If we’re being honest, it took a little while for me to like The Americans. When I like a show, I usually immediately like it from the start — flaws and all — and then I just get deeper and deeper. With The Americans, I recognized a good pilot (and good subsequent episodes) but thought it was never going to be on my must-watch list. Something felt distant about it. But the more I watched, the more I found myself obsessed with the Jennings and their family, fascinated by this specific work vs. family pairing, this culture clash and these themes of loyalty, patriotism, and everything else that The Americans throws at us every week. “Martial Eagle” is a great example of the sort of episode that won me over, that pulled me in rather than kept me an arm’s length away.
Operation Martial Eagle opens with Elizabeth and Philip on the military base but the mission ends in death — Philip ends up slitting someone’s throat — and then they later find out the truck driver has died in the woods. The Jennings are no stranger to violence but this is different for Philip; this is sticking with him. The important stuff in “Martial Eagle” isn’t Operation Martial Eagle and the mission barely takes up any screen time. Instead it’s how this mission is tricking down into their personal and family lives. I’m sure I’ve said this before, and actually have mentioned it multiple times, but that’s what I’ve always found most interesting: this strange, strange family. I’ve come to truly enjoy the thrilling espionage and well-choreographed fight scenes but The Americans is best when these two elements collide into each other, or when Elizabeth or Philip bring the “office” home.
In “Martial Eagle” the Jennings family all reluctantly attend church with Paige and it’s obvious she is the only one who is into the service. Afterward, they meet with some church folk — Elizabeth smiles politely while Philip looks on warily and suspiciously as Paige greets them with big, warm hugs (warmer than the affections she’s shown her family lately). They learn that Paige has given the church $600 in donations, money that she was saving for a trip to Europe, without first consulting her parents. And naturally, they are not happy about that.
Back at home, in one of my favorite scenes of the season so far, there is a confrontation with Philip and Elizabeth taking different approaches. Elizabeth, in her usual disciplinarian role, is the one to first scold Paige about being “stupid” while Philip remains on the fringes — until Paige disrespects him, implying that she’s doing good whereas her parents are not. He’s angry about church, sure, but that’s more Elizabeth’s bag. Philip is shaken by earlier events and Paige’s disrespectfulness and her lying (she points out, as sassy adolescents tend to do, that she didn’t technically lie) is starting to really push him over the edge. It’s a chilling scene, this anger usually reserved for outside of the home, and eventually Philip bursts. He opens Paige’s bible and begins to furiously rip pages out of it before whipping it at the wall. It’s zero to sixty and even Elizabeth seems unsure about his actions, though she at least understands that it’s not entirely about Paige (poor Paige, however, doesn’t).
Meanwhile, later in the episode, Elizabeth approaches the Paige situation in a different, slightly more rational way. If Paige wants to act like an adult, then she will be treated like an adult. She wakes her up in the middle of the night and orders Paige to clean the refrigerator and mop the floor. Elizabeth also views Paige’s actions as an act of disrespect, but in a different way. Elizabeth and Philip had a bad childhood and have made sure that Paige and Henry don’t (sure, this is part of their cover, but it’s also just what parents do) and Paige doesn’t respect the hard work that her parents do.
With all that going on, it’s hard to forget what else is happening but there are two other great, interesting plots in “Martial Eagle.” Stan’s wife is having an affair and straight-up tells him about it but also reveals that she knows about his infidelity so he doesn’t really have a say in the matter, does he? As she puts it, she’s not going to sit around and wait for him to get the courage to leave her. Then there’s Elizabeth’s infiltration of an Alcoholics Anonymous group to get closer to her new mark.
But mostly “Martial Eagle” is a powerhouse of an episode for Matthew Rhys. First, there was his explosion with Paige and later, the sad scene with Martha when Clark plays her the doctored recording to get her back on his side. Everything is taking a toll on Philip — Clark rebuffs Martha’s advances in the bedroom and hastily leaves — and Matthew Rhys is doing great work showing this character’s slow and quiet unfolding, whether it’s the still-lingering emotional weight of Emmett and Leanne’s death or just his anger at religion.
Finally, there’s that end scene when Philip returns to the church at night. Few things this season have been more worrisome and nail-biting than watching Philip pull on his black gloves, approaching the church the way he approaches one of his enemies. He confronts the minister and tells him to stay away from Paige, but the minster remains calm, asking if he wants the money back, telling Philip that he knows this isn’t the real reason why he’s here. “Are you really going to beat me up?” he asks Philip, incredulously. “I would do anything for my daughter,” Philip responds and it’s true — we’ve seen this before, especially in the first season — but, of course, this also goes deeper than what’s happening with Paige. Philip ends up leaving the minister unscathed but he’s no convert.
“I’m not here to be saved.”