Review: 'The Americans' zeroes in on the hunt for Martha in 'Travel Agents'
A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as I have borscht for the first time in a long time...
"I want it to stop, Clark. I want it to end." -Martha
There's usually a lot going on in your average Americans episode: family drama, FBI drama, intrigue at the Rezidentura (and/or back in the USSR, when Nina was still alive), plus at least a couple of different operations for Philip and Elizabeth to mount. This works to the show's enormous benefit, since it conveys just how ragged the Centre runs our main characters, and since the overscheduled frenzy of their lives is an effective metaphor for the problems your average married couple constantly juggles, even without honeypots and assassinations and deep cover identities mixed in.
That hectic design also means that when the show drops everything else to tell essentially one story for the hour, that story takes on huge emotional weight for viewers who are accustomed of bouncing from subplot to subplot, and trying to keep track of the different Jennings assets and cover identities.
"Travel Agents" basically drops everything else the season has been dealing with, because it's now Defcon Martha. Even when we cut away to Paige, Henry, and Matthew drinking beer over at Stan's house, the scene is really about how their parents are too busy trying to find one rogue secretary to keep proper watch over their kids. That streamlined focus, coupled with the usual great performances from everyone — but especially by Alison Wright, who made Poor Martha seem more vulnerable and tragic than ever, regardless of what was going to happen to her next — made this a knockout hour of an already great series.
Though last week's episode ended with Gabriel's face suggesting Martha had outlived her usefulness to the Centre, "Travel Agents" found everyone on their side still operating under the idea that the preferred outcome would be putting her on a plane out of the country. For Martha, though, all three of her potential fates — arrested, dead, or alone in a cold and faraway place where she doesn't speak the language and knows no one — seem equally horrible, which is why she spends most of the hour wavering somewhere between panic and utter despair. Philip's decision to pull her off the street, while arguably the right decision (since Stan and Aderholt would have soon gotten wise to her on their own) has ended her life as she knew it, and none of what's coming next looks good.
Because the situation is so precarious, and because the adult characters are focusing on this and only this, there's an enormous level of tension throughout "Travel Agents." Will Martha run into one of the many FBI agents out looking for her? Will she jump off the bridge to end it all? Will Philip(*) run into Stan in the very place where Stan is looking for Martha? And what happens if Philip's two wives meet each other again?
(*) Who for some reason never thinks to put the Clark disguise back on (or any other disguise), even though there's a chance he may be in the presence of a woman who's the subject of an FBI manhunt.
Only the last situation actually comes to pass, and it's a brutal scene even before Elizabeth gut punches Martha to keep her from making a spectacle of herself in a public place. Elizabeth makes physical what Martha has been feeling emotionally since this whole ordeal began, and though she saves Martha's life, it's hard to imagine the life she's about to have will be a particularly happy one. She tells a devastated Philip (played exceptionally well in the climactic scene by Matthew Rhys) that life will be "just the way it was before I met you," but at least she had a job, a city she knew, parents she could call, etc. Regardless of how well she may be treated as an asset to the cause of Mother Russia, life in the Soviet Union in 1983 wasn't great even for those who spoke Russian and knew no other way of being.
The Martha situation has always been more fraught for Philip than for Elizabeth, but of course it would be, given how much time each spouse devotes to it. The few times in the past when Elizabeth has had to be around Martha, bad things have happened, like the disastrous Elizabeth/Clark sex role play. Seeing the lengths her husband goes to for his other wife — showing her his true face (and, here, telling her both of his "real" names) — puts her in a vulnerable, jealous place, and has her genuinely wondering if Philip would go away with Martha if he could. As people who know both marriages well, we understand the difference between the two relationships, and why Elizabeth ultimately has nothing to worry about on that score, but it's not hard to blame her for feeling this way after seeing Philip push himself and the operation to the limit out of a desire to protect Martha.
The show has had a dark running gag of sorts about Martha's level of beauty. Last week, Stan and Aderholt again discussed whether she was attractive, and here, the sketch artist's drawing of her looks much more conventionally pretty than the show lets Martha herself be. But then... there's a moment in that final conversation with Philip where she's absorbing the news that she'll never see him again — which is, itself, a huge tell about his feelings for her her, in that he couldn't lie even when it made all the sense in the world for the mission to do just that — and as she cries, she really does start to look just like the woman in the FBI sketch.
As Agent Gaad ruefully notes while considering the impending demise of his career over this mess, none of them had the first idea who and what Martha really was. They couldn't see past the frumpy clothes and the perma-frown to recognize what she was capable of, and what she wanted, and that made her vulnerable to an operative like Philip. And Philip surely never expected to feel this deeply for any of his assets, even the one he wound up marrying to keep control of. But he did, and that's why we're here, with Martha trying to put the best face on her terrible fate, and Philip hating himself as much as he seemingly ever has for something he's done for the Centre.
No matter what's coming next, Martha doesn't seem long for the show, unless the plan is for her to move into Nina's old room at the stealth bomber factory and pal around with Vasily and Baklanov. And if she's going, she's going out with a hell of a run of episodes.
Some other thoughts:
* Usually, the show doesn't go to a lot of effort to cover for the fact that it's filming in Brooklyn rather than D.C. and the surrounding suburbs. But with so much of the episode dealing with a public daytime manhunt for Martha, production perhaps felt a need for more Washington skyline shots than usual to help create the illusion that the park was there. (In actuality, it was two different parks: Croton Gorge Park in Cortlandt for the bridge scenes, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn for Martha and Elizabeth's meeting.)
* Since being introduced early last season, new KGB switchboard operator Joan (played by Polly Lee) hasn't had much to do beyond make and answer phone calls. Here, she becomes a part of the action, as Philip has to spend the day with her waiting for Martha's call, which gives her a chance to delicately inquire about the very sudden departure of her predecessor, whom we know was murdered by Andrew Larrick late in season 2.
* From my notes upon noticing the forlorn expression on Richard Thomas's face as Agent Gaad realizes the depth of the problem, and it's likely blowback on him: "Gaad is saad." #sorrynotsorry Assuming Gaad is right about his professional future, I will miss Thomas' presence on this show a lot. Not a flashy part, but he invested a lot more humanity and specificity in Gaad than was absolutely necessary for the boss character. His delivery of "They seduced and married my secretary" was another thing of dark comic beauty.
* Also, I eagerly await a sequel to Gaad's speech about having a KGB asset under his nose for years, only now it's an incredulous Stan coming to grips with where his best friend grew up.
* Technically, there is a secondary plot, in that the Rezidentura also has to arrange to smuggle William's plague-infected rat out of the country, though the two plots become one because Tatiana is involved in both, and can arrange a pilot to carry both the rat and poor Martha out of the country.
* Party like it's 1983: before Matthew, Paige, and Henry get their drink on while waiting for their parents to remember they exist, Henry is busy admiring one of the controversial early '80s Calvin Klein ads with Brooke Shields, who was only 15 when she told the world that nothing came between her and her Calvins. This makes her vaguely age appropriate for Henry's lust, if not for America at large's.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org