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The Americans: “The Oath”

Illustration for article titled iThe Americans/i: “The Oath”
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Todd: My wife had the only possible accurate description for the scene in which The Americans contrived to have “Clark” and Martha get married, then have Elizabeth attend said wedding as Clark’s sister (Grannie is also there as Clark’s mom): “That is some Shonda Rhimes-level shit.” To those who see the name “Shonda Rhimes” and hiss and spit, let me explain that she means it as a compliment, as do I, by relating it to you. At her best, Rhimes is perhaps the best writer on TV at coming up with ridiculously overwrought situations that would never happen in real life, then making the glorious melodrama of the moment play on screen. Do I believe for an instant that Clark and Martha would ever have a hurry-up-and-wait wedding that took place just days after getting engaged? Not particularly, but once the show dove into the idea, it jumped in head first, and it got good and wet. It’s not just playing around here; people are going to get hurt!

“The Oath” is a weirdly sedate hour for the penultimate episode of a season of television that’s been building to a major confrontation. I think I mean that as a compliment, too, though I’m less sure about it. The “previously on” for this week’s episode goes all the way back to the bugged clock from episode two, and while it’s nice to see it—and Caspar Weinberger’s housekeeper—again, it’s also a quick reminder that we’re watching a serialized drama, and this is the point where keeping up with your homework will start to pay off. In quick order, “The Oath” brings in seemingly every plot point from the season past, then spends a lot of time moving things into place for next week’s finale without quite having things boil over into open conflict. The last few episodes—save the brilliant and beautiful “Gregory dies” episode—have been more about the promise of conflict to come than the conflict up there on screen, and that’s been at once impressive and occasionally frustrating.


The Americans is like that watched pot that never boils. It’s content to take its time, and if you think something like Elizabeth declaring war on Grannie at the end of the last episode is going to immediately bear fruit, think again. The characters behave more or less like real people, letting grudges—or guilt trips or crushes—build up over time but not really acting on them until they’re good and ready. When the show is clicking along on all cylinders, as it mostly was tonight, it feels surprisingly realistic, the slow-motion emotional car wrecks the constant companion to the slow-motion spycraft of the ’80s. But occasionally, the show tries to force something, and that goes so against its usual modus operandi that it stands out even more than it usually would.

Take, for instance, Nina’s big turn at the end of the episode, in which she resolves to become a double agent, since she’s figured out that Stan killed Vlad. Can I buy that this character would do this? Absolutely, and she’s got plenty of reasons to do so. But when I’m actually asked to buy it in the moment, I’m not sure the show sold it beyond the fact that she needed to do it for the story to move forward to wherever it’s going to go next. Don’t get me wrong: This didn’t tear apart the episode for me or anything (I thought it was a really solid hour of television that sets up what could be a terrifically exciting finale). It just reiterated something to me that I’ve felt for a while: The Americans is generally stronger at character stuff than it is at plot. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it can make the show’s attempts at plot all the more jarring.

That said, “The Oath” is built around a really potent idea, which Elizabeth brings up to Paige about midway through the episode. People fall in love, or make friends, or get involved in business deals, or fall in line with political creeds, because they see something in the other person that isn’t necessarily there. When you look at somebody and enter into a relationship with them, a big portion of that is often a reflection of yourself that you see in them and read into their personality. You’re involved with someone because you look into them and see something you like about yourself (or don’t like, as the case may be). That’s a complicated idea to depict, but it’s one that “The Oath” pulls off with aplomb. At this point, Philip and Elizabeth have accumulated so many identities that they’re casually spreading their visages around the Washington area, and when two different versions of Elizabeth’s sketch pop up looking eerily down upon the FBI agents, they don’t even look like the same person. That’s because, sure, she’s wearing different disguises, but it’s also because she reflects different things to the two people who describe her to the sketch artist—raw terror to one, a chance to get laid to another. These are different reflections, and they result in different sketches; hell, they may as well be different people. Elizabeth and Philip are professional ghosts, but ghosts always leave traces, and the traces these two are leaving are getting more and more permanent.

