Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Americans: Martial Eagle Review


I'll Tell You My Sins And You Can Sharpen Your Knife...

Guilt is one of The Americans' great themes.  Our two main characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, have been dealing with a great deal of guilt over the deaths they've caused intentionally or not.  They also have the extra burden of guilt over how they might not be good parents.  One recourse of absolution is through God.  However, for these secret Soviet agents bred on atheism, that avenue is closed.  Their daughter, however, has no such impediments, and it looks like Paige is embracing born-again evangelical Christianity.  Martial Eagle is an incredibly intense hour, a morality play where we see that Philip and Elizabeth, despite being at heart good people, are perhaps already damned beyond redemption.

Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) infiltrate the Martial Eagle training camp.  She gets the information, he the photos.  However, Philip is forced to kill three Americans who stumble upon him, and to make matters worse, Lewis, the truck driver Philip insisted on sparing, has frozen to death while tied to a tree.

Therefore, with all these deaths on Philip's conscience, hearing tales of another man who died on a tree isn't exactly thrilling.  However, to please their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), they agree to go to church (probably for the first time in their lives).  They aren't thrilled about all this, but when they learn Paige has donated $600 to the church, they are angry.  Philip in particular is quietly furious, and at long last he has an outlet for the rage building inside him.  Taking Paige's Bible, he begins to rip the pages, then screams at his daughter, "YOU RESPECT JESUS, BUT NOT US?"  Elizabeth herself is frightened by Philip's anger.  Elizabeth for her part, is equally incensed.  She wakes Paige up early to have her clean the refrigerator, then to mop the floors.  This, she insists, is to teach her that if she is going to be grownup about money, she should know what it is to work.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) finally has his clearance to investigate the disappearance of Refusenik scientist Anton Baklanov, believing his disappearance is connected to the Stealth program and perhaps a way out of the situation with Oleg at the Rezidentura.  As it happens, a major meeting took place in Alexandria, Virginia, the same day as a horrible murder of a man, his wife, and daughter.  Beeman cannot be sure, but suspects that there might be a connection. 

Beeman's supervisor, Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) is about to testify before a closed-door Congressional committee, but in an unprecedented move goes to his KGB counterpart Arkady (Lev Gorn) while Arkady has breakfast at a café.  He tells the KGB agent that he has a sworn testimony of someone who has details about the Rezidentura's kidnapping plans.  Should Gaad go down because the Soviets continue to, as Gaad puts it, insist their agent Vlad was killed by an FBI agent rather than an accidental mugging, Gaad will release the information to the press and take Arkady down with him.  Gaad tells him, to use a good American turn of phrase, "heads will roll".   

Beeman's wife Sandra (Susan Misner) quietly tells Stan that she is leaving with a man but has not consummated a relationship.  "You're telling me you're going to have an affair?" Sandra is dismissive of his incredulity, either signaling he is a bad detective or disinterested in her.  She also tells him that she knows he's having an affair, whether he admits it or not.

In a final act, 'Clark' plays the doctored tape to a visibly upset Martha (Alison Wright) and gets her on his side.  Philip then goes to the church and tells the pastor to stay away from his daughter.  The pastor tells him he is willing to give them the $600, but is shocked that Philip would beat him up for the money.  It isn't the money though.  Philip asks the pastor if he truly believes all that talk of forgiveness and absolution.  He tells Philip that he does, and tells him that Philip carries a lot of pain and anger within him.  Philip leaves the church, unbowed, but also quietly aware of what is within his tortured heart.

In Martial Eagle, I think Matthew Rhys has given the greatest performance in The Americans of the season, an already extraordinary accomplishment given just how good he's been throughout all the series.  We see in his quiet moments how the burdens of all those deaths are weighing on him, and slowly the burdens are overwhelming him.  As he sits alone by the sea, head down, we see the burdens taking their toll.

For all intents and purposes, it is Paige who bears the unleashing of Philip's built-up fury.  She is the outlet for all the horrors he's carrying within him, and seeing him lose it big time is frightening, allowing us to see what the generally gentle Philip is like when he can no longer bear the darkness overwhelming him.  It's extremely painful and horrifying to see that dangerous side of him, but in terms of performances it is simply astonishing, full-formed and brilliant.

Russell herself matches him as Elizabeth takes out her own rage at her daughter.  It's sad that the Jennings are like other parents, who take out their work frustrations at home.  We feel for the parents, however, as they too are suffering greatly due to the emotional conflicts within them.  Even smaller roles like those of Misner as Sandra are given their moment. 

We see that the personal lives of all our characters are becoming undone by actions beyond their immediate control.  Martha, feeling betrayed by her coworkers.  Paige, emotionally tortured by the people who do love her.  Stan, finding his wife has not betrayed him but inches from it. 

Guilt is all around our characters.  Guilt, and the burden of it.  Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes.  With Martial Eagle, we see that the truth at least in this case will not set you free.


Next Episode: Yousaf

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