This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 5
After “Clark’s Place,” it’s clear that in the writer’s room of The Americans, there was a cassette tape with a white label marked “Under Pressure,” sitting behind glass with a small hammer dangling from a string next to it and the text “Break Glass In Case of Slow Episode.”
“Clark’s Place” is indeed somewhat of a slow episode. The main conflict of the proceedings is essentially whether Philip can be around a phone when Martha needs to talk to him and then later on, oblique discussions about Martha’s safety with Elizabeth and Gabriel. There is also Oleg dealing with the dual losses of his brother and one-time lover (not the same person).
Aside from a bitching pizza and Trivial Pursuit sesh at the Beeman household, there’s not much else going on on the surface in “Clark’s Place.” And that’s fine. The Americans came out of the gate absolutely on fire for the first four episodes of season four, culminating in one of the most surprising deaths of the series thus far. It could use a little nappy now.
Still, there’s the aforementioned use of “Under Pressure” that shows even when The Americans takes a breather it can still be one of the most incredibly stylish and sensual shows on television.
The use of period-specific pop music on The Americans has always been stellar and deployed just sparingly enough to remain fresh. And each time it picks a new song to soundtrack over more images of sex and violence there’s a real sense of “Oh man, I can’t believe they hadn’t used this one yet. It’s so perfect.”
Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” is no exception. The familiar bass rhythm kicks in at the end of the episode and slowly escalates through Philip and Elizabeth’s conversation about Philip meeting Aderholt. And then escalates further through moments of Philip looking miserable at the prospect of Martha one day being led off in handcuffs and Martha herself downing some of her new Valium prescription.
Then the music crescendos right as Elizabeth straddles Philip and they begin to have passionate, explosive sex. The scene as constructed is just so sleek and stylish and cool in every possible way. On those superficially visual merits alone it’s enough to ensure that the three-minute song will be the only thing I ever remember from an episode that was a bit lackluster. But thematically it also almost single-handedly turns around my perception of the episode itself.
Throughout “Clark’s Place” it’s hard to imagine exactly why Martha continues to put herself through this. First she finds out her husband isn’t who he says he is. Then she finds out he’s killed someone on her behalf. And even after all that, he still can’t be bothered to come be by her side when she needs him the most. She’s having panic attacks and to even just reach him she has to call a special number she memorized and then wait by a pay phone in a dingy laundromat for hours.
What is wrong with this woman? Who would put themselves through such a ringer? “Under Pressure”* in its refreshingly un-ambiguous way helps to answer exactly why.
*One quick note on “Under Pressure” because I’ll likely never get to write about it again as I’m not a music critic. One of the greatest pop songs ever, for sure. But seriously nobody wanted to try just one more draft of the lyrics? “PEOPLE ON THE STREETS! *UNINTELLIGBLE NONSENSE*”
In the final moments of the episode, we see Philip and Elizabeth, um, vigorously, making love while Martha tucks herself into to bed, alone as the “Give love one more chance!” bridge blares: “GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE GIVE LOVE.”
That’s why Martha is doing all of this: that dumb love thing. Whether you work for the C.I.A. or the Rezidentura or some combination of both, the world can still be a lonely, confusing place. And finding, achieving and sustaining love is the best, most deceptively simple goal any of us can hope to fulfill. Martha’s version of love with her husband Clark is perverted and twisted and ultimately hurting her but she’s got to give it another chance… and then another… and then another… and then another. Because if she doesn’t have love, what does she have?
Love is one of the reasons why Philip and Elizabeth are so devastatingly capable at what they do. Their union is never in doubt so with that love thing handled on their Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, they can move onto the next one: destroying capitalism.
And poor Martha isn’t as alone as she would seem in struggling to find the love Philip and Elizabeth have. Philip, ever the dutiful soldier, begins Operation End Hostilities with Stan. Elizabeth sends Philip over to Stan’s to pick up Henry for dinner and when he does, he takes Stan aside to apologize for not letting him know about EST and Sandra.
Stan is disarmingly honest in his reply. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I don’t have a lot of friends here.” This is moments after Stan has found out that Nina has been killed and right after his only son arrived at his house for what was shaping up to be another depressing night of not going to the movies and waiting for a car to come pick him up to go back to work.
Stan is successful in almost every sense. He’s also crushingly alone and it led him to act out against Philip, one of his only friends. Hopefully, now they’ll be getting beers again soon.
Oleg, bless him, is equally alone now. He returned to Russia for the funeral of his brother and while there received the news of Nina’s death. By the way his father has clear disdain for Oleg’s generation, it seems like Oleg may be losing both a family and country soon as well. He returns to American with his fancy clothes as his father disdainfully suggests and seeks support of Arkady at the Rezidentura.
Arkady seems more disappointed with Nina for screwing up than with the U.S.S.R. for its brutality. “They don’t execute people for nothing, Oleg,” he says. The look on Oleg’s face says “Yeah, I think they kind of do.”
Everyone’s looking for love on “Clark’s Place.” But for the only two that have it, Philip and Elizabeth, a loving bond doesn’t mean smooth sailing. They begin the process of trying to turn Pastor Tim and introduce him to a Salvadorian priest who tells Pastor Tim and Alice that Philip and Elizabeth’s work within the U.S. helped save his life. As Philip and Elizabeth drop the priest off at his hotel afterward Philip asks Elizabeth: “You think that guy’s really a priest?”
“I don’t know,” she says.
Love with each other has brought Philip and Elizabeth relative peace at home and a sense of purpose. Love for country has brought them literally a false religion. Wait til Martha, Oleg and Stan figure that out.