The Americans "The Oath" Review: Promises, Promises

By Ryan Sandoval

Apr 25, 2013

The Americans S01E12: "The Oath"

Nina confessed to being the mole, Clark married Martha (!), and both the FBI and KGB discovered important intel leads that could bring down the rival organization. The Americans has maintained a steady sense of purpose all season long, and this penultimate episode hinted that an assured finish just around the corner. Whether exploring the pains of a crumbling marriage, the interpersonal dynamics of a spy network, or the simple coolness of top-secret operations, this program has managed to volley between, intertwine, and intensify seemingly disparate elements toward a unified purpose: describing the human experience. In keeping with its deceptively general title, The Americans is as funny, intriguing, romantic, and—amid all the shifting identities at play—existential as the multitudes of individuals who call themselves U.S. citizens. The parts that make up everything this show has become are as complex as the tragic and mundane traits that turn the average, faceless patriot into a layered human being. In briefly reminding us of the common, non-spy population of this world, "The Oath" illustrated how allegiance to a cause is a responsibility that extends to even regular people, for better or for worse.       

Perhaps the clearest example of an innocent who, unwillingly, has been both influenced and affected by a secret war meant to protect her is Viola (remember, the God-fearing maid from "The Clock"). If you'll recall, she and Phillip had it out early in the season when, among other reservations, her religious beliefs threatened to get in the way of a very precarious bugging plan. There's been little talk since then about the role religion plays in identity, but it does play one, as seen in the guilt Viola felt during her church services. We've lately been more concerned with the rivalry between the KGB and the FBI, as well as the way the dissolution of Phillip and Elizabeth’s home life plays into and reflects the overall Cold War, so it’s been easy to forget the millions of little people who ostensibly each side is trying to "win." Had the Devil won her over to his side? Did she let it? In this contest between good and evil, regular people like Viola are the prize. 

Or rather, their beliefs are, because it’s ideologies that shape society. 

Fine for a war room, but problematic in a situation like Viola’s, where so many of her personal beliefs fell into direct conflict. Does she preserve the safety of her family, yet betray her work responsibilities, religion, and country? Hmm, sound familiar Phillip/Elizabeth (except for the religion part)? Viola, who's essentially the nexus of these ties, as we all are, showed that it doesn’t take an undercover spy with a great wig to bring these spheres together. Her guilt may have been renewed through a church service, but she ended up confessing the burden to her government.         

Given that elsewhere, Elizabeth struggled with the promise of an asset, Nina recited a literal oath that she had already reneged on, and Phillip ceremoniously announced his (false) claim on Martha, by and large this episode sought to pick apart statements of duty and alliance. What is an oath if there's no belief behind it? How does an oath affect belief? How else can we trust other autonomous beings with hidden thoughts but for weighty, public declarations? These questions made up the bulk of the brilliant wedding sequence. 

Sitting in a church (a structure whose purpose is to facilitate dedication to ideological belief), Claudia and Elizabeth dressed up as Clark’s mom and sister (lying, in a sanctified place) and discussed spy strategy before shifting gears completely to make nice with Martha’s family. Half of the wedding had wigs on and used fake names! Phillip’s oath of fidelity meant absolutely nothing on his end, but as long as Martha believed the lie, the gesture was still true to her, suggesting that action, however insincere, can still influence belief. It's like that old Russian proverb: "One's man lies are another man's truth." Elizabeth stated she knew the marital vows were "just words people say," but wondered if things would have been different between she and Phillip if they would have said them. Unknown to everyone, these two were sharing the realist emotional moment under that roof. Behind the visual artifice of disguises, and political reasons motivating the marriage, Elizabeth still found herself swayed by the truth of sentimentality.

Not to be outdone in the realm of secret anti-marriages, Nina tanked her own faux union (a shared home and a devotion to each other before all else, though the latter is fading) with Agent Beeman. These two started off as strangers, became professional confidents, and at one point, "got" one another enough to undergo an ersatz romance. While all other characters were busy being dubious, however (including Stan and his Vlad lies), Nina—who arguably had the most to lose—stood out as the only character who maintained the sanctity of her oath. Was it learning that Vlad had a thing for her? Was it learning she was out of someone’s league? Most likely, what ultimately turned Nina against Beeman was the strong impression that he'd not only murdered her friend, but lied about it—two no-nos in the world of love and espionage. 

