The song that concludes tonight’s blistering episode of The Americans is “Under Pressure,” but the force at work in “Clark’s Place” might be more aptly described as separation anxiety. Even Elizabeth (Keri Russell), relating her fictional tale of a troubled upbringing to Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), draws on this organizing principle, discussing a mother’s abandonment and a father’s depression: It’s as if the growing gulfs and unbridgeable distances that the episode depicts are an atmospheric condition, blowing in with the cloud of suspicion that now hangs over Martha (Alison Wright). And while the pressure described in Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 hit eventually pushes Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth into each other’s arms, the episode’s overall effect is to suggest an unraveling. “Sat on a fence, but it don’t work,” the lyrics warn, as The Americans’s many compromises and détentes seem poised to crumble. “Keep coming up with love, but it’s so slashed and torn.”
“Clark’s Place,” directed by Noah Emmerich, establishes the rifts in the show’s key relationships through a series of skillful compositions, highlighting the spaces in between the characters at every turn. When Philip returns to Clark’s place in the opening sequence, for instance, his attempts to assuage Martha’s concerns are held at arm’s length—separated by the wall between the living room and the entryway, or by the gap she sustains between their bodies while recoiling into the corner of the couch. His one tangible gesture at repairing the damage, which is to provide the number of the Centre’s local telephone exchange, is cold comfort to Martha, still reeling from her dinner with Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) in “Chloramphenicol.” Her response, when Philip advises her to memorize the digits and destroy the slip of paper, cuts to the quick. “Of course,” she says sarcastically, “I mean, why would I expect to keep anything?”
Martha’s dashed hopes are, in fact, central to “Clark’s Place,” whose titular location is the last remaining vestige of their life together. The sterling montage that follows, in which Philip flees the apartment after Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) spots Martha’s F.B.I. tail, thus focuses our attention on the few artifacts that might prove the marriage existed at all: the answering machine tapes and a single, sad photograph. If Philip didn’t evince such affection for her, first in conversation with Gabriel (Frank Langella) and then from the beat-up phone booth, one might even suspect she’s being gas-lighted, her relationship with Clark reduced to a lonely woman’s deranged fantasy. Her own suspicions seem to be aroused by the cloak-and-dagger routine: When Philip says he loves her, she demands to hear it in person.
Theirs is not the only relationship that’s fraying, of course. Nina’s execution, coupled with his brother’s death in Afghanistan, leads Oleg (Costa Ronin) to criticize his father and bristle at Arkady’s (Lev Gorn) suggestion that she had it coming. Paige (Holly Taylor), unable to make sense of the abrupt cancellation of the trip to EPCOT, presses her mother for details, to no avail. Philip shrinks into himself as he did near the end of last season, now desperate to extricate Martha from danger. The episode’s deft camerawork repeatedly underlines these divisions: When Elizabeth returns home from Young Hee’s, for example, chuckling at Reagan’s rosy cheeks on the television (“He looks like a clown”), she becomes a blur in the background as the focus shifts to Paige’s irritation; later, as Elizabeth folds laundry and discusses the bond forming between Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and Stan (Emmerich), Philip stands at the sink, silent. The result is the picture of a family coexisting, not collaborating, their cursory attempts at honesty having solved nothing. “We tried to tell you everything, and that hasn’t worked out so well,” Elizabeth says when Paige wakes her in the middle of the night, eager for answers. “This is enough.”
That Paige confesses to feeling as though she’s embroiled in a “grown-up conspiracy” during her meeting with Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) indicates otherwise; in “Clark’s Place,” half-truths are no truths at all. Even the success of Philip and Elizabeth’s appeal to Tim’s faith, introducing an El Salvadoran man of the cloth to vouch for their social-justice bona fides, fails to satisfy their daughter. Whether she’s sleepless and distant, telling her parents what they want to hear as they look on from the doorway, or admitting to Tim that asking her parents to tell the truth was a “mistake,” all Paige has learned from the ordeal is the value of lying. It’s deception itself that constitutes the real “grown-up conspiracy,” which Paige recognizes in severed connection between what adults say and what they do. With practice, dissembling becomes easier (“I dunno,” Elizabeth says dismissively when Philip asks if she thinks Father Rivas is a real priest), but in the end each new falsehood creates another gulf, another divide, another chasm.
And so the scintillating conclusion of “Clark’s Place,” contrasting Philip and Elizabeth’s ferocious, almost desperate fucking with Stan’s surveillance and Martha’s lonesome preparations for bed, underlines the ambivalence of Queen and Bowie’s classic: “Love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves,” the song assures us, and yet it’s unclear if the characters are ready to accept the challenge. Bearing a passing resemblance to the montage that capped “March 8, 1983,” with its suggestion, as I wrote then, “that the characters are linked together despite the emotional distance among them, a kind of complicity in its own right,” the sequence features the key players in a very grown-up conspiracy, its potent sense of intimacy bleeding into pain. Emerging as one of the show’s finest episodes to date, “Clark’s Place” is run through with “the terror of knowing what this world is about,” and of being unable to control the accelerating consequences. In The Americans, the damage wrought in the name of “love,” whether for family, God, or country, is the one thing that never seems to change, even, or perhaps especially, under pressure.
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