It’s well known by now that The Americans has a viewership problem. The show’s Nielsen ratings usually hover somewhere between .8 and 1.4, while for comparison’s sake its FX cousin American Horror Story routinely cracks 3.0. One of the reasons commonly attributed to The Americans relatively low numbers is the lack of a good streaming option. Sure, it’s available on Amazon Prime but viewers who powered through Breaking Bad on Netflix and made the final season a legitimate hit tend not to stray from Reed Hastings’ Valhalla.
I never really saw the merit of this argument as I never really saw The Americans as a show that was binge-watchable. It’s very deliberately paced and packs enough introspection and period detail in to each episode that you’d want to spend a full week decompressing and Googling how South Africa ties into the Cold War. Having said that, this weeks “Divestment” in conjunction with last week’s “Walter Taffet” are the first two episodes of the series that I wish I was able to watch back to back.
“Divestment” feels like a direct sequel to “Taffet” more than any two episodes of The Americans I can recall. The South African plot is introduced and (seemingly) resolved. As is Martha’s Clark suspicions, the FBI’s investigation and Paige’s newfound interest in her parents “activism” days. At first “Divestment” feels a little disconnected from the rest of the season thus far and also too wheel-spinny for this point in the run. But when combined with “Walter Taffet” creates a nifty hour and twenty-some minutes of television. Plus, a guy is placed in a tire and burned alive.
That’s the beauty of The Americans. It really is a carefully-paced slow emotional drama but then out of nowhere a diplomat’s folded up body is being shoved into a suitcase or a South African terrorist is screaming as flames engulf him.
Following their wonderfully choreographed and soundtrack kidnapping of Venter and his student accomplice Todd last week, Philip, Elizabeth and Ncgobo bring the two to an abandoned warehouse for enhanced interrogation. By the precedent television and even The Americans in particular has set, we immediately know that this will be an “interrogation” episode where one side tortures the other for 44 minutes, the torturer gets their information and in the process learns a little more about the human condition. Nope. This isn’t a sociology class, it’s a math problem. One subject, Venter has vital information but is too much of a badass to give it up. The other subject, Todd, also has vital information and would be plenty willing to give it up if given enough motivation. Philip and Elizabeth give him the motivation by allowing Venter to be killed. Ncgobo provides even more motivation by securing a tire over Venter and lighting him on fire to shriek until he dies…as is apparently custom among anti-apartheidists.
Todd cracks and reveals that Venter enlisted him to bomb an important meeting at George Washington University but Todd couldn’t follow through. Philip secures the bomb and convinces Ncgobo to let Todd live. Philip has always been more sensitive than his wife when it comes to killing in their work but even Elizabeth is willing to advocate for Todd after witnessing the horror of Ncgobo’s brand of South African justice. Or maybe she merely understands just how close to breaking her husband is.
Philip can’t catch a break (which is a running theme this season) when he returns to his other wife’s home. Walter Taffet’s investigation is ongoing at the FBI and Martha was called in for questioning. It’s not the fact that she’s lying to an internal investigator that bothers her necessarily; it’s more that this internal investigator is not her husband. After all, that’s supposed to be Clark’s job.
“I met a man named Walter Taffet yesterday,” she tells Clark.
“Well, he’s you.”
Clark’s strategy to assure Martha is believable. Philip can’t think of a lie quick enough to explain his non-involvement in the Taffet investigation and so he resorts to the same empty platitudes that many husbands caught in a lie do. Clark loves Martha. He can’t imagine living without her. She just has to trust him. Equally believably and sadly so is Martha’s seemingly temporary acceptance of these platitudes. In an excellent performance from Allison Wright, Martha accepts Clark’s lies for at least another day. Peace of mind is easier than the truth. Especially when the truth is likely to be so, so, so far from what you thought it would be.
I’ll admit to being a slightly disappointed by Martha’s acceptance of Clark again. It’s realistic and emotionally compelling but the binge-watchy momentum of the past two episodes suggested something more dramatically compelling or even cathartic was on the way. Instead Martha is just another American willing to lie to herself in response to lies she was likely told.
After all, “the bigger the lie, the more they’ll believe” another excellent show once posited* Philip is finding that out with Martha and Nina over in Moscow is making good use of it. Nina’s work in nabbing Evi Snjeider reduces her sentence to ten years and her captors offer her the opportunity to completely wipe it off the books. The Refusenik scientist, Anton Baklanov, who Philip shipped off to Russia in season two is working on stealth technology slowly. The Russians don’t have anyone intelligent enough in his area to know if his slow work is intentional or not.
*The source of that quote is Joseph Goebbels but it’s nicer to think The Wire came up with it.
Nina can help because Nina can get people to trust her. That skill is a gift for now but Nina must know it won’t always be. Just like Philip regrets that skill as he lies awake in bed with a suspicious Martha. Just like Elizabeth must regret that skill when she returns home from killing a man and her daughter is reasoning out how far an activist can go for a cause. “Well. You can’t just go rob banks and things.” You have no idea, Paige.