If there was any doubt as to where she stood with Beeman, waking up from a fiery dream—safe and in the absence of Stan—suggested more independent feelings. 

In the end, an oath may be nothing without belief, but belief is just as weak without an oath. 


– Very clever, having Arkady state, in Russian, "You're the mole," and then Nina answering back in English, "Yeah."

– Claudia and Elizabeth looked like distant relatives of Dana Carvey’s "Church Lady."

– Claudia playing Pac-Man and sipping tea!

– Hey, some spycraft! I forgot how much I missed things like tiny telescopes and miniature documents.

– Re: Sara: "She sounds like Pat Benatar. And he called her righteous"

– "We see what we need to see in people. Things that aren't really there" —Elizabeth

What'd you think of "The Oath"?

  • Comments (48)
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  • phonzee101 Jan 04, 2014

    The eavesdropping going on each side is exciting. I can't wait to see s**t hits the fan in the finale when it all culminates. Watching season 1 for the first time.

  • AdamCetnerowski Apr 28, 2013

    Nina didn't say "Yeah". She said "I" in Russian.

  • MikeUK123 May 01, 2013

    This comment has been removed.

  • MikeUK123 May 01, 2013

    Yes, I was about to post the same thing.

  • MikeUK123 May 01, 2013

    And I would say it would not have been clever (as said in review) if she replied 'Yeah'. Using Russian showed she meant it.

  • 920healthcare Apr 28, 2013

    Love this show! Glad that I have all of them recorded and can't wait until Season 2, hope it comes sooner than next January!!

  • 3Jane Apr 27, 2013

    Did Martha and Clark get married in a church? I didn't take much notice, but given that Martha's family is Jewish...

    Also, I thought that all-American, family-oriented people like Martha's parents would want to take photos at the wedding, but Claudia, Elizabeth and Clark would be a bit camera-shy in their disguises. Even the marriage proposal was neither audible nor visible.

    I had another point to make about Martha and Clark, but I can't remember it at the moment.

  • dalilavillarr May 02, 2013

    Her family is Lutheran, not Jewish. Clark then retorted that he was presbyterian and her parents said, close enough.

  • 3Jane May 02, 2013

    Thanks, I don't know anything about Lutheran. Also, I watched the episode again and couldn't believe I had missed all the Christian iconography the first time.

    Most of the scenes showed a bare cross (Protestant) but one scene shows a cross with Jesus nailed to it (Catholic). Do you know if Lutherans feel strongly about whether Jesus should be shown on the cross?

  • 3Jane Apr 27, 2013

    Oh yeah. "'Til death do us part."

  • klotensen Apr 26, 2013

    Such a cool show. Somehow Martha and Arkadi are growing on me too.
    I have a feeling the finale is gonna be epic!

  • paintcan Apr 26, 2013

    This episode two wheeled around several corners but Nina's stole the show. It was a series changer. Who saw that coming? Not me.
    Personal aside - loved Mags in Justified but Claudia is getting there fast !

  • DavidJackson8 Apr 26, 2013

    Jeez. Another great episode. I keep getting surprised at how quickly The Americans is moving plot-wise. I'm very appreciate of the writers for not taking the "let's milk this thing for as long as we can" approach. Sorry for the comparison, but it's kinda sorta like Homeland in that way -- they didn't hold back in moving along the plot either. I mean, Nina's a triple-agent already? Clark and Martha are getting married already? I just assumed that if these things happened, they'd happen later. I guess I'm just too used to all these other shows that stretch plot-advancements out. I just hope they have a plan for future seasons -- I believe there are plenty of people who complained about Homeland getting more ridiculous as time went on, and part of that may have had to do with using plot advancements pretty quickly.

    Oh, and as always, Nina's awesome.

    Oh, and I never feel right playing grammar police, but uh, " It's like that old Russian proverb: "One's man lies are another man's truth." " I assume you meant to put the [ 's ] after man and not one.

