‘The Americans,’ ‘David Copperfield’ and the Trick the Drama Pulled Off

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” the eighth episode of the the fourth season of FX’s “The Americans.”

I want to talk a little about my favorite scene in last night’s episode of “The Americans,” and then delve into the masterful bait and switch the episode pulled off.

There were a number of incredibly well acted and brilliantly written scenes in last night’s episode, so it’s hard to pick just one that worked well. There’s the moment in which Philip and Elizabeth tore into each other after she tried one of the Est sessions he’s so keen on. As spies, Philip and Elizabeth are used to keeping truths well hidden, even from each other, but they were both too raw and spent after the whole Martha crisis to keep a lid on their deepest, angriest feelings in that moment. She threw his infidelity back in his face, and he sneered at the loss she experienced with Gregory. They were like two wounded animals who knew they didn’t have the strength to take the other one out, but they were going to go down swinging.

There was Elizabeth’s tirade at her own daughter, Paige, who had created another enormous crisis for the couple. In that moment in the kitchen, Paige was fully inducted into the spy world: Elizabeth was like Gabriel scolding his charges about putting their feelings before the orders passed down from Moscow. Paige made the enormous decision to tell Pastor Tim the family’s secret, and she doesn’t get to shirk the fallout of that choice. You can see both Paige and Elizabeth realizing that their relationship will have to be that of a boss and an employee going forward, which devastates both of them, despite their steely exteriors.

Just as the Jennings’ relationship has been a brilliant dissection of what is true and false about a “sham” marriage, Paige’s teen years are a truthful-but-distorted version of what is supposed to happen in adolescence: In essence, a child is supposed to form the beginnings of an adult identity and grow away from her parents. Paige is still tied to her parents, of course, but after the time jump the drama effortlessly pulled off, her main function is to report on her operatives, Pastor Tim and Alice. She has been cleaved from her parents emotionally, and quite brutally. But Paige’s job must be done, or all of them (the Jennings family and the pastor’s family) might go to prison or die. Paige might regret what she did, but in the job she fell into — and was partly pushed into — regrets are meaningless. She’s had to learn what it’s like to shoulder enormous consequences at a very young age, and the set of her jaw in the episode’s final scene conveys that it’s a lesson she can never unlearn.

So, that was a great scene, but it wasn’t my favorite, nor was it the tender scene in which Martha and Philip said goodbye. As I noted in my review of season four, few shows know when to pull back and rely almost entirely on atmosphere, direction and mood to tell the story. Other shows would have put impassioned monologues in the characters’ mouths, but not “The Americans.” The show has done such a good job of telling us who these people are that it doesn’t have to oversell how much pain they feel in that moment. We know.

Also brilliantly concise, and entertaining as well: Claudia and Gabriel sparring. I would happily watch a show that just consisted of Frank Langella and Margo Martindale having coffee and trading dialogue written by this show’s writers. I would watch that all day long.

More excellence: Keri Russell’s Elizabeth deciding she has to murder Lisa. You can tell she doesn’t want to — she would rather do anything else, find any other solution. As is the case so often on this show, there isn’t another solution. There is only one, and she has no choice. Once again, tough Elizabeth does what needs to be done, but in the slow, somber evolution of her facial expressions — and the rage she feels at having to do this as she swings the bottle at Lisa’s head — we see what it costs her.

Now think back on the enjoyable movie-theater scene with Young Hee, and ponder this: One day, Elizabeth might have to kill her, just as she killed Lisa. One day, Philip might have to take out Kimmie, whom we haven’t seen lately but whom we know he genuinely likes. What kind of life is it when the people you both use and turn to for emotional support are the people you might have to end up exiling or killing? Philip and Elizabeth can compartmentalize a lot, but no one can fully keep those thoughts apart, at least not for as long as they’ve had to. That’s why they look so broken in my favorite scene.

