The Americans Season 2, Episode 9 “Martial Eagle”
Written by Oliver North (story) and Tracey Scott Wilson (story & teleplay)
Directed by Alik Sakharov
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
There’s no moment more significant in “Martial Eagle” than the opening sequence, which sees Philip murder three military employees on a top-secret base in the dark of night. All he wanted to do was take some pictures, and it ends with three people’s (four if you count the man Philip ‘spared’, who died in the cold anyway) deaths, yet another in a long line of “wrong place, wrong time” murders of Philip’s tenure with the KGB. As the season’s carried on, however, this seemingly endless stream of violence has weighed more and more on the mind of Philip – who slowly begins to crack under the strain during the events of “Martial Eagle”.
Although he’d be stuck in a category he couldn’t win, Matthew Rhys earned himself an Emmy nomination with his performance in this episode, capturing a man fed up with fighting the darkness closing in around him. He pushes an ugly lie onto Martha to push her mission forward, unloads on his daughter for respecting Jesus more than her parents, and basically gets told by an informant that he’s a faceless voice barking orders at him: everything in “Martial Eagle” is designed to challenge Philip’s perception of self, and Rhys captures the internal struggle beautifully, with his wonderfully disciplined performance.
His abilities in the role come into light in the episode’s final scene, where Philip finally takes control of a situation and doesn’t kill somebody. In fact, he’s given a choice for the first time in a long time – alone and unguarded, the priest who ripped off Paige to the tune of $600 (“but it’s helping refugees!” she screams at her parents hilariously) is less of a threat than either of his two wives or the many frenemies he’s managing in and around D.C. When met with peace, Philip embraced peace, the first time Philip’s been able to make a decision and not feel condemned or consumed by it: although he’s frustrated, although he’s facing a man who is spitting some of the most unbelievable bullshit Philip’s ever heard, Philip retains control – a very, very rare thing in the spy world, and something significant enough to snap Philip mentally back into place, if only for a moment.
An unhinged Philip is a frightening Philip, whether he’s screaming at his daughter or silently breaking into the church where Paige goes to “worship” and spend her allowances. A Philip not given a choice becomes like a cornered, frightened cat, relying on instincts to the point the smallest stimulus can elicit a pain-inducing response (Philip’s snide comment to Martha about what she doesn’t know being a great example) – but a Philip given a split-second to have a clear mind is one who makes healthy, conscious decisions, like refusing to kill a man who, by every possible definition, represents the ruthlessly unforgiving and opportunistic American way (stealing from others to give to themselves; something Americans face every day in 2014) Philip swore to destroy
But he nearly kills that priest – and despite it probably being a lot less harrowing than watching Philip slit the throat of an unlucky base employee, Philip killing the priest would be the ultimate destruction of the character. Even a somewhat dirty, uncomfortable looking pastor like Paige’s doesn’t deserve to die for being opportunistic – hell, most of Philip and Elizabeth’s job is about being opportunistic, about finding weaknesses in people and exploiting them for personal gain. Philip finally recognizes this as “Martial Eagle” closes – ending not only a terrific showcase for Rhys, but capturing the complicated mosiac that is Philip and his ever-shifting loyalties and sense of morality in fascinating fashion.
– Stan gets his meeting with the DoD employees, who are just as surprised to be sitting in a room with him as he is with them.
– Also, Stan’s wife leaves him to have an affair, something she bluntly tells him while listening to Dr. Ruth’s infamous 1980’s sex-help call-in show.
– “I would never betray my country.” Stan (who is in the process of betraying his own, and just hasn’t realized it yet): “No one ever imagines they will.”
– Another mantra of season two I’ve really enjoyed: power lies in the shadows, behind secret doors and protected by endless amounts of lies. The US might be good at planting fake plans, and the Russians at killing American agents, but neither of them are changing the power structure between the two in any way – that power still lies in ideas, not government (as we see with many disillusioned US employees turning to the KGB to assist them).
– Martha, to Clark: “I’m not afraid of the different sides of you.” Again, Martha, it’s what you don’t know here, not what you know.