The Americans, Ep. 3.08: “Divestment” challenges the viewer’s sympathies

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The Americans, Season 3, Episode 8: “Divestment”
Written by Joshua Brand
Directed by Dan Attias
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX

Calling attention to the lies told in an episode of The Americans might feel like spotlighting the sex in an hour of Game of Thrones, or the cringeworthiness of an installment of Girls, but this week’s “Divestment” is particularly filled with mendacity. As with the violence (which shall be discussed in a bit), it’s not the amount of it, but the severity of the obfuscations of truth which impacts viewers the most. Accordingly, “Divestment” contains some of the most painful and exaggerated lies seen on the show in recent memory.

The discomfort begins in the first scene of the opening act, where Martha is interrogated by the titular character of last week’s episode. His curiosity about her pens brings steadfast denials from her. It’s hard to say whether it’s the viewer’s knowledge of her iniquities which betrays her, or if she physically shows anguish, but there’s no doubt of the agony she goes through. The close-up on Taffet’s face, with which the scene closes, doesn’t reveal whether or not he’s buying her nonsense; still, her ability to even possibly convince him shows her to be stronger than she’s been in the past. She’s seemed comically impotent at times, but this scene finds her showing signs of resiliency.

Of course, this is Martha we’re talking about, and the final act of the episode depicts her in one of her most pathetic moments. When “Clark” comes home in high spirits, she finally appears to be fed up with his lies, asking him the true nature of his identity while breaking down in tears. Phillip responds by insisting that the only thing that matters is their love, and the ostensible sincerity in his statement is as heartbreaking as her possible acceptance of it. As with Taffet in the opening scene, the episode is unclear about whether or not she accepts the lie, and the strain on the liar comes across as the most important element of the sequence. We feel bad for Martha, but we arguably feel even worse imagining what sort of toll the feigned emotions must be taking on Phillip. The episode’s tag hints at it, with the shot of him laying awake in bed as Martha sleeps peacefully (suggesting that the scene affects him more than her), but the writers leave much of the strain on his conscience to the viewer’s imagination, and the episode is better off for it. 

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The agony shown by Martha and Phillip is matched by Elizabeth’s display in the conclusion to the third act, when Paige’s research on Gregory leads her to ask her mother about his checkered past. Although she starts out by attempting to tell her daughter that “things aren’t that simple,” Paige isn’t buying the idea, and she continues to try and understand her mother’s moral code. Finally, Elizabeth ends up denying the acceptability of violent actions under any circumstances (Paige uses the example of robbing a bank, which is less extreme than what’s seen in “Divestment”), which clearly violates her worldview. Once again, the viewer is left to decide whether or not the person who’s being lied to accepts the falsehood, but it’s clear that the person most anguished in the moment of it being told is the teller herself. This presentation complicates our emotions, as often happens on The Americans, by encouraging us to sympathize with someone who hasn’t done much to deserve our sympathies. Furthermore, the very question of who does or doesn’t warrant our emotional affection is the sort of thing that the series has tackled with verve from the beginning, and its complexity is a big reason why the show’s as compelling as it is.

The question becomes even more complicated in the scene of Eugene’s execution at the hands of Reuben, which rivals the tooth extraction and the suitcase sequence for being this season’s most uncomfortable moment. Rather than giving Eugene the quick death afforded by a gun, Reuben insists upon the painful torture inflicted by pouring gasoline on him and setting him ablaze. Never content to let us off easily, director Dan Attias rubs the brutality in our face with a close-up look at Eugene’s pain as his body goes up in flames. The viewer’s feelings are further conflicted by the political status of the two men—politically, we’re inclined to sympathize with Reuben’s anti-apartheid views, but his actions make him hard to sympathize with. Elizabeth and Phillip look on with conflicted gazes which mirror our emotions, and we’re left more confused as ever as to which side we should be on.

Time and time again, The Americans seems to suggest that there’s no right answer to such a question, and “Divestment” takes the motif to a painful, but not unwarranted, extreme. The show doesn’t usually provide viewers with television’s more fun moments (with the exception of the shot of Gaad kicking the Mail Robot), but it does give us some the most powerful ones.

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