Title: Clark’s Place
Episode M.V.P.: Alison Wright
A common refrain in Storytelling 101 is “Show, don’t tell.” But sometimes a moment of telling can be even more moving and engaging than a moment of showing. You just have to find the right storyteller. And The Americans has found that with Alison Wright. So many of Wright’s scenes—especially since about midway through last season—have involved Martha telling “Clark” about how she feels. But what’s important to remember is that these scenes exist because Martha often can’t show her husband how she feels, because he’s not there. So she has to make him—or at least try to make him—understand her anxiety, her loneliness, and her frustration in those moments when he’s gone in whatever way she can. And in making him understand, she makes us understand, too.
That’s the surprising beauty of Wright’s performance: She manages to show and tell at the same time. For example, in the first scene of “Clark’s Place,” she doesn’t just tell “Clark” (and the audience) about her panic attack, she brings it to life in a way that’s more gripping than a flashback to her having that panic attack in the last episode. Because not only do we feel her panic at the mere memory of thinking she was having a heart attack and was going to die alone, we feel the myriad of other emotions she feels in the present, too. We feel her shame at being prescribed Valium to deal with her anxiety. We feel her frustration with herself for letting her life get so out of control and with her husband for turning her life upside-down. And we feel her increasing sense of loss—the loss of the fantasy that was her marriage, the loss of any kind of a normal life, and the loss of her sense of self. Because when Wright delivers those lines about her dinner with Aderholt and the panic attack afterward, it’s not really about the lines she’s saying; it’s about the weight of the suffocating emotions she puts into every word.
The thing that impressed me the most about Wright in this episode was the way she’s changed Martha’s reactions over time. Yes, her tears while telling her husband about her panic attack broke my heart, but what really stood out to me was her growing understanding and heartbreaking acceptance of the fact that she might be married, but she’s really alone. She’s not desperate anymore; she’s resigned. Even when things started to fall apart last season, I felt as if she still believed she and “Clark” were a team. Now, however, it’s killing me to watch her sink deeper and deeper into a sense of resigned loneliness with no one to help pull her out of it.
Martha knows she’s trapped, and watching that sense of resignation make its way into Wright’s line readings (“Why would I expect to keep anything?”) made me want to cry. This episode was like watching a character’s spirit and soul die before they actually die, which might be even more tragic than watching Nina get shot in the back of the head last week. And so much of that pathos comes from Wright’s performance.
Favorite Scene: “Under Pressure”
The Americans is great at using music to shape a scene—from “Tusk” and “In The Air Tonight” in the pilot to “The Chain” last season. But I’m not sure there’s ever been a more appropriate use of a song to describe the state of nearly every character on this show than “Under Pressure.” It was a masterful bit of soundtrack selection for a scene that highlighted not just which characters are under pressure but also how they’re handling the pressure they’re under.
This final montage would have been incredible even with a different song backing it, though. It was a brilliant showcase for Noah Emmerich’s direction and it said so much about so many characters—without using any dialogue. This entire season has been building toward some kind of release of all the tension that’s been building, and I think it’s safe to say this episode ended with a momentary release of tension—at least for two of its characters.
Let’s get this out of the way now: It was a hot sex scene. But it somehow managed to be explicit without being exploitive, which hardly ever happens with such a scene. That’s what The Americans does so well: It manages to be a show that features sometimes graphic sex and violence without being a show defined by its use of sex and violence. And it does that by never doing anything gratuitously. When a character is killed or when characters have sex, it’s not just about pushing the envelope or giving people something to talk about; it’s about the story. So Philip and Elizabeth having intense, passionate sex all over their bed wasn’t just an excuse to show some nudity or to remind people that this is an “edgy” cable show. When these two character have been shown having sex with each other—even as far back as the pilot—it’s always had meaning for their development and the development of the show as a whole. And this time was no different.
So what did this scene mean for Philip and Elizabeth? It’s complicated. And that’s what makes it so good. If you’re going to write three-dimensional characters, there are going to be moments when they’re motivated by more than just one thing. Human beings don’t have to just feel one thing at a time or act on one feeling at a time. We’re a messy storm of emotions and intentions that even we can’t sort out completely, and I love that this show reflects that truth. Did Elizabeth hike up her skirt and straddle her husband’s lap because she was jealous of his obvious concern for Martha and wanted to stake her claim as his partner? Yes. But did she also do it because she cares about him and wants to show him that she’s there for him at a time when he’s searching for a lifeline to cling to? Yes. And did Philip have sex with Elizabeth to try to forget about Martha and work out some of his frustrations? Yes. But did he also do it because he wants to feel connected to someone he trusts and can be himself with? Yes. There’s no reason they couldn’t be motivated by these and a thousand other factors that even they can’t fully understand or articulate.
One of my favorite beats in that scene was the moment in which Elizabeth placed her hands on either side of Philip’s face before kissing him, forcing him to look at her. Keri Russell showed every complicated intention behind Elizabeth’s actions in that tiny moment. It was a physical expression of I’m here that managed to be both a supportive affirmation and a forceful reminder of who his partner really is.
