The Americans S1 E12: The Oath (updated)

For the first time in four weeks God decreed that it wouldn’t drizzle on a Wednesday night in the Chicagoland area, and I am grateful that there was no meteorological interference with my satellite dish (NEVER RENT FROM AN APARTMENT THAT HAS SATELLITE, IT IS A RUSE), because I didn’t have to wait a week to watch the most recent Americans episode online. Kyra has been doing such a splendidly thorough job with his reviews, though, so it’s not like my analytical wisdom needed any imparting. While good writing on The Americans has abounded in this space, good writing was again on display in this week’s “The Oath,” ostensibly the stage-setter for next week’s season finale. After Wednesday, the spies on both sides now know a little bit more about the extent of their respective opponent’s infiltration and about who’s responsible.

On one hand, we have Viola, who’s been shouldering the burden of festering guilt, even though it’s justifiable: better to place a fine wired (see what I did there) timepiece rather than have her son suffer from death-by-hives. Clearly Viola doesn’t have the unethical mental stamina of Judah Rosenthal as she actually has remorse for having assisted in the covert eavesdropping on her employer. Instead of learning to live with her secret (though some months have passed and it took a while before she figured out what to do), the preacher has barely finished saying the words JESUS and DAMNATION and SATAN AHHHHH before the wracked Viola feels like a venomous rattlesnake has taken a grisly bite out of her conscience. (Note: I make light, but Viola is behaving extremely reasonably. Also make sure to carry your venom extraction pack with you at all times! Only $10, says Big Daddy Lawler! Amen.) [kyra note: it’s a modern Telltale Heart if you will]. The juicier piece of information Viola provides, at least for our purposes—it’s hard to imagine anything more salacious than learning that there’s a bug Secretary of Defense’s library—is that she’s seen Phil and Elizabeth up close. Fine, our duplicitous Soviets had their superglued wigs and incredibly sexy eyeglasses on, but the FBI is officially on the lookout for a man and a woman. Stan and Gaad, mindful of what they heard last week after their CIA colleague Patterson made it home alive without paying for Zhukov’s life, suspect something’s up: This “couple” has to be responsible for a lot of the havoc befalling both countries’ intelligence communities. Their intuition is correct even if it’s informed by something less than the strongest evidence, of course, but I’m guessing their gut will lead them closer to Phil and Elizabeth’s trail than whatever the sketch artist draws up.

On the other hand, there’s Nina, who not only informs Arkady of the level of US infiltration within the Rezidentura, but informs him that she herself is the mole. Like Viola, it’s not long after she’s reminded of her sacred duties (if Viola’s obligations run towards God, Nina’s run towards her own state’s religion; the preacher’s sermon and the text of the loyalty oath both sounded in ecclesiastical language) that she’s persuaded to come clean. Nina’s doing so leaves her extremely vulnerable, which of course we (and she) knew already, but now she must transform herself from the prototypical damsel-in-distress into a femme fatale. It begs the question of whether she’ll be able to handle the mind-bending duplicity required for the role she’s trying to assume (keeping Stan’s confidence while regaining Arkady’s); if she’s anything like Viola—or if she’s got to read off another homily to the motherland in front of Arkady—the answer is probably “no.”*

*If I made a poll of which character is most likely to eat it next week, I think Nina’s going off at Secretariat-at-the-Belmont odds, right?

Yes, I’ve left out Nina’s discerning Stan’s role in the execution of Vlad, her admirer from (not very) afar; Nina realizes the depth of her vulnerability once she discovers that Stan has broken one of the episode’s titular oaths. At first glance, you’d think that Nina’s and Stan’s relationship is based on reciprocity, that it’s more a contract than an oath: Nina was caught sending contraband back home, and if she wants to keep her job abroad she needs to help Stan do his by sending some intel his way rather than some bread to Moscow or Volgograd or Vladivostok or Sochi or OK, I wanted to demonstrate my knowledge of large Russian metro areas. But for a time there, it seemed Nina and Stan thought they had something more than a handshake deal: Stan’s had trouble assimilating now that he’s back in the real world and not burning crosses with the KKK (and that makes for an interesting contrast with the Russians, who at least superficially have done much better at assimilating), with predictable chilliness inside his marital home, and he’s developed his own feelings for Nina, feelings that went beyond sexual. Stan promised to keep Nina safe, but this promise must butt up against the necessities of his job. Even if he’s not treating his espionage duties or his protection of Nina cavalierly it’s now understood, though unspoken, between both of them that whatever vow they’ve made to each other has less meaning. This realization leads Nina to prioritize her vow to country over whatever she’s got with Stan.

Then of course there’s the oath of marriage that Phil, as Clark, makes to Martha. From our vantage point there’s no mushiness or conflicted feelings as with Nina and Stan; we know Phil is just using Martha to, among other things, make sure there’s a bug on somebody in the American bureaucracy (and if not Caspar Weinberger, then Gaad), while Martha is genuine in her happiness (and also genuinely way too fucking quick in falling head over heels for “Clark”). It’s obvious that their oath only has resonance with one of them, though screenwriters Joshua Brand and Melissa James Gibson added a nice detail by showing us Elizabeth’s reaction to the ceremony. (There were plenty of nice details with regard to the staging of this scene; Elizabeth and Granny both could have easily been mistaken for Dustin Hoffman’s body double on Tootsie, what with Elizabeth’s incredibly rectangular coke-bottles and cotton candy-striped blouse.) Elizabeth was touched, and Keri Russell took the words right out of my mouth by highlighting the irony that she and Phil (who tried to make it work) never read each other their vows, while “Clark” only has an intention to betray his mark. How meaningful are the oaths everybody takes on The Americans? If Wednesday was any indication, there’s not a lot of cause for us to be completely faithful in their fidelity to them.

[kyra update]: A wonderful recap by Buckeye. I was also amused by the outfits of Claudia and Elizabeth in the marriage scene, as we have finally reached the pinnacle of undercover hilarity. Something I have noticed in the Clark-Martha scenes is that I always feel like Philip is not doing a very good job acting like he is that ‘into’ Martha. I chalked this up to two main reasons: that he is distracted by the constant strife in his own marriage + he is not a great actor. However, here Elizabeth is fooled by the charade, and surely some part of her wishes it was her up there on the altar instead of Martha. God would they just get back together already?

Finally, let’s do a little tally of where both sides stand in this show that draws parallels so well. On the FBI side, they have kept the bug in the Secretary’s house in place, but now know it’s there thanks to Viola. Thus they will only let the Russians hear what they want them to hear. The FBI also just took into custody one of Elizabeth’s agents who was going to deliver them a high ranking missile defense person. He’s another guy who can confirm the sketch artist’s portrayal of Elizabeth. On the other side, the KGB also have an embedded asset they can use: Nina. Nina is their version of the bug: each side knows about the others’ asset and are going to try to manipulate them using it. I definitely think Nina can get Stan to cough up some information given how vulnerable he is when with her.* The KGB also have the pen placed in Agent Gaad’s office, which should prove valuable. So in total, each side has 2 chips they can try to leverage during Wednesday’s finale. I can’t wait.

*As a side note, I think we can all agree that Nina has become a double agent not because of the oath she took in Arkady’s office about her love of country, but because she ‘found out’ Stan killed Vlad. Although he didn’t admit it, his pause, followed by his weak response, was all the confirmation she needed.

One final note: it was really touching to hear that Henry had buried the keys in the backyard. 😦

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