You have to hand it to the writers and producers of The Americans. Unlike many primetime TV shows, when they decide to move the plot along, they go balls to the wall. The show is suddenly moving at breakneck speed. Season 4 has been one twist and turn after another, with long-time characters being imprisoned, executed and exiled. Meanwhile, our anti-heroes, the Jennings, are at greater peril than ever of being discovered as KGB spies. Instead of being filler, sandwiched as it is in near the middle part of Season 4, “Clark’s Place” sets up the rest of the season, while still being engaging enough to keep the viewer interested.
In this episode we find daughter Paige struggling with the truth of her parents’ identities and what that means for her relationship with Pastor Tim and his wife Alice, all the while being asked by Philip and Elizabeth to keep her friends close and their enemies closer. Meanwhile, Philip must do the same with Stan, whose growing suspicion of Martha has led him to keep an increasingly vigilant eye on her activities. While Philip and Elizabeth work to confirm this, Elizabeth becomes wary of Philip’s emotional attachment to Martha. And emotions are the name of the game in this episode: everyone’s are bubbling just below the surface, and it may be their emotions that blow everything wide open by season’s end. We see it with Oleg, who has just learned of Nina’s execution, and is struggling to decide if he should remain in America, where life is considerably easier, or return to Russia, a place of obligation and guilt.
Nobody’s emotions are more fragile than Martha’s, however. Her nerves are frayed, and actress Alison Wright plays her as a woman on the edge; the tension she feels as she starts to come to the realization about exactly who her husband “Clark” is feels palpable and heartbreaking. A character that started out as desperate, lonely and forgettable has become sympathetic and tragic. That’s thanks to Ms. Wright, who infuses Martha with a sort of melancholy wistfulness that is all too relatable to anyone who has ever had to face harsh reality after living in a sort of dream world.
In fact, it is the performances by the cast of The Americans that remain its greatest strength. There is rarely a misplaced note and particular credit must go to Holly Taylor, who plays Paige Jennings, for not reducing her character to an annoying teenager, but instead, one who is deeply confused and heartbroken by her parents’ deception. Paige is terrified of what she has learned and profoundly distrustful of everyone now that her eyes have been opened to her parents’ true identities. (Comparisons must be made to both 24’s Kim Bauer and Homeland’s Dana Brody, and against both, Taylor’s Paige prevails as both more intelligent and sympathetic).
Of course, the cast is led by the ever-strong Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Their chemistry is always on point, even when they are pulling away from each other. There’s an emotional distance in this episode as Philip regrets and feels guilt for his involving Martha in their espionage, and it’s evident to Elizabeth, who is obviously jealous and resentful of her husband’s emotional bond with one of their targets. She’s never been one to express herself well emotionally, and her attempt to express her feelings results in Elizabeth seducing her husband to keep him close. Despite this, by episode’s end, it’s abundantly clear that Philip’s guilt about Martha will play a role in his actions for the remainder of the season, and we have the Jennings’ loyalties pulling them in opposite directions once again. Where they will end up and if they will be there together is the next chapter in the story.