Behind the blue curtain, the lady vanishes—Lady Liberty, that is. As David Copperfield explains in the TV special that gives tonight’s episode of The Americans its title, the illusion is meant to remind viewers to cherish their rights and freedoms, to appreciate the opportunities of which their immigrant ancestors dreamed. It is, as Elizabeth (Keri Russell) might say, “very American”: a manipulation, an elaborate trick, mistaking the profit motive for much higher ideals. In “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” after all, another lady vanishes, and in her wake what might have seemed like liberty turns out to be a prison, one of the characters’ own design.
Though “The Magic of David Copperfield” unlooses a cascade of pent-up resentments, for Martha (Alison Wright) herself there’s little left to say. The episode opens with what amounts to a silent short, punctuated by encouraging nods from Gabriel (Frank Langella), as the exile-in-waiting prepares to depart; not unlike Nina, the act of steeling herself against an uncertain fate renders Martha quiet, watchful, the light in her eyes flickering out as surely as those that line the runway after the noise of the plane’s engine recedes. “Don’t be alone, Clark,” she says, one last, charitable gesture to Philip (Matthew Rhys) before she disappears from his life, for now and perhaps forever. “All right? Don’t be alone.”
That he and Elizabeth are indeed both alone, despite his assurances in “Travel Agents,” becomes apparent as soon as the cloud of Martha’s crisis lifts: “The Magic of David Copperfield” brings the strains on their marriage back to a full boil, until the wrath froths, bubbles over, and spills into their other relationships. Rhys, directing his first episode of The Americans, displays a keen eye for familial discord, uncoiling the tension in writer Stephen Schiff’s forceful dialogue with subtle elements of style. As Philip distractedly discusses Martha’s exfiltration with Elizabeth, for instance, she remains a blur in the background, out of Philip’s focus. From her end of the conversation, on the other hand, his figure is crystal clear, as is the reason for his aloofness; his stonewalling is a way of tamping down his true feelings about Martha, and Elizabeth knows it. The expression of exasperation on her face as she reaches for her hidden cigarettes in the kitchen, one of the episode’s many superb details, signals the storm to come. Though she distracts herself for a spell by seeing Tender Mercies (and sneaking into The Outsiders) with Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), Elizabeth is back on the war path before long.
The notion that one can simply pick up the pieces and move on is the season’s central illusion.
Her displeasure culminates in a confrontation that dredges up years’ worth of disappointment and distrust, Elizabeth being far more adept than Philip at keeping her emotions at bay, and their argument is their most ferocious exchange of the season. Already on edge after Elizabeth unfairly describes Martha as “straight-ahead, uncomplicated, simple,” Philip bristles at his wife’s understanding of EST as a “very American” sort of scheme. Until this point, while Elizabeth describes seeing the appeal of EST, there’s a chance of closeness in Philip’s assent, and Rhys cuts together medium shots of each character, drawing our attention away from the space between them; when Elizabeth suggests that the purpose of EST is to make money, by contrast, the camera captures the length of the hallway, widening the distance to the point of fracture, and the truth comes tumbling out. By the time the phone interrupts their contretemps, the couple framed face to face in a charged standoff, the allusions to Elizabeth’s deceased friend, Gregory, and to Philip’s long-lost son, demonstrate that the constant emergencies of the spies’ professional lives can no longer paper over the personal wounds they’ve inflicted on each other.
It’s with Paige (Holly Taylor), however, that Elizabeth’s anger bursts into full flower; the wild-eyed glare she casts upon her daughter at scene’s end is so hot with fury one can’t help but wonder if their bond will burst into flames. As indicated by the extended shot in which Paige, her mother’s voice quavering, leaves and re-enters the frame, the moment isn’t a negotiation, but an imposition, in this case of Elizabeth’s will. The outburst, similar to the dust-up with Philip, is rooted in a sense of betrayal, but here Elizabeth has the power to exert control:
“[L]et me be clear about what you are going to do. You are going to go to Bible study every week. You are going to go to Sunday services every week. You are going to find some other shit to volunteer for at that goddamn church so that not a day goes by without you seeing Pastor Tim and his wife…Thanks to what you did, that is all that stands between us and this family being destroyed.”
The days of rage that constitute the lion’s share of “The Magic of David Copperfield,” in which Elizabeth looks on, almost surprised, after breaking a bottle over an asset’s head, and Gabriel bitterly laments to Claudia (Margo Martindale) that his agents are “children,” are the aftershocks of Martha’s earthquake—but The Americans holds off on the big one for now. Instead, with a startling match cut from the Statue of Liberty to a miniature mock-up, the series that spent eight episodes on a single month in the characters’ lives leaps ahead seven, with idyllic images that on first glance suggest the Jenningses’ frayed connections are finally on the mend.
The notion that one can simply pick up the pieces and move on, of course, is the central illusion in The Americans this season, with its traumatic flashbacks and fretful dreams, its references to purges and perfidies long since exiled to the past’s far country. Paige’s emotionless report on an afternoon spent with Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt) resembles nothing so much as Martha’s farewell, coolly accepting the task at hand despite the hurt it causes: The most elaborate trick, an EST seminar leader explains in “The Magic of David Copperfield,” is the one we play on ourselves, believing that we can escape the prison of painful memories when they’re omnipresent behind the curtain, waiting to reappear. “You can’t lose sight of who these people are,” Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), forced from his job at the F.B.I., warns Stan (Noah Emmerich) of the Soviets in their midst—and neither, despite their efforts, can they.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.