This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans: Season 4 Episode 8
“The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Stature of Liberty Disappears” is a long, unwieldy, messy beast of an episode befitting of its long, unwieldy and messy title.
Look at just how much ground it covers and how many tone changes it undergoes. Martha is seen off to a plane by Philip and Gabriel within the mostly dialog-less cold open. Philip experiences the same existential crisis that all working fathers do after losing a job. Philip and Elizabeth get into a long overdue screaming match about infidelity and EST. Gad loses his job. Elizabeth hangs out with Young-Hee, sees The Outsiders and kills an old agent of hers. That’s not even to mention a 7-month time jump, Paige essentially becoming a spy for real, Gabriel deciding to give the Jennings a break and David Copperfield making the fucking Statue of Liberty disappear!
Good God a lot happens in this episode. The scale of “The Magic of David Copperfield V” is relatively staggering for The Americans. But it’s also at times strangely quiet and intimate. The dramatic, easy-going jazz at work here combined with occasional crash of two characters finally using their outdoor voices on each other make “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” an unexpected entrant into the best The Americans episode discussion.
Matthew Rhys makes his The Americans directing debut here (he had previously directed four episodes of Brothers & Sisters) and it’s tempting to attribute the episode’s tonal wizardry to his work behind the camera. And by all appearances, it looks like he’s done an excellent job. My favorite bit of blocking is a moment early on in which Philip is on the couch, reading a book about EST. Elizabeth gingerly asks him what he’s reading, clearly just trying to make conversation because he is still hurting over what has happened to Martha. Instead of responding, Philip just wordlessly holds the book jacket cover above the couch for Elizabeth to see.
“Helpful?” she asks.
“It’s helping me realize some things,” he responds. Like he wants to start playing hockey again.
The little vignette is a wonderful example of writing and directing capturing an unable-to-be-articulated life experience. The removal of Martha from the field (which Philip learns was the right move when Stan reveals the FBI had been tracking a double-agent) is devastating for the obvious reasons but the fallout extends to even more mundane areas such as Philip not having anything to do on a weekday. It’s not hard to see how the tensions eventually boil over.
Rhys work is great now both behind the camera and in front of it but the real author of the episode’s greatness is its editor.* They say editing is the soul of cinema. And that’s never been clearer than here. “The Magic of David Copperfield V” has so much going on that it could have easily been a bloated disaster. Instead, the way it is cut together creates a cohesive and fully-realized 50 minute story with real soul. It’s like an entire season of a show condensed into one episode, complete with a “seven months later” tragic and provocative postscript.
“The Magic of David Copperfield V” is more than just cohesive. It’s satisfying. So much of that comes down to the editing and post production decision-making.
I mentioned earlier that the cold open features almost no dialog. In fact, it’s not until about five minutes in that Martha’s speaks the first words of the episode and potentially some of her last on the show.
“Don’t be alone, Clark, alright?”
That wordless melancholy then extends to the next scenes of Philip shuffling around the house as a wordless zombie. In fact, there isn’t any noticeable soundtrack played until one of the episode’s final climactic scenes. The first twenty minutes or so of this episode are like those TV commercials that are deliberately silent to draw the viewers attention in-between other loud, grating commercials.
The editing at play creates a feeling of unease that’s much different than we would have expected after last week’s Martha hunt. It also makes the explosion, when it comes, that much more devastating.
Elizabeth attends her first EST meeting like she promised Philip she would. The theme of that week’s meeting pretty accurately sums up the entirety of this season thus far.
“You feel like you’re stuck in a box that you can’t get out of,” the EST speaker says. “Well who made the box. You’d feel like you’d all be free if you didn’t have this shit that you have to take care of. Well, I’ve got news for you. You love the prison you’ve made for yourself.”
In fact, Elizabeth loves the prison of her life she’s created so much that she doesn’t realize how closely the lesson applies to her. When she gets back and tries to tell Philip her thoughts on EST, it all goes to hell. At first she tries to be diplomatic, saying she sees what he gets out of it. But then throws out an important disclaimer. They seem to only be after the adherents money.
“It’s all very American,” she says.
“You don’t get it,” Philip responds, deflated.
Then everything comes tumbling out of them. Elizabeth resents Philip for caring so much about Martha. Philip resents Elizabeth’s past relationship with Gregory (“I’m sorry the man you loved died and you’re stuck with me!”) Elizabeth hates that Philip has a son with another woman (a son who we now find out has made it out of the Afghan War alive).
The animosity is maintained through Elizabeth’s next interaction with Paige in which she yells at her daughter for skipping a Bible study. She has to work harder to get in with Pastor Tim and Alice. After a leisurely start, the episode is suddenly completely on edge and remains that way until Elizabeth realizes that maybe Philip’s stress is legitimate. She comes to this realization after having to murder Lisa, the alcoholic wife of a Boeing employee who threatens to go to the police with what she knows.
When Elizabeth shows up to she and Philip’s rendezvous with Gabriel bloodied, Gabriel has finally seen enough. He puts them on “vacation.” No new missions. Philip must maintain the wire he’s set up and Elizabeth must still continue with Young-Hee but beyond that they’re done for the time being.
It’s a fascinating move for the series and a refreshingly meta acknowledgement that yeah, what we’ve seen these poor characters go through is a lot.
An emerging theme of this season is the powers that be ignoring the human element. It’s refreshing to see that The Americans has not, however. Philip and Elizabeth have had a rough go of it and now, seven months into the future they can relax and watch all the David Copperfield magic specials they want. Given that this is only halfway through the fourth season, however, there is a big “but.” And it’s that Paige looks like she will not have the same luxury.
*The Editor for this episode is credited as Amanda Pollack, whom I know nothing about. One day, editors will get the rock star treatment they deserve.