Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of The Americans. Read our complete coverage of the show here. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.
Let's talk about Martha...
Todd VanDerWerff: The greatest thing about "The Rat" is the identity of the titular beast — a tiny rodent stuffed into a bag that William procures for Philip when Philip needs another glanders sample.
The reason I love this is because of the misdirect. The title could also, quite accurately, refer to (poor) Martha Hanson, who spends most of this episode being held in a safe place by the KGB until they can get her out of the country to another safe place (which turns out to be Moscow).
The FBI has realized she's working for the Soviets, the Soviets have realized she's compromised, and Martha has realized her life is no longer her own. She was cornered ages ago, and this episode is all of the devastating fallout.
And I mean devastating. What do you guys think her best play is at this point? Go to the FBI? Hope the KGB can get her to Moscow?
Caroline Framke: I keep thinking I know where this show is going, and then it gives us a whole series of curveballs in a row.
First, I was shocked that Philip brought Martha in to a safe house. Then I was shocked he told Gabriel that Martha has seen his real face. Then I was shocked that he told Martha he’s KGB, then that Stan swept both Martha and Clark’s place, and on and on. This episode dealt with what could have easily been half a season’s worth of material as far as Martha is concerned. I truly have no idea what the series is going to do next, which is exciting!
From where I’m sitting, Martha’s best bet is to go to the FBI. The question is, would she continue to play the FBI or try to play Philip? Here, we bump up against a similar set of speed bumps that Nina faced as she managed to squeeze out of seemingly impossible corners. (I also don’t think they'll send Martha to Moscow. She has literally zero connections there, and it would be far more difficult to continue following her there than it was for the show to follow Nina.)
Nina and Martha have lived strangely parallel lives, but Nina was always in on the secret. Now Martha finally knows everything. So what will she choose, now that she actually has a choice?
Libby Nelson: This is the second time in three episodes that an ending has walloped me so hard I virtually forgot everything that went before — first Nina’s death in "Chloramphenicol," and now Martha’s attempt to flee from a glanders-weakened Gabriel at the end of "The Rat." (Am I the only one who thought Alison Wright was even styled a bit like Nina in those final scenes? Her hairstyle and her dress seemed chosen to underscore the parallel between the two women.)
If there’s one thing that’s bothered me about Martha’s story, it’s how little agency she’s been given so far. Not that it didn’t ring true, but it was depressing to see how thoroughly she was manipulated. Now she’s finally seized that agency — and I have trouble imagining it’s not too late.
I don’t think her best hope is the FBI (whom the KGB, or at least Philip and Elizabeth, can still outwit), or the KGB (who’d probably buy her a plane ticket to Moscow and then kill her as soon as Philip’s back is turned). It’s Philip himself, who’s clearly torn apart by what he’s done to her and who cares about her more than either bureaucracy will.
But I’ve always thought the one thing Martha couldn’t forgive is Philip having another wife — and she seemed close to that realization, too, finally unwilling to trust him any longer.
Whatever happens with Martha (my bet is that Elizabeth ends up having to go after her, somehow, in a way that’s as devastating to Philip as possible), it seems like we’re headed for a resolution very soon.
Should we worry about how quickly The Americans is burning through story?
Caroline: It does feel like either Martha has to step up her game significantly, as far as being actively involved in the spying game, or the writers have to get rid of her somehow, whether that’s sending her to Moscow or something more devastating.
I wouldn’t, for example, be surprised if Philip gets close to killing her, only to have Elizabeth offer to do it for him in an echo of the Gregory situation in season one.
Todd VanDerWerff: Poor Gregory!
I'm a little terrified of how this season is ripping through plot like nobody's business. It's thrilling — and reminds me of Breaking Bad season three, my favorite season of that show — but it also makes me wonder what other shoe is about to drop.
Both Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg have been very open about wanting at least one and possibly two more seasons to conclude this story in. But they've been steadily wrapping up some of the stories they planted way back in season one in ruthless fashion, with only Paige's possible spy recruitment dangling out there as a plot line that's not that close to resolution.
This episode also did something that, I think, occasionally holds The Americans back. (To be clear: It didn't hold this episode back, because this episode was amazing.) Every time I really started to feel the claustrophobic horror of Martha's situation, the episode would cut to another storyline.
That's a deliberate stylistic choice on the show's part — it's much more Sopranos than, say, Mad Men, which would leave half its ensemble behind for whole episodes — but it sometimes makes me feel like it's part of why the show struggles in the ratings and with awards shows. Sometimes I just really want to feel the horror as much as possible, you know?
