The Americans Recap: Season 3, Episode 8, “Divestment”

A morass of lies, betrayals and undetonated bombs, “Divestment” isn’t about civil disobedience but vengeance plain and simple.

The Americans Recap: Season 3, Episode 8, Divestment
Photo: FX

“Divestment” is an hour chock-full of interrogations. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) examine their latest captives, Eugene Venter (Neil Sandilands), a member of the South African intelligence service, and his naïve stateside asset, Todd (Will Pullen); the F.B.I.’s Walter Taffet (Jefferson Mays) grills Agent Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), searching for the bureau’s mole; Paige (Holly Taylor) pries into her mother’s past and Martha (Alison Wright) finally confronts Clark. But the most troubling exchange in an episode run through with caustic conversations is the one Martha has with herself. As she brings the news of Taffet’s investigation to her absentee husband, her questions turn inward: “What have I done?” she asks, erupting into sobs. “Is any of this true?” “Revelation” derives from the Latin for “lay bare,” and indeed, “Divestment,” though named for the strategy of anti-apartheid activists, suggests another form of dispossession too. Revelation by revelation, The Americans continues to strip each character of what they think they know, until all that’s left is bone.

Though Philip, as Clark, ultimately reassures Martha that the “truth” of their relationship is the only truth that matters, the episode’s final image undermines any suggestion of renewed trust. Recalling the nights Philip or Elizabeth have whispered secrets in their darkened room, nights on which the geometry of their bodies have expressed each scar, scab, or open wound in their marriage, the camera captures Martha and Clark from above, clearly at loose ends. The days of Kama Sutra and potential foster kids are gone: As she lays awake on her stomach, face turned toward the edge of the bed, he stares at the ceiling, an ever-widening gulf between them.

In a sense, this single frame is the keystone of “Divestment,” an indication of this season’s frayed nerves and threadbare attachments. It’s an episode of missed connections, unacknowledged glances, and “scorched-earth tactics,” as a BBC report on the Soviet war in Afghanistan relates, and the periodic flickers of genuine affection that have heretofore defined The Americans seem poised to burn out soon. “Being married and being at war,” South African communist Reuben Ncgobo (Dwayne Alistair Thomas) says to this end, “do not always go together.” Indeed, as Philip casts his eyes to the ground during Venter’s gruesome execution, or Elizabeth attempts to dodge the moral ramifications of Paige’s questions, this distancing effect subsumes even the relationship between self and self-perception. Whether in the form of Agent Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), under suspicion of serious negligence, or Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru), so desperate for freedom she’s willing to sacrifice the lives of others, each character must ask the same question as Martha. “What have I done?”

Though the episode features few innocents, “Divestment” does take pains to depict the institutional constraints in which compromised choices are made. The vise of two Cold War combatants drove Nina to use her beauty against the lascivious Vasili Nikolaevich (Peter Von Berg), no more a product of “personal feelings” than his refusal to forgive her. Aderholt handles his interview with Taffet admirably, despite the latter’s ugly insinuations that having a “unique” background (read, being black) might make him more apt to commit treason. Elizabeth and Philip argue that Todd’s life should be spared in part by trying to convince Ncgobo that the campus infiltrator is too young to be held fully responsible for South Africa’s terrible crimes. And yet, for all the attention to the larger forces at play, “Divestment” remains a morass of lies, betrayals, and undetonated bombs, an emblem of the profound bleakness The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum sees in this season’s narrative. “It’s a very human request,” Soviet railway minister Igor Burov (Boris Krutonog) says, with robotic precision, as he reminds Arkady Ivanovich (Lev Gorn) that he wants his son, Oleg (Costa Ronin), transferred back to Moscow. In The Americans, the Cold War’s human quotient withers away, leaving only ruses, stratagems, tradecraft.

“You can’t just go rob banks and things,” Paige concludes after questioning her mother, and though Elizabeth describes “fighting against injustice,” against “countries, governments, people who make laws,” the heart of “Divestment” isn’t civil disobedience; it’s vengeance, plain and simple. Ncgobo, not without a certain denatured rationale, fits a used tire around Venter’s torso, pours gasoline over his head, and sets him alight, all while Philip and Elizabeth watch. Whether or not you consider the execution fair game within the Cold War’s chess match, the scene is striking: The Americans is increasingly painted in such muted tones that one half expects the season finale to be filmed in black and white, yet the most noteworthy use of color in “Divestment” is the image of a human body, suddenly engulfed by flames.

For more recaps of The Americans, click here.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Matt Brennan

Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic, reporter, and editor whose work has appeared in Indiewire, Slate, Deadspin, among others. He is currently the Los Angeles Times's deputy editor for entertainment and arts.

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