A feeling of dread seeps into every corner of The Americans and obtaining secrets is an essential component to winning this war. Philip has been teetering on the edge this season and in “Martial Eagle” those cracks begin to show as he finds it hard to deal with both his cover life and the terrible things he has done recently as part of his real job. It’s a tour du force performance from Matthew Rhys as Philip bounces from his family man persona to whatever wigged wonder is required and he’s struggling to separate the two. One of The Americans overarching themes is duty and Philip struggles to reconcile these aspects and maintain his breezy Philip Jennings persona.
While both seasons are about Philip and Elizabeth, I would suggest that season 1 has more of an Elizabeth focus as she is the one who changed the most over this period, with this year; it has done the same but for Philip. Since Elizabeth was shot it’s like they have switched places as Philip has done the majority of the dangerous work. This isn’t to say that Elizabeth hasn’t been caught in any dangerous predicaments, nor has she been free from making decisions that have ended in death, it’s just Philip has been on the receiving end of these types of moments multiple times his year. Emotions are heightened this season and have been since Emmett and Leanne’s deaths; their deaths have cast a shadow over most episodes whether directly as they hunted for the killer or indirectly now that Stan senses there could be a connection between this and what he is investigating with the DOD and Anton’s kidnapping.
The contra camp infiltration mission goes array as both Philip and Elizabeth resort to killing to save themselves; for Philip this comes at much closer quarters when he cuts open the throat of the person who has caught him taking photos and he ends up covered in blood. There’s something rather intimate about the way Elizabeth hastily cleans this off him and that’s pretty much the only time there is an act of closeness between them in this episode. Philip later holds her at a distance telling her “it’s easier for you.” There’s no follow up other than Elizabeth repeating this assertion in the form of a question “You think it’s easy for me? What I do?” What sparks this bleak and unshakable reaction from Philip is less about what happens at the camp and more about Lewis, the guy they tied up last week. Lewis was meant to be the innocent guy they didn’t have to kill to get what they wanted, but he ended up dead anyway (hypothermia if I had to guess). Doing the ‘right’ thing would have been to shoot him, as at least that way it would have been quick, instead he died a slow death tied to a tree and Philip spirals from this point.
Paige and her church group has recently taken a backseat to Henry’s acting out. Henry attempts to engage Philip with a magic trick and is coldly rebuked; Henry probably thinks this has something to do with breaking into other people’s houses, not the murders his father has recently committed. Like his parents, Henry really doesn’t want to go to church and Elizabeth finds it hard to not show her disgust about the whole thing. Elizabeth has been more vocal in her rage at Paige getting interested in religion, whereas Philip’s anger has been directed at the lack of respect Paige has been showing them of late. When they find out Paige has donated $600 of her savings – for a trip to Europe – to the church, this leads to another visit from ‘scary dad.’
As Philip is generally ‘fun dad’ and Elizabeth is the disciplinarian it’s far more terrifying when Philip loses it. Paige wasn’t that bothered when Philip showed off his stern side earlier this season as she responded with sass on this occasion. Philip hovers on the edge of this conversation, but when he gets involved everything he has been keeping wound up tight inside explodes thanks to a disrespectful eye roll from Paige. Philip starts ripping pages from the Bible and spitting about how Paige respects Jesus and not them. Paige is crying and Elizabeth has the same look in her eyes as Philip did when she went at the Mossad agent hard; it’s possibly the first time that either has seen Philip like this. It’s not surprising that Paige has never experienced this side of her father, but for Elizabeth it’s maybe even more concerning as she has been with him for such a long time and this is not the way Philip reacts. He’s normally a lot more measured than this and even in moments of spontaneous violence – the pilot springs to mind – there is still an element of control. Now he seems unpredictable.
Philip has no time to languish at home as he has to deal with an emergency call from Fred and the swelling strings of sadness follow him throughout the episode only adding to this feeling of dread. Philip stays on the pier overnight, lost in thought and while Elizabeth handles Paige, Philip is caught in his melancholy. Home was all he could think about at the start of the season and he didn’t go through with Martha duties to be with Elizabeth, now Philip can’t face it. It’s no longer the sanctuary it was and I think Philip is having a hard time compartmentalizing everything at the moment; he doesn’t want to infect home with whatever he is going through.