But enough of that, Genevieve. This episode sets up a lot of stuff that could happen in next week’s finale. What are you most interested in? And, also, are you on the bride or groom’s side in the Clark/Martha wedding? And how good are you at Ms. Pac-Man?


Genevieve: A game that lets me eat without eating? You better believe I’m good at Ms. Pac-Man. However, I have to disagree slightly with your take on Nina’s turn at the end of the episode, which I view as the culmination of something that’s been building since Vlad’s death a few weeks back. But I also buy it precisely because of something you articulate—about people seeing in others what they want for themselves—and something I noticed with Clark and Martha last week. When Nina’s co-worker tells her about Vlad’s crush on her, right after Nina’s taken a serious oath pledging her loyalty to the homeland, she can see the different, less complicated life Vlad symbolized, a life in which she was a loyal comrade involved with a sweet Russian boy who really likes her, instead of a turncoat having an affair with a married man who may just be using her. Just as last week Philip was confronted with a different, better version of his domestic life in the form of Clark’s relationship with Martha—though he’s a little more jaded about it than Nina is—Nina is confronted with how far she’s strayed from a path she was never really on, but wishes she was. When Stan doesn’t deny to her that he’s the person responsible for Vlad’s death, for the death of that symbol, well, that seems like plenty of motivation to me for her to change her stripes again. (Remember, her and Stan’s relationship was born of manipulation and threats. It’s grown into something more, perhaps, but the foundation was always rotten, and easily broken.)

But while I think the Nina stuff does work on both a character and plot level, I can’t really say that about the episode’s other big development, Viola going to the FBI about the bugged clock. The thing is, it doesn’t really need to, as Viola was pretty much a plot contrivance more than a character to begin with. Her only defining characteristics are her faith and her love for her son—and maybe a little bit her relationship with her boss’ wife—all of which inform her decision to go back on her word. It’s interesting that Nina and Viola’s reversals are paired in this episode, considering that Nina was first recruited by Stan in “The Clock,” the episode where Viola was manipulated by Philip and Elizabeth into planting the bug. It’s also interesting that the FBI finding out about the clock bug coincides with Agent Gaad being bugged by Martha, who is by far the most trusting of any of these targets despite having the least reason to be.


These couplings are a reflection of something I’ve grown to really like about The Americans: the way it earns a lot of its somewhat hinky plot developments through its use of thematic pairings. Having characters go through parallel experiences magnifies the motivations for their actions, to the point where it becomes less necessary to dwell on those motivations in the form of action or dialogue. Another prime example of this was “Duty And Honor,” which, like “The Oath,” placed its thematic emphasis right there in the title. This episode is lousy with people making and breaking vows, and while Nina’s crisis of loyalty might seem a little flimsy on its own, it’s strengthened via its proximity to Viola’s similar crisis, and Martha’s betrayal of her boss for someone she trusts despite every sign pointing to that being the wrong thing to do.

Sigh. Poor Martha. What are we going to do with her? I agree with you, Todd, that the spontaneous wedding worked despite itself, mostly because of the seemingly audacious decision to have Elizabeth and Grannie be part of the ceremony. On its face, that’s as unbelievable as the supposed family resemblance Martha’s mom sees, but the actors, once again, make it work in their performances. Philip and Elizabeth have moved on to the sad, nostalgic stage of their separation, where they’re openly mourning the loss of their relationship, as seen in Elizabeth’s question to Philip about whether he thinks it would have made a difference if they had actually taken marriage vows. Is it a little too neat and symmetrical to have Elizabeth looking on while Philip commits to yet another marriage, one that’s just as false as theirs yet technically more real? Yeah, probably, but it’s worth it for the expressions on Russell’s and Rhys’ faces, both of which convey so much more than the hollow words being spoken by Clark and Martha.


As you say, Todd, this episode sets up a lot for the finale, and at this point, Nina and Martha are the two most intriguing pieces of this puzzle for me. Neither woman seemed especially likely to live out the season when she was introduced, and now, they’re both in a position to make things really, really bad for Stan and Philip (and by extension Elizabeth), respectively. The danger posed by Nina is much more immediate—Martha doesn’t even fully realize the position she’s in, much less the effect she could have if her boss finds out about her “husband”—but both have the potential to be game-changers in the finale.

