Season 2, Episode 9: “Martial Eagle” | Date: April 23, 2014
“Martial Eagle” was another strong episode for “The Americans” in its uneven and often slow second season. Again the series showed its strength by juxtaposing the struggles of maintaining a family against the mission of embedded Soviet spies.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) try to expose U.S. military training of Sandinista rebels on American soil to embarrass the U.S. internationally for aiding in the overthrow of a democratically elected communist government.
The mission is vengeance. The Soviets stole plans for a submarine propellor system. But the prop caused a Soviet sub to sink, killing 160. Elizabeth and Philip interpret this move as cruel, seemingly immune to the fact they got outmaneuvered in their own war.
The mission to the Sandinista camp breaks bad. Philip is forced to murder a young man by slitting his throat and shoot two others. Elizabeth kills one. Philip seems particularly shaken. He lashes out at daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), who has taken up religion and donated her $600 savings to the church at which she found solace.
Philip tears pages from Paige’s Bible and screams at his daughter, “You respect Jesus, but not us?” She cries. Elizabeth stands gobsmacked. Later, Elizabeth wakes Paige from sleep and makes her do housework, saying her daughter lives a privileged life.
It’s a strange reversal from the previous week when son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is caught breaking into the neighbor’s house to play video games. Henry suffered a minor breakdown in his bedroom, but wasn’t made to do the chores version of push-ups as punishment.
Yet, as emotionally adrift as Elizabeth and Philip seem, they are still excellent spies. We see Elizabeth at an Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting. She listens to talk of a woman. From the context of the story, it appears she’s trying some of the faith Paige embraced. But no, she’s there to turn an alcoholic weapons assembly line worker into an asset.
Similarly, Phil visits Martha (Alison Wright). He gets drunk and plays a tape with Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas) mocking her sex appeal at the FBI office. Phil seems lost and seeks the seeming simplicity of Martha’s embrace. But no, he’s there to convince her to increase her surveillance on his behalf.
Interestingly enough, Martha is the first to link the murders of the family of Soviet spies to Stan’s ongoing investigation of leaks in security of Department of Defense projects and the Soviet kidnapping of a Russian expat scientist.
Plotlines that had fallen long dormant — especially the murder of Philip and Elizabeth’s fellow spies — finally seem to coming to a point. And the mental strain of the work, particularly on Philip, is rendered nicely by Matthew Rhys, who expresses more with his face and the rigidity of his body.
Rhys was particularly effective in the episode’s closing scene, when he goes to visit the pastor whom Paige had become fond. Philip pulls on black gloves before he goes into the church. He locks the door behind him. Everything about the scene suggests he is going to strangle the clergyman.
But Philip goes eyeball-to-eyeball with the pastor’s faith and walks out the door.
The scene is another lie, an excellently told one at that. “Martial Eagle” plays with our expectations from beginning to end, as does “The Americans” as a series.
That this episode was co-written by Oliver North, who himself had a hand in arming rebels to fight communists during the Reagan Administration, makes me wonder just how accurate this story really is. But fiction, they say, is often truer than truth. The emotional reality of this drama is certainly a win.