This montage highlighted characters at various stages of partnership and loneliness. Stan and Agent Aderholt were physically in the same space, acting as partners. But they weren’t talking; they’re partners only in work, just doing their jobs. And it was clear from the long shot with Aderholt’s face in focus that what he said to Martha about feeling lonely still rings true even when he’s sharing a space with someone. And Stan was also adrift, having just found out that Nina is dead.
Also feeling adrift was Martha, who we saw alone in bed, unable to sleep despite the Valium we’ve seen her take. The shot composition of that beat was brilliant, with the whole room dark except for her face, representing how she feels left in the dark about everything going on around her and alone in that sea of darkness.
In contrast, we saw Philip and Elizabeth having sex with the lights on, representing the fact that this is the one relationship they have where no one needs to be kept in the dark. Kudos to Russell and Matthew Rhys for creating the most realistically raw sex scene I’ve ever watched on television. And kudos to Emmerich, too, for directing it with just the right touch. It wasn’t shot with soft, romantic lighting and slow motion. But it also never felt like it was meaningless or perfunctory sex. And I think so much of that came from the focus on both of their faces—especially at the end. It created a very honest sense of intimacy, removing any barriers or distance between us and them—unlike the door through which we saw Martha taking her pills and the car windows through which we saw Stan and Agent Aderholt. And that kept the focus on their partnership instead of anything outside of it.
As the song said, “This is ourselves.” And that’s what Philip and Elizabeth found in that moment of abandon: the one place where they can be themselves and the one person they can be themselves with. They can only find a true release from the pressure of their lives together because they’re partners in work and in life. They’re partners in life and in work—unlike Stan and Aderholt who are only work partners and Martha and “Clark” who are only a married couple and not even close to being partners. Philip might care for Martha a great deal and even love her in a way, but Elizabeth is his partner. And it’s good that they have each other as partners when the pressure starts to build. Because Martha’s story has taught us how traumatic it can be to leave someone alone when they’re suffering.
The last shot of the episode—Philip and Elizabeth coming down from their release together—contrasted so well with the last shot of Martha. Light and dark, intimacy and loneliness. In the words of “Under Pressure,” Martha seems to be “on the edge of the night,” and that seems like a dangerous place to be.
• My runner-up for Episode M.V.P. was Russell, if only for the shot of her watching Philip call Martha. I’m not sure if she could read his lips when he said he loved her, but she saw the concern and care in his eyes. And that was enough to break her heart (and mine) a little bit.
• I loved the continuity of Gabriel still coughing after his illness and sporting some stubble.
• It’s about time someone in the Jennings house mentioned the fact that Henry is at Stan’s all the time!
• I love Paige in every episode, but I really loved her in this episode. Holly Taylor’s line delivery of Paige telling Pastor Tim that she knows her parents care about something and love her was so bittersweet. That’s all Paige ever wanted to know, but in discovering that truth, she discovered truths she never could have been prepared for. And that’s another hard fact of growing up: Sometimes wanting to know everything about your parents means knowing things you don’t want to know, and once you learn those things, you can’t go back to being innocent.
• I thought the scene in which Paige woke Elizabeth up to talk was important for two reasons (beyond Elizabeth telling her they should pull back on sharing with her). First, it showed Paige entering a space that before had been Philip and Elizabeth’s place to be both a married couple and spies, showing that Paige has now also entered that shared space between work and home. Also, Elizabeth’s terrified reaction to being woken up hinted that the nightmares she’s been suffering from are far from over. Philip isn’t the only Jennings spouse under pressure.
• I’m not sure how much longer the plan to “work” Pastor Tim can stay interesting, but I’ll keep going along with it if only for great little moments like Elizabeth’s shoulder shrug after Philip asked if the priest was really a priest.
• I was really impressed with the way this episode handled Nina’s death. I thought it was realistic for Arkady to mask his grief with anger. But what broke me were Stan and Oleg’s reactions. Costa Ronin was excellent in this episode in carrying the weight of Oleg’s grief in every scene. And Emmerich’s unshed tears when Stan talked about how he was warned that this could happen were perfect.
• The fallout from Nina’s death reinforced the idea that this show is about the human element of impersonal organizations like the KGB and FBI. To these organizations, Nina was nothing more than a traitor or a lost asset, but to the men who loved her, she was Nina, and she deserved to be mourned. I’m interested to see what becomes of their relationship now that she’s dead, especially because I could so easily see Oleg turning now.
• I thought the intensity of the sex scene was the perfect way to capitalize on the tension built in the last episode when Philip and Elizabeth couldn’t touch. I also thought a nice parallel could be drawn between Martha thinking she was going to die of a heart attack and not being able to reach “Clark” because Philip was by Elizabeth’s side as she thought she was going to die.
• Is anyone else worried about the combination of Valium + wine + gun for Martha?
• If you haven’t read Vox’s incredible piece on how this episode went from an idea to what we saw onscreen, drop everything you’re doing and read it ASAP.