“Lies are the Devil’s handmaidens. They’re his sword and his shield. They weigh down our hearts with sorrow and corruption. They banish us from the Kingdom yet to come, now and forevermore. Amen.”
It’s a testament to ‘The Americans’ that in this most stellar of freshman seasons, arguably the best episode to date could be a “quiet” one, featuring none of the visceral jolts of action or shocking violence that the series has previously used to such great effect.
Yet here we are.
“The Oath” showed, beautifully and with unflinching commitment, the effects of the various oaths broken by all the central characters that we’ve been following for the last 11 episodes, and introduced us to a new one that will likely end in tragedy for all involved.
The quote above, spoken by a preacher to his church , serves as not just the backbone of this episode, but the closest thing to a unified, series-spanning theme of ‘The Americans.’ Your lies and indescretions, no matter how expertly hidden, will come back to bite you.
In church to hear that sermon was the maid of the Secretary of Defense, who we last saw what seems like forever ago being intimidated by Philip and Elizabeth into planting a bug in her boss’ office. She did so because her son’s life hung in the balance, and she hasn’t told anyone likely because of a mix of shame and fear of putting her family back in danger. But the pastor’s sermon was the last straw, prompting her to come clean and reveal all to Stan and the FBI, providing their first real clues to the identities of the embedded Russian spies (who to this point they weren’t sure even existed).
But as he’s winning one battle, Stan Beeman is losing another without even knowing it. Nina’s guilt over her rapid rise up the food chain at the Russian consulate has steadily grown in weight, and being asked to reaffirm her oath to mother Russia finally pushes her over the edge to confront Stan about Vlad’s death. Nina doesn’t do so in a showy or angry way, but gently. Nina already knows in her heart that Stan killed him. I doubt Stan’s answer to her question would have made any difference, the same way that Vlad’s answer to Stan asking him if he was KGB did not affect Stan’s decision to kill him. After spending the night with Stan, Nina comes clean to her boss, and suddenly Stan’s most valuable asset has become his biggest threat.
Finally, Elizabeth’s contact at the DoD claims he’s flipped an Air Force Colonel, and can provide valuable intel for a price. Elizabeth is dubious, but Claudia and Moscow want to pursue it. With Elizabeth and Philip feeling like they’re being pushed into danger again, Philip decides the best course of action is to use Martha to bug her boss’ office.
In order to lock down Martha’s loyalty, Philip as Clark takes the next step that this relationship has clearly been building towards: he proposes to Martha.
The proposal scene at the restaurant is a beautiful representation of what ‘The Americans’ is. If you saw this scene without watching the show before, you’d think it was sweet and romantic, as Clark spells out the word “Marry” on Martha’s hand and the two celebrate with champagne. The audience knows, of course, that Clark is actually Philip, using so-eager-to-believe-he’s-good Martha to unwittingly serve his purposes.
But the most fascinating territory that ‘The Americans’ explores is the shady middle ground between those two layers. Yes, Martha loves Clark; but does any part of her suspect that something is amiss? Is she willfully ignoring her gut instincts? And yes, Philip is using Martha; but does any part of him actually have real feelings for her? These questions are never addressed directly by the show, and are instead left for the audience to figure out as the relationships unfold.
What is clear is that, judging by events of this hour, Philip’s oath to Martha will not end well for him. Lying might provide short-term benefits, but on ‘The Americans,’ it will always catch up to you.