The Americans: Season 2 Episode 9 – Martial Eagle
April 23, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (EST), FX
The Americans trades in tiny glances, brief connections and missed opportunities, small decisions and their titanic emotional aftermath, better than just about any show on television (give or take Mad Men, which is just about the king of this type of subtle storytelling). “Martial Eagle” is perhaps the best episode in the show’s second season so far, weaving together the espionage and the private lives of our three leads nearly seamlessly, and telling a quietly tragic story of Philip Jennings becoming unmoored by having to do the things he does just one more time.
Operation Martial Eagle, the show’s window into the Iran-Contra scandal, is the sort of operation we have seen Philip and Elizabeth undertake nearly weekly on this series. Sure, they are infiltrating a military base, so the stakes are ostensibly higher, but nothing in the show’s writing, performances, or direction leads us to believe this is really anything beyond another day at the office for these two. Ultimately, that’s kind of the point. Operation Martial Eagle goes wrong, as many of their missions do (this would be a less interesting television drama is Philip and Elizabeth triumphed over every challenge effortlessly. In fact, it would be House of Cards), but it doesn’t go disastrously wrong. Nothing about this mission is much different, except for the way it seeps into Philip, poisoning his entire world in its aftermath, pulling him into a downward spiral of rage, pain, and nihilism. Philip has to kill three men at the camp, and returns to release the truck driver only to find that he, too, is dead. Even an act of mercy goes to rot in this business. That driver didn’t just die. He died slowly, alone, and in the cold. And only because Philip was trying to be a better man.
This season of The Americans has been seeped in blood from the start. The body count has been startlingly high, as various characters are in the wrong place at the wrong time, crossing Philip and Elizabeth, touching their lives briefly and being brought to ruin as a result. What is remarkable about this, and especially so in “Martial Eagle” is the way that the series indicates the toll this takes on each of its leads. When they wake from their mission, they are thrown immediately into another conflict, as they attend church with Paige. Elizabeth tries to reach out, to show her daughter she cares. But Philip hears words about sin and redemption, about sorrow and joy, and he stares back with cold, dead eyes. The pastor knows nothing of what he speaks. How can he, really? He doesn’t live in the world, at least not the one the Jennings do. Things would be much simpler if they were as black and white as his sermon suggests. But Philip has been bathed in gray for as long as he can remember.
There’s a sense throughout “Martial Eagle” that Philips mask is coming off, and in ways he cannot fully control. Philip is a quiet, reserved man who hides everything beneath the surface, but this week, it all starts to bleed out and reveal the angry, bitter, broken man he usually conceals. Matthew Rhys has perhaps never been better in this series than he is here, raging at Paige, breaking down Martha with Clark’s drunken nihilism, and threatening the preacher with a quiet calm that reveals him as a man who can do some very bad things if he has to. And he often has to.
This season has lost the thread on Elizabeth a bit, which is incredibly disappointing. Her arc is somewhat muddled, partially a story about how her feelings for Philip and her children begin to compromise her effectiveness, partially an examination of old wounds that have never healed, and partially something I’m not sure even the show has a bead on yet. But if Elizabeth has been poorly served so far this season, Philip has been put under a magnifying glass in ways that are fascinating and terrifying.
Stan, meanwhile, is finally on to the deaths of Emmett and Leanne, even as his home life is slowly coming apart at the seams in ways he barely seems to notice and struggles to have strong feelings about. His journey this season is one of detachment—from his family, from his country, from the things he probably told himself he was fighting for when he signed up for the FBI. Stan isn’t being turned, at least not fully, but nor is he the steadfast patriot of season one. He, like, Philip, has become unmoored from all that he believed grounded him. He floats through “Martial Eagle” like a ghost, quietly contemplating a puzzle too large for him to see, but barely connecting with another human being at all. He speaks softly, almost as if he fears affecting anything around him. He is disappearing from his own life, and in the process, he is developing the vulnerabilities he cautions the stealth program’s employees to avoid.
It’s fitting that in an episode, and a season, so committed to the idea of faith (in a cause, a country, another human being), religion comes to play a larger role, and the episode’s final sequence sees Philip skulking into a church like a force of pure malevolence, to the point that I wondered whether he had gone there to burn the whole place to the ground, to raze it entirely. Philip puts on black gloves, but he isn’t disguised, not at all. He walks in there as Philip Jennings, father of Paige Jennings. He puts himself on the map. He lets himself be recognized as the danger. He’s not hiding in plain sight; he’s not even hiding. He is seen, at least in those moments, for who he really is. Philip Jennings crawled his way out of Hell tonight, walking into that church and locking the door behind him, in part, I’m sure, to keep Pastor Tim from escaping, but maybe also to keep all of that darkness from following him in. But as the episode ends, he is leaving the sanctuary, returning to the muck of the outside world, and to the dark role he has to play in it.
- -“We’d love for Paige to come with us. See all the good her generous donations are doing.” “We’ll definitely talk about that.”
- -“I feel responsible, sir.” “You are responsible, Agent Beeman. So am I.
- -“You respect Jesus, but not us?” This is maybe the most terrifying Matthew Rhys has ever been. And he can be scary.
- -“I don’t need the speech. I know its war. Its just easier for you.” “You think its easy for me? What I do?”
- -“That is where their power lies. In secrets. If they can keep you ashamed and afraid, they can keep you silent. And if they can keep you silent, they can control you.”
- -“Let me assure you, Agent Beeman. I would never betray my country.” “No one ever imagines they will.”
- -“The world is an ugly place, Martha. And it is full of prudish, cruel, nasty people.”
- -“No, I’m not going to leave you, Stan. But I’m not going to sit around and wait for you to get the courage to leave me.”
- -“I would do anything for my daughter. I would do anything for her.” “The best thing you can do for her is to learn for to control your anger.”