It’s the scene I’m thinking about most the morning after this mesmerizing episode aired: The moment in which Elizabeth walks in to the meeting with Gabriel and Philip, and blankly tells them she killed Lisa. There was an emptiness behind her eyes that was terrifying and heartbreaking at once. Everything about Elizabeth’s robotic, numb movements told the story of where she was, mentally and emotionally: nowhere. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or was about to break it.

Despite the difficult state of their relationship, Philip rushed to his wife, dabbing at the blood on her neck, trying to provide some support and comfort. The small moment was a metaphor for their relationship as a whole: Two damaged people in a house on fire (metaphorically speaking), reaching out to each other, one trying to save the other, both hoping they can connect, maybe. Two wounded animals, tending each other’s wounds. In this instance, Elizabeth was too far gone to even really notice what Philip was doing, but you could tell, on some level, that she was glad he was there, tethering her to reality. In that quiet, dirty, sad house, it was so obvious that they were both hanging on by a thread.

They’d stopped asking for help, but Gabriel decided to provide it. In that scene, Langella provided another in a long line of the drama’s terrific wordless performances: Gabriel’s eyes darted back and forth, assessing his officers, figuring out what to do and how to manage this moment. It was another microcosm of what “The Americans” does: The moment is both a tender portrait of people in crisis, and a chance for a cold, agenda-driven rationalist to determine what he can get out of a situation. There is no emotion or relationship on this show that is not measured, molded, parlayed into something else. Quietly, skillfully, everything must be used. 

So we don’t know if Gabriel gave them a “vacation” because he felt bad for them, or because he figured that would be the best way to get their heads back in the game later on. Probably more the latter than the former, but the Jennings weren’t about to ask questions. Both Matthew Rhys and Russell brilliantly played the moment in which their characters were told they’d get a break: They were so used to feeling alone and unsupported by anyone but each other that they didn’t quite know how to wrap their minds around the idea of relief. The door to their cage had been unlocked, in Est speak. Would they know how to walk out of it?

They did, clearly, but did they? Did they really gain their freedom if they lost their daughter? But another loss hangs over the episode — that of Martha.

There’s been a lot of debate lately on why shows kill off characters (and revive them), which characters tend to die and whether many shows know how to make big deaths effective. Clearly “The Americans” did that with the painful exit of Nina. But in “David Copperfield,” the show provided another masterclass in how to use TV narrative to its greatest potential: It proved that sometimes the most creative and effective move can be letting a character live, but taking them far, far away. Isn’t it more painful that the idea of Martha hangs over the show and will always be part of the tangled Jennings marriage, and not her death? Death would be too simple, in a way. When a character is truly gone, but not dead, and the lead-up to that loss and the after-effects of it are managed with skill and care, it can be utterly devastating. It’s hard to look at the faces of Philip and Martha, and later, Philip and Elizabeth, and not feel that they are all literally suffering a fate worse than death. 

And that brings me to the magic trick the show pulled off. David Copperfield, on the TV show Henry enjoyed so much, made the Statue of Liberty disappear, but the episode and the season have been all about things that just won’t go away, as much as the people in the story might like them too. The war in Afghanistan keeps grinding up Russian families. Philip and Elizabeth have to keep prying information out of people, and even have to kill them now and then, no matter what else is tearing them apart inside. Paige has to turn her pastor and his wife from trusted friends into unwitting operatives, and she has to report on them, no matter what. As her parents have done, she has to turn people that she relied on for emotional support into assets Mother Russia can use. What she wants and needs is beside the point, and her predicament won’t just go away. 

The disaster at the FBI regarding Martha destroyed Agent Gaad’s career, even though he was in no way at fault. His exile, like Martha’s, in an unchangeable fact. The Jennings have to regard their daughter as a subordinate officer, not a child, even though they’d much rather, on balance, have kept her away from the difficulties of the spy life. Every person in this story, aside from Henry, must face an immovable object that they cannot avoid, that cannot be made to disappear.

Big things, important things, hard things — they don’t just go away. But Martha actually did vanish before our eyes. And unlike the Statue of Liberty, she’s not coming back.

“The Americans,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Catastrophe” were discussed in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below. 

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