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The Americans: “Divestment”

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The key to decoding the title of tonight’s Americans isn’t in the term’s financial origin. Sure, we see characters reconsidering their investments in certain causes, missions, and relationships, but that’s not a major theme of “Divestment.” There’s also a connection to the anti-Apartheid movement, but in the show’s timeline, we’re still months away from the catalyst of that development.


To me, “Divestment” is all about that “di”—as in the Greek root for “two.” Every crucial moment of this episode, every potentially explosive exchange, occurs between two characters. It’s hard to pick up on at first, but “Divestment” is one of the most cleverly structured episodes of The Americans’ third season. The chess matches that Philip and Elizabeth have been playing with each other (and the other people in their lives) are mapped onto the interactions between every character in “Divestment,” building a series of increasingly suspenseful two-person scenes.

“Divestment” begins with a lot of one-on-one held under formal circumstance. Taffet’s investigation, Arkady’s phone call with Oleg’s father, Nina’s newest assignment—many offices, many conversations conducted across desks. Only the meetings conducted by Taffet would qualify as interrogations, but those other scenes still feel like interrogations because of similarities in staging and disparities in status. The men behind the desks always have the upper hand, and any questions they may ask are in service of conclusions they’ve already formed. The mole is in the counterintelligence office, Oleg will return home, Nina must figure out if imprisoned Refusenik physicist Anton Baklanov is undermining Soviet research efforts. It’s only a matter of exerting enough pressure from behind the desk to get what you want.

Or you can also set a man on fire. Conducted at a black site by Elizabeth, Philip, and Reuben, “Divestment”’s other interrogations have no pretense of formality. They’re also the turning point for the episode, because once Todd’s bomb is recovered, the politics get personal, and the personal gets political. “Being married and being at war do not always go together,” Reuben tells Philip, unaware of what cable drama he’s participating in. On The Americans, these things are inextricably linked, as Philip’s silent response to Reuben indicates. The sides that are fighting the show’s wars want its soldiers to believe in “us versus them,” but it’s more complex than that. When emotions get involved, when personal stakes are considered, the cause begins to ring false. In this mindset, there are gray areas: The Jennings allow Todd to live, because they wouldn’t want the same thing to happen to Paige or Mischa.


There’s a lot of guess work involved in that conclusion, but there’s a lot of guess work involved in Philip’s and Elizabeth’s portions of “Divestment” in general. As any good spy should, they do a lot of listening tonight. Listening is a particular skill of Philip’s, as he showed with Anton and Fred in season two. Waiting for Reuben’s ride, he offers some observations and opinions, but Matthew Rhys is mostly silent in the driver’s seat. He listens and he absorbs, just as he does with the radio in the Jennings’ bedroom. The way he conveys the wheels spinning away in Philip’s head continues to be one of the great intangibles of Rhys’ performance.

Elizabeth is typically the Jennings of action, but the escalation in “Divestment” has her listening as well. And registering, and then acting: Elizabeth goes to Gabriel with the request to keep young Mischa safe, but not before Keri Russell gets her own moment of showing the wheels turn. Rhys is in a stylized, attention-grabbing closeup (the radio is fuzzed-out by the camera, but still visible in the shot, its presence haunting Philip) when he reveals his son’s name, but it’s the cut to a conventionally framed Russell that intrigues and provokes. Is she registering the significance of the name Mischa? Or is she hatching a plan that will take Paige off of the KGB’s shortlist for new recruits?


The fluidity with which “Divestment” pivots from its scenes of interrogation to its scenes of intimate (yet loaded) conversation is remarkable, another high-water mark in a season full of them. It works because director Dan Attias (a TV vet who helmed one of last year’s Anton episodes) draws connections, not distinctions, between these scenes. The tones and topics may change, but it’s still the fundamental spy-fiction setup of people leveraging information for additional information.

It’s especially effective in the closing scenes between Clark and Martha and Elizabeth and Gabriel. Once more, the closing moments of The Americans catch us offguard, and it didn’t even take a daring abduction or a beloved Fleetwood Mac recording. Elizabeth’s request surprises because it goes beyond her marching orders; Martha’s confrontation is a shock because I hadn’t even realized the wider implications of Agent Taffet’s introduction. Call me ignorant, but it hadn’t occurred to me just why Martha kept quiet about the pen and then asked to see Clark’s apartment in “Walter Taffet.” The existence of a Walter Taffet means there is no Clark Westerfeld overseeing counterintelligence for internal affairs.


It’s an explosive moment that depends on the episode’s blurred lines. Suddenly, a living room is an interrogation room. The woman who endured a line of questioning about a goddamn pen reels up and briefly towers over the man she thought she knew. Alison Wright is spectacular in this scene, in control of her character’s emotions while going loud enough and teary enough to capture the feelings of betrayal, confusion, and heartbreak swirling within Martha. She keeps it all going while Clark tells the “truth,” a non-confession that conveniently elides any details about the FBI, the bug, and where he’s staying when he’s not sleeping at Martha’s apartment. Earlier in the episode, Philip bargains for Todd’s life, and Reuben counters that the woulda-been terrorist only revealed the location of his bomb “to save his own life.” That’s exactly what Philip does here, only he’s cannier than that. He’s telling Martha a version of what she wants to hear, but it’s not the whole story.

To fully grasp Martha’s reaction to this reveal, we must cut through the silence once more, to that horrified look on Wright’s face at the end of the episode. Her expression implies the distance between Clark and Martha that’s then confirmed in an overhead shot that mirrors last week’s bird’s eye view of the Jennings. In body language, in composition, it’s an entire story in a single image. And it takes two people to tell that story.


Stray observations:

  • There wasn’t a spot to get into this above, but the returns of Anton and Vasili were both genuine and welcome surprises. It’s a rarity for TV shows to pay off the departures of minor characters as well as “Divestment” does. When you’re disappeared on The Americans, you’ve got to go somewhere—turns out Nina, Anton, and Vasili all went to the same Soviet hell. And by limiting what parts of that hell we’ve seen in previous weeks, we’re just as shocked as Nina to find Vasili running the place.
  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week Eight: C-. Last week’s punk-rock look—its “extras from the CBGB movie” vibe implying that D.C. hardcore has yet to come to Falls Church—makes a comeback, but early scenes with non-Jennings make for a poor showing, wig-wise.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week Eight: N/A. Though here’s where I’ll note that I’m not sure if we’re still in 1982, or if we’ve crossed over into 1983. The chill in the air says “January,” so I’m going to start pulling subheds from the lyrics of ’83’s top pop—like one of the earliest Undercover picks, “One On One” by Hall And Oates.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? There was, in the moment that finally proved Frank Gaad to be an irredeemable cur. Under extreme pressure from the Taffet investigation, Gaad vents his frustrations on our defenseless, mail-carrying electronic friend, protesting a broken lock with a few swift kicks. It’s a poor craftsman who blames his robo-tools, Frank.
  • Did anyone mention Mail Robot? What do you think set Gaad off? (Side note: I now draw your attention to the title of next week’s episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?”)

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