Somewhat surprisingly, given how this show started, the fate of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage has become one of the least interesting questions to me as we prepare to wind up the season. That could be a symptom of fatigue, as that element has been much more drawn out this season than anything else, but I’m also starting to think Philip and Elizabeth are more interesting apart than they are together, as they figure out how to hold together this tricky relationship of theirs without the binding agent of a mandated marriage. Plus, it results in a lot of hilariously bratty moments from Paige and Henry.


Todd, you’ve always seemed a little more invested in the Jennings’ marriage than me, so I’m curious where you stand on the current state of that, and what your hopes are going into the finale. Oh, and speaking of continuity blasts from the past, we should probably touch on the reappearance of Sanford and his missile-defense plans, huh? But first: What did you think of Matthew’s band’s rendition of “Mississippi Queen”?

Todd: You mention bitchy Paige dialogue, and all I can think of is her awkward dialogue with Sarah, the girl who hops in on Matthew’s rehearsal. (“They were playing ‘Mississippi Queen’! *long pause* I’m Paige!”) That version of that song was borderline unrecognizable to me, but I suppose it was good for a buncha teenagers. The more important thing is that Paige/Matthew lives, for all you shippers out there.


I feel as if I’m expressing myself poorly when it comes to Nina. I find her final turn largely believable; I just think that when it comes right down to it, Vlad’s death has hung so heavily over her as a character motivation, and I haven’t quite bought it. I like your reading of the scene where she’s told that Vlad had a crush on her as one about her seeing herself in other people and reimagining herself as someone devoted to the cause. And it certainly is a nice reflection of what Martha’s up to as well. The show is so good at keeping all of these plates spinning; I just wish I bought the Vlad thing more than I do. But that’s a tiny little complaint.

What’s truly impressive about this penultimate episode is the way that it brings nearly every plot point the season has had floating out there to bear—up to and including that missile defense shield—but it never once feels like it’s a rushed episode. There’s proper time spent on all of the character beats, and the show, even when it’s, say, rushing a wedding, is making sure that the emotional weight of the moment will land. What’s more, after spending the first half of the season convincing us that the Jenningses would be able to make this whole crazy thing work, the back half of the season has been more about how they’re going to move past their failed relationship. You correctly assess that I’m more into the state of the Jennings marriage than you are, but what’s been most impressive about the back half of the season has been how much it’s gotten me involved in all of the relationships on the show, to the degree where I’ll be as sad to see the Westerfeld marriage crumble as I am to watch the Jenningses pick through the rubble. It takes a special show to make all of those emotions play in conflict with each other, and I’ll be waiting for the season finale with eager anticipation.


Stray observations:

  • It can’t be said enough: Oh, Martha. So sweet, so trusting, so dumb. She doesn’t even have to read between the lines—it’s all right there on the late-night pro/con list she made—but she still refuses to see it. [GK]
  • Seriously, Martha, even his proposal was hidden and encoded! [GK]
  • I loved that proposal, though. I especially loved how the whole thing quickly spun out of control for Philip, who clearly didn’t realize just what he was getting into. [TV]
  • On the other hand, Martha seems… awfully naïve. I wonder just how far the show can push this before it becomes unbelievable. [TV]
  • Happy to see Elizabeth busting the Natasha Fatale drag back out for her meeting with Sanford. [GK]
  • Nina really knows how to play into Stan’s hero instincts. That “dream” about her being trapped in a burning building? Masterful manipulation. [GK]
  • Several weeks ago, someone in comments made the point that if the Russians stop the so-called “Star Wars” missile defense program, they’ll inadvertently spell the end of the Soviet Union, thanks to the fact that Reagan’s early weapons escalation—and later de-escalation—drove the rise and fall of the Cold War in the ‘80s as much as anything else. My knowledge of the period is rusty, and that’s an oversimplification, but I hope the show digs into this. I love when period pieces play up “victories” that we know will become defeats. [TV]

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