’The Americans’ 3×8 Recap: Burning Questions

Militants, marriages, and the moment morality goes up in smoke

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Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. (photo: Patrick Harbron/FX)

Philip and Elizabeth are not the only members of the Jennings clan capable of digging into the lives of others. When Elizabeth paints their daughter Paige a very selective portrait of their pasts in the civil rights movement, the kid does some digging of her own. Using the microfilm machine at the local library — a skill as lost to time now as telegraph operating or alchemy — she investigates her mom’s claims, discovering that their activist ally Gregory had a lucrative second career as a drug kingpin. When she confronts her mother with this information, Elizabeth insists “he never stopped fighting for what’s right.” “So was he a criminal or wasn’t he?” Paige asks. “Things aren’t that simple,” Elizabeth replies.

In “Divestment,” last night’s episode of The Americans, things rarely are. Right and wrong, justice and vengeance, loyalty and betrayal, love and blindness: The boundaries between these qualities are fluid, porous, rendering the states they separate not so much contrasts as complements. Those who straddle these crooked, dotted lines are right to believe that there’s at least as much overlap as opposition between them. But when they act to blur those lines themselves, they raise the question: Is their moral universe truly illuminated by these shades of gray, or is this merely a sophisticated pose they strike to hide their crimes in the murk?

The episode’s most striking illustration of this question is also its most disturbing. Having captured a pair of intelligence operatives for South Africa’s apartheid government — one a hardened veteran, the other a terrified teenage rookie — the Jennings and their African National Congress comrade are left with little choice but to kill the more high-value half of their quarry. If we put aside pacifism as an option, as genre-based shows do by definition and as oppression often does by default, we’re left with a relatively rare case in which the Jennings are unequivocally on the right side of the history. Regimes that permanently dispossess a marginalized ethnic sub-population with military force are indeed odious, and the overthrow of their segregated systems are (eventually) greeted as human-rights triumphs. This is what has made watching our Soviet spies fight on behalf of the party of Nelson Mandela so striking over the past several weeks: Not even endemic American anti-Communism can cloud the fact that these were “the good guys” in this conflict.

But the haze burning gasoline, rubber, and flesh has a way of obscuring moral clarity. When the moment of truth arrives, Reuben Ncgobo, Philip and Elizabeth’s ANC ally, puts aside the gun and picks up the “necklace,” a gruesome signature of South Africa’s long fight for freedom in which enemies of the black majority and their collaborators were burned alive while wedged inside a gas-laden rubber tire. It’s not just an execution, it’s an example to others — a murderous metaphor for the  slow-burning suffering of the native population at the hands of their white rulers. It’s also, of course, a horrendous way to die, as we’re all just one Google Image search away from learning with vivid clarity today. On the show itself, what we hear is at least as awful as what we see: piercing screams, devolving into guttural groans and gasps, no more recognizable as human than the slain spy’s charred remains. This is the face of war, even of just war. And in Philip and Elizabeth we see the faces of those who fight, drawn taut by the effort required to switch off human empathy when the victim is viewed to deserve it for having victimized others in turn. The man they’re killing is himself a killer, but he remains a man. The struggle truly cannot be won without ignoring the latter fact in favor of the former, and that in itself is a kind of loss, even if it’s one worth weathering.

If the South African storyline is intended to dramatize the maxim that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, the continuing saga of Clark, Martha, and the telltale pen illustrates concept that’s been similarly central to the series since the start: the personal is political. Goofy, endearing, randy, romantic Martha is surprisingly great at withstanding the scrutiny of internal investigator Agent Walter Taffet. (Taffet’s played by actor Jefferson Mays, who’s excellent in what could have simply been a plot point dressed up in a human suit; his microsecond pause before asking working-class Oakland native Agent Aderholt if he thinks the other agents resent him for being “…new” crammed an entire character’s worth of ideas into an eye-blink timespan.) Yet she also realizes that if Taffet is investigating the bug she placed in her boss Agent Gaad’s pen, it’s considered a security threat — which is precisely the thing her secret-agent husband “Clark” told her it was being used to investigate in the first place.

What follows is actor Alison Wright’s finest hour. As Martha, she invests the scene in which she finally tells Clark that the pen was discovered and demands the truth about who he is with a sense of sorrow and panic that’s almost literally face-melting; she has a level of control over her facial expressions that’s Muppet-like in its expressive intensity. As Clark, Philip can no more tell her who he’s really working for than he can tell her his name is, in fact, Philip, nor can he reveal that his love for her is professional pretense.

But as he did with his much younger asset Kimmy a couple of weeks ago, he can wrap his lies around a rock-solid skeleton of truth. “You are one of the most true and honest and good women I have ever known,” he tells the woman who thinks she’s his wife, quite obviously meaning every word. But his sincerity is also a sales pitch, designed to persuade her to drop her line of inquiry in the name of love. “I love you, and I would do anything for you, to protect you,” he says, before adding the key coda: “Is that enough? Or do you need more than that?” The way he emphasizes the words in these questions indicates the answers he wants her to give: Yes, it’s enough. No, I don’t need more than that. Yes, I understand that keeping the truth about yourself from me is itself an act of affection and protection. Thus, in being more honest with Martha than ever before, he’s drawn her still deeper into the lie; he’s endangering her by protecting her. Is he a criminal or isn’t he? Things aren’t that simple. And they both lie awake that night, wishing that they were.

’The Americans’ 3×8 Recap: Burning Questions