  • MikeUK123 May 01, 2013

    I think this is much better than Homeland from a plot pacing point of view..... and Phillip and Elizabeth are much more believable spy characters than Carrie (even though it is well acted, i think the writers of Homeland ruined her character).

  • brianreilly Apr 26, 2013

    Great episode ( i think its one of the beast shows on tv) and great review Ryan. By the way congrats to Martha for winning the 'most damaged goods' category.

  • sethaustin507 Apr 26, 2013

    Nina's confession and offer to work as a double agent means she'll remain a major character in Season 2 and hopefully beyond. That's gratifying. I just love this character, she's my favorite on the show. Annet Mahendru is not only stunningly beautiful, she's also a tremendous actress. Her Russian is impeccable. I know her mother is Russian and that she's multilingual but I don't believe Russian is her first language.

    Another great episode for a show which I believe has established itself as the best drama on television. And their attention to detail in recreating the era and the milieu is pretty amazing. For example, that scene at the video game arcade with Elizabeth and Claudia. Everyone's familiar with Pacman, but they were clever enough to have Elizabeth fiddle around with the controls of a Centipede machine, a much less popular game I played as a kid.

  • kou_shun_u May 04, 2013

    uhhhhh, centipede was totally popular. I always remember more people playing that then pac-man.

  • sethaustin507 May 05, 2013

    Even grandmas played Pacman. It was a phenomenon. Centipedes didn't come close.

    Btw, the sequel to Centipede, Millipede, was the bomb. I have the Atari Classics for PC and I occasionally still play it.

  • bleumystique Apr 25, 2013

    I love this show so much. I really do. I watch a variety of shows ranging from the mindless and inconsequential to the high praised and impactful. What I love about this show is that it has so many elements, so many real elements and the writing and the characters and the actors' portrayal of said characters comes together brilliantly and ends up being something almost remarkable. To me, when it comes to the arts be in a play, novel, television show, or movie, if it's good, if it's truly good it makes you think. It makes you question things, people, ideas, notions and beliefs that you've held. It makes you question yourself, wills you to explore things you may not have otherwise explored had you not been prompted. It takes you places. I love that this show is one of those shows that does that. Patriotism, duty, honor, loyalty, love, religion, culture, ideology, trust, friendship...all of thse things are always there lingering over the show without inserting themselves so deep into it that every episode feels like "a very special episode where we must make a point." I love that this show doesn't feel the need to bludgeon it's audience over the head with it's points. It doesn't underestimate the intelligence of it's audience. Love that.
    -Paige is a Daddy's Girl and boy does it make me smile. It's been no secret that she's closer to her father. Honestly, it felt like both kids were closer to him since the pilot. Elizabeth can never quite lose the stoicism and kids respond to that. There was something so sweet about her time with Phillip at his apartment tossing grapes in the air and what not.
    - I was rather fond of Elizabeth's "Natasha" look with the long black wig. Wicked.
    -Granny playing Pac-Man was awesome.
    -Oh Nina. Nina is that one character who has grown on me every week. She's a very smart woman. Very smart, I don't know if learning that Vlad had a crush on her affected her so much as her instincts just kicking in. She knew Stan was lying, and rather than doing something impulsive, she let that sink in, and then she confessed to Arkady. I was surprised at the confession but it certainly just made things more interesting, and I respected it. She's quite an impressive character to me. On any other show, Nina would have went through a period of feeling conflicted, torn between her infatuation with Stan..hoping that he'd love her or something, and her dedication to her country. On any other show she would have done that whiny thing that often makes me cringe. But on this show, she was smart and savvy and she cast the emotions to the side, followed her gut and just owned it.
    -I didn't know what to think of the marriage between Clark and Martha. I was surprised that it took Martha so long to express wariness. Taking your cover wife and partner, and your handler, who are pretending to be your mom and sister to the fake wedding one of your identities is having with an asset. Awkward. Hilarious.
    -It was great seeing previous people come back up again and play important roles. I've gotten so accustom to "here for one episode and gone forever" that it catches me off guard when someone pops back up again. The maid was a pleasant surprise and an interesting and pretty darn realistic way for the plot to move forward.
    -The sketch artists back then sucked.

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