But this episode got me there, particularly thanks to Alison Wright's work. I love how she just slowly empties of anything other than her desperate need to survive and her desperate need to believe Clark's love for her is real (so at least she got something out of this whole mess). And when the two are pitted against each other, the former is what wins.
Caroline: Alison Wright is a fucking force. I’m so happy she got this episode to showcase just how good she is, if only for that scene where she and Philip talk candidly and she begs him to have sex with her, just to feel close to him, even if only for a second.
Obviously the staging there was a very deliberate callback to the end of "Clark’s Place," wherein Elizabeth tried to reassert her bond with Philip by climbing on top of him and raising her skirt. But if I thought that scene was desperate, this one blew it out of the water. Astonishing work from both Wright and Matthew Rhys.
The end is starting to feel very, very nigh
Todd: As good as everybody is in this cast — even Brandon J. Dirden as Agent Aderholt is offering some low-key brilliance — Wright and Rhys are next-level in this episode.
I'm amazed by how this season wildly vacillates between situating Elizabeth or Philip at its center. Every time I think I have my bearings in terms of whose story it is, there's a shift, and we're suddenly viewing everything through the other's point of view.
Or, put another way, I'm starting to wonder if last week's sex scene wasn't a Last Good Time scenario, because we're already seeing the seeds of dissension sown between these two.
Libby: That’s how I interpreted it even at the time! While I can’t see Philip actually choosing Martha over Elizabeth, this is really tearing the two of them apart.
Caroline: Elizabeth trying to understand the levels of just how much Philip cares for Martha — as she walked in to see him out of Clark costume, while she stood there in that dowdy Clark’s sister disguise — was a gut punch.
Keri Russell didn’t have as much to do in this episode, but she was still very good, keeping Elizabeth’s emotions as close to the surface as possible without letting them bubble over.
The two didn’t have to say a word; you knew just from their faces, and the way Philip could barely look at Elizabeth, that this was a huge, horrible moment of truth for both of them.
The logical TV viewer part of me knows the series would never have Philip run away with Martha, but damned if it didn’t set up that possibility as well as it could have. Philip’s been trying to get Elizabeth to run away as long as we’ve known them; it makes sense that Martha’s desperate offer would be tempting.
Libby: Not that we didn’t know it before, but this episode underlined how real Philip’s relationship with Martha is — and it must be particularly destabilizing for Elizabeth (who’s never had a long-term relationship with an asset that’s anything like this), since, after all, their marriage started as a setup as well.
This is the first time I’ve really felt something I’ve read many times: that falling in love with each other and deciding to have a real marriage could end up being the worst decision Philip and Elizabeth have ever made.
This season has also felt like a slow burn in a lot of ways, and it seems like the plot just kicked in at full force for the first time — and I don’t think I’ve ever had less an idea of what will happen next. I’ve assumed all this time that Stan finding out the truth about the Jenningses is something for the final arc. But maybe it’s not?
I also want to pick up on something Todd said, which crystallized something I’ve thought for a while: The Americans has been firing on all cylinders and at the top of its game for just an insane amount of time now, and the only explanation I have for why there hasn’t been a single dud is that in some ways the series sticks to a formula — including the cuts to many storylines in its episodes. I’ll take the trade-off, but I do wonder what some more formal experimentation in the context of this show might look like.
Todd: There's nothing wrong with the way the show cuts away to other stories, either. I appreciated knowing what was up with William this week, for instance, or checking in on the Rezidentura (which is also working on the Martha problem from its own angle).
But The Americans is virtually unique among TV dramas in that its worlds almost never cross-pollinate. You got a little of that with the home/work life split on Mad Men, or with the way certain characters remain out of the loop on other shows, but The Americans takes it to an almost incredible degree, so that when, say, Alderholt shows up in the Jenningses' neighborhood, it feels seismic.
This means there has to be lots of cross-cutting, or we lose large swaths of the show in favor of focusing on one set of characters at a time. Structurally, the show handles this by making each scene its own mini drama, which is murderously hard to pull off but memorable when done well (as it generally is here).
Really, that's what makes this season feel more momentous than others: The walls are starting to come down. Martha has met Gabriel. She knows Clark's sister isn't his sister. And now she's out there, with all her knowledge, about to collapse those separate spheres of the show into each other, to devastating effect.
I don't know what's coming next, but I know enough of this show to know it's nothing good.
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