[This is a review of The Americans season 2, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
This season, The Americans has been twinning the plot lines of Paige and Henry with the ongoing conflicts their mother and father are secretly engaged in. The effect has been an enhancement of all four character's arcs without relying solely on the ongoing question of Paige's suspicion and pursuit of knowledge about her parents that ended season 1 and kicked off again in season 2 with a bus ride and surprise visit to her aunt Helen's house.It has also afforded the series some of its best, most emotionally affecting scenes, like Henry's breakdown over his concerns of being a good person who might only be remembered for the bad thing he had done. These moments are more than the culmination of smaller, episode-sized plot threads; they're the foundation of the series' often devastating emotional tenor. They are the necessary equalizer to what is so often the nearly unbearable (enjoyably so) level of suspense and tension that permeates these storylines.
So, when an episode like 'Martial Eagle' comes along, the emotional investment in the show's characters is already high. Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, Henry, and even Stan and Sandra are not just constructs meant to propel a plot; they're lived-in, and therefore can carry a more demonstrative burden that adds to the audience's experience and aids in the understanding of such complex circumstances. In that sense, the episode becomes another push into darkness for a series that was already neck deep in a sometimes confounding and conflicting moral gray area.
For all the layers and resonance writer Tracey Scott Wilson imbued 'Martial Eagle' with, the episode is also noteworthy for the contributions Oliver North, former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and key figure in the Iran-contra scandal, made to the storyline.
Reportedly, North was contacted to provide some detail on the ongoing thread of the government's attempts to help contra rebels in Nicaragua – of which Captain Larrick (Lee Tergesen) is a major component. North's involvement is no doubt going to turn some heads, but it shouldn’t be too much of a distraction from what is another stellar episode of The Americans.
The idea of rebellion and the need to distance one's self from the yoke of responsibility – especially when faced with it – permeates the episode. Paige has become so enchanted by Pastor Tim (Kelly Aucoin) and his church that she's given them $600 dollars in donations, spurring an explosive confrontation with her father and, eventually, a midnight chore list from her mother intended to teach her what it's like to act like an adult.
Meanwhile, Stan is facing the burden of potentially ruining Agent Gaad's career and wrecking his own marriage. The confrontation between Stan and Sandra is astounding because of its lack of explosiveness; it is the antithesis of the series' thematic core of secrets and lies. Sandra's confession that she is planning to have an affair is a knee buckling gut punch of honesty that leaves Stan reeling and even forces a silent admission of his own adultery.
At the same time, Philip continues to struggle under the emotional lumber of the lives he's forced to take in the name of the Cause. The long-planned mission he and Elizabeth undertake goes awry and leaves several men dead, a number that is made even worse when the couple returns to find the truck driver they'd kidnapped – and Philip fought to keep alive – has apparently succumbed to the elements.
His response, then, is to lash out and attempt to break whatever connections he can get his hands on, which means sharing the doctored tape of Gaad with Martha and then coming within striking distance of Pastor Tim.
"There's grace and forgiveness for you. For everyone," the shaken pastor tells a seething Philip. But that only demonstrates just how far apart the two men's worlds really are. Philip doesn't live in a world of grace and forgiveness, his is full of "brutish, cruel, nasty people," of whom he is one, and worse yet, he knows it.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with 'Yousaf' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Patrick Harbron/FX