, it’s safe to say Todd is a changed man.
There are hints that Todd’s situation hits close to home. He is, after all, not too far removed from Paige’s age; and the fact that he fell in with a group whose political and moral ideologies go against those of the nation he currently calls home, is telling. Elizabeth is moving forward with their daughter’s indoctrination. Philip may want to stop it, but making the decision to set young Todd free is a tacit acceptance that it is going to happen. It also reflects a hope that if Paige were in the same situation, those holding her life in their hands would think along similar lines.
There is a quiet sort of desperation in understanding that circumstances often compel characters on this series to make decisions they don’t necessarily want to – and those decisions have lasting consequences. There is no more blatant representation of that fact than with Nina’s current predicament. After successfully coaxing a confession out of Evi, Nina’s been recruited to get inside the mind of Anton (the scientist Philip kidnapped last season), with the promise of earning her freedom if she is successful. But Nina’s situation becomes more tenuous when she realizes Vasilly (the man she successfully pinned her treason on) will be overseeing her work with the scientist.
Nina’s predicament is one of survival, and it again harks back to the tight position in which Martha has found herself. Will Martha make tough choices like Nina has in order to keep out of prison, or from taking a dirt nap? Or will she resign herself to her fate? These are major questions to be asked, and the fact that they are being asked of a supporting character like Martha is another reason The Americans continues to be such a stellar program.
Then there are the surprising details that a busy episode like ‘Divestment’ manages to throw in. Things like Agent Gaad’s battle with the mail robot; Agent Aderholt’s questioning by Taffet; and Paige’s investigation of Gregory – leading to the opening of an ideological window that Elizabeth jumps through without hesitation. But then there is Elizabeth’s plea to Gabriel to help Philip’s son (which parallels Arkady’s conversation with the Minister of Railways, a.k.a. Oleg’s father). The move means Elizabeth has to accept Philip’s involvement with Kimberly, but in many ways it might also be to ease her conscience with regard to moving ahead with Paige’s indoctrination to “the Cause.”
That adds a layer to Elizabeth’s motivations (making them more complex), but it also adds a wrinkle to the question of Paige’s future. And with the future of so many characters in question right now, episodes like ‘Divestment’ do a great deal to build tension in the kind of exacting way that has led to The Americans being as well regarded as it is.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Patrick Harbron/FX