The Americans "The Oath" Review: Promises, Promises

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"?

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