Sunday, May 8, 2016

Episode of the Week: The Americans - "The Magic of David Copperfield..."

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 4, Episode 8

A great episode of TV often sneaks up on you.  But sometimes you know right from the beginning, because the episode announces its greatness straight away.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." the eighth episode of The Americans' white hot fourth season, is an example of the latter, hinting at its greatness right in its opener.  The nearly silent cold open is an epilogue of sorts, closing off the Martha story that dominated the previous two episodes by showing Philip driving her to board a plane that will begin her journey to Russia in the dead of night.  There's a heaviness to it -- we're not used to television being quiet for so long.  But it's perfect at capturing the feeling of going somewhere in the middle of the night, with only the howling air and your own breath soundtracking the evening.  This will be the last Philip sees of Martha, maybe the last we see of her too, and the episode lingers on that farewell and the wide shot of him watching as her plane floats out of view.  It's a devastating beginning, one that immediately tells the audience, "Sit back, because this episode is going to be a doozy."

It's interesting, then, that the episode downshifts from there for a little while.  After all of the ratcheting tension of the last few weeks, a breather is necessary, but it's almost defiant how low-key everything starts out here.  There's an elegiac feeling over every scene, as if there's more air and space surrounding the characters.  Lots of focus is given to the downtime that we rarely see these people engaging in: Philip reads a book on the couch, Elizabeth prepares lunch while Henry and Paige express excitement over David Copperfield's next stunt, Stan comes over to the Jennings' for a beer, the FBI solemnly takes inventory over all of their leads on Martha that have gone cold.  Later, Elizabeth goes to see a movie with Young-hee.  Even the operations feel like idle time.  But of course, this is just to trick us into feeling soothed, because nothing stays serene for too long on The Americans.

It all starts with EST, about which Philip is reading early in the episode.  These seminars have been a part of the show since they were introduced via Sandra Beeman in the third season, and even though EST is sort of a goofy footnote in the 80s chapter of our history books, The Americans has always been very earnest about it.  Still, who would have thought that it would be the fulcrum of season four?  All of the characters on this show are people who, for all of their skill and intelligence, aren't very in tune with their emotions.  They lack self-awareness and the tools to really dig into their emotions and address what's bothering them.  Instead, they just tamp things down until they leap out like a starburst.  So naturally, EST would be what causes a divide between Philip and Elizabeth, after he latches on to it and she doesn't understand what power it could possibly have for him.

Now, the schism isn't truly about EST.  When Philip is on the couch reading that EST book in the beginning up the episode, it's no accident that writer Stephen Schiff chooses to have him and Elizabeth also discuss Martha, the other thing that has been wrenching them apart lately.  Again, when Elizabeth chooses to go to an EST seminar and she comes back and gets into an argument with Philip about it, it transitions to being a fight about Martha.  Matthew Rhys does some excellent directorial work in this scene as he slowly cuts to wider shots.  That initial tightness when you think Elizabeth is about to connect with Philip about these seminars gives way to a shot-reverse shot that shows just how far apart they are once they get to discussing what's really bothering them.  It's an ugly, terrifying argument where animosities from many seasons ago (Gregory, the mother of Philip's long-lost child, how much of their marriage is real) come out in a way that recalls the legendary Sopranos episode, "Whitecaps."

The Americans has always been a show about subtle moments of dialogue and body language.  That's part of the reason why there's a small subset of TV enthusiasts who don't respond to it as much as the rest of us do.  This is a series with emotions that you often have to find your way to, and "The Magic of David Copperfield..." might be the purest distillation of the show in that regard.  It's an hour of television that hinges upon the meaning and tension behind strained exchanges and loaded gestures.  The big fight in the middle of the episode explodes quickly, but it's one that is meticulously established, presaged by the conversation between Philip and Elizabeth where he bristles at her calling Martha simple.  "She was actually quite complicated.  People underestimated her," Philip responds, barely masking his rage.  It's there even earlier, in the conversations where they try to make small talk but find themselves unable to connect.

Really, it's all one contiguous body of feelings with The Americans.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is a masterful display of the emotional cause-and-effect that this show does so well.  Philip is upset about Martha, which causes Elizabeth to get upset with Philip, which leads to them getting into a big argument, which factors into Elizabeth killing one of her agents and blowing up at Paige, and so on.  In typical Americans fashion, we pop in for a little while on the Rezidentura and the FBI, but Philip and Elizabeth are what suck up all the air in the episode.

They are what the whole season is being built around, in fact.  Despite mostly being separated by their individual operations, Philip and Elizabeth's relationship has always been the key to the show.  And when they had that passionate sex scene scored to "Under Pressure" at the end of "Clark's Place," it felt like the last truly happy moment we would see between them.  So far that has borne out, as the two episodes that followed showed us just how hurt Elizabeth was when she learned that Philip had revealed his "true self" to Martha, further blurring the line between cover and real relationship.  That's why it's so surprising when we see them have a brief moment of shared happiness in this episode, when Gabriel gives them minor respite from the workload that has clearly been taking a toll on them.

Even more surprising is the cut that follows shortly after, announcing big changes in the form of a "7 months later" chyron at the bottom of the screen.  We're given a montage of Paige enjoying mini golf with Pastor Tim and his wife, Philip and Elizabeth merrily playing hockey with Henry, and Gad sharing a beer with Stan.  All is well.  But it isn't, not really.  It can never be with these characters.  Once Paige returns home and is behind closed doors, she solemnly gives her parents every detail about her peaceful outing with Pastor Tim.  But you can tell that there's darkness just over the horizon and it's coming quickly.

Hours before this episode aired, many critics were pre-hyping it, with some even going as far as saying it was the best the show had ever done.  This primed some people for a much different episode than the one they got, which led to a minor bit of disappointment. That's because we've increasingly become used to equating "amazing episode of television" with "something mind-blowing happened."  Nothing earth-shattering occurred in this episode, but that doesn't change the fact that it is an exceptional piece of television and a great example of The Americans' simmering, low-key brilliance.  "The Magic of David Copperfield..." is the best episode of television that I've seen all year, only rivaled by the two episodes of this show that preceded it.  So far season four has been a blazing wildfire.  If it's giving us this in the middle of the season, can you imagine what we have in store for us for the next five weeks?


  1. I liked it a lot; as I stated, I don't think it was necessarily the best episode the show's ever done, but that scene with Paige and Elizabeth was pretty fucking harrowing.

    She went from mother to handler and it was terrifying.

    1. Yeah, if the Emmys cared about The Americans, this episode would be a good tape for Keri Russell.