What this does is it isolates Elizabeth from him and at first I thought the AA meetings might be a way for Elizabeth to simply talk through things with strangers using alcohol as a cover for spy work. Then I remembered this wasn’t Scandal and Elizabeth definitely isn’t Huck. Instead Elizabeth is using her real life – “I wanted the opportunity to show him that I could be there for him” – to give her an in with this woman who works in something highly classified. Stan mentions that the Soviets will locate a weakness, whether financial, emotional or sexual and exploit it and this is something we have seen both Elizabeth and Philip do on multiple occasions, including now.
This is what Philip has been doing with Martha and he does it in the cruel manner he stopped himself from doing last week. Going to Martha’s means avoiding home and slipping inside another character to escape everything else, but it’s all part of the same tangled web. Philip’s a little tipsy and Martha mentions how out of character it is for him, in fact it’s bizarre to see him holding his glasses just before she walks in, as they are such a part of this persona. The last time we saw Clark was in the horrific scene with Elizabeth so this has been tainted as well. Martha hears the tape and her offer to do whatever Clark wants with surveillance work is exactly the reaction he was hoping for, but you can tell he feels awful. Philip’s inability to get hard for Martha and his decision to leave feels so much like Philip slipping through and I wonder if his encounter with Elizabeth in this disguise has resulted in a lack of libido. It could also be part of playing Clark in this moment and with Philip and Elizabeth it can be hard to distinguish what is part of the act, what they are utilizing in the moment and what is real.
Philip confronts the pastor at Paige’s church and it’s unclear exactly what his intention on entering the church was, but if the leather gloves and locking the door suggest, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. Philip asserts twice that he would do anything to protect Paige and we’ve seen this in action when he attacked the guy who came onto her in the department store. Pastor Tim doesn’t possess the same kind of threat; his is an ideological one and it’s something that goes against everything Philip and Elizabeth were raised to believe. This isn’t a confrontation that ends in violence and part of me thinks Philip shows mercy because he realizes that violence isn’t how you respond to a threat like this. While Philip isn’t there to be saved, despite his very obvious emotional turmoil, hurting Tim or turning to God is not the answer. Philip ends the episode alone and I wonder if he will continue down this path of despair or if he can learn to live with what he does in the name of his country.
Back at home Elizabeth is dealing with Paige and her sass, doing so by waking her up, giving her a responsibility lecture and a demand to clean the kitchen. The way in which Elizabeth does this very much feels like an interrogation as the lamp becomes a menacing spotlight. Elizabeth points out all of Paige’s privileged upbringing and how this counters to Philip and Elizabeth growing up with nothing – what is their American backstory? – and once again this leans on reality to inform their fake heritage. It also gives a relatively plausible explanation as to why Philip flipped to Paige and I’m guessing Paige will be rolling her eyes a little less in the future. Elizabeth can turn on the terrifying, even in a turtleneck.
Stan finds out the hard way that he has been missing a lot at home as Sandra is packing to go away with someone she met at EST and is even listening to sex tips while she is getting ready. The breakdown of this marriage juxtaposes the Jennings’ as they have got closer over the recent years whereas Stan and Sandy have drifted so far apart they’re like strangers now. Stan has been so focused on work and Nina that everything at home has been in the background so while they changed he didn’t even notice. I’m happy for Sandra as she deserves way more than this, sorry Stan.
At work it’s going a lot better – also in reverse to Philip and Elizabeth as while their relationship has grown, their work has become more traumatic – as he’s been given DoD access and he’s slowly piecing everything together. The couple they were pursuing at the end of last season get mentioned (the couple being Philip and Elizabeth), as Stan and Gaad figure out a way to save Gaad’s job by threatening Arkady in a rare opportunity to see someone other than Stan interacting with the Russians. We also get to see Larrick finding out what happened at the camp and that look in his eye suggests he has murderous intentions towards Philip and Elizabeth.
Now there is danger from multiple sources, with Philip’s mental state being problematic in itself. Philip needs to reconcile what he has done and go back to being a compartmentalizing pro and while that might not be the best for his overall mental well being, at the moment it is something he needs to do as everything else around them becomes even more precarious and dangerous. As I mentioned in the introduction, this is an exceptional and layered performance from Matthew Rhys as he shows Philip in a haunted state that only he can save himself from.