Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of The Americans. This week, they're joined by Amanda Taub. Read our complete coverage of the show here. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.
This episode is the season's tightest and maybe its bleakest
Todd VanDerWerff: "Travel Agents" is the shortest episode of The Americans so far this season, and possibly not coincidentally the most nauseating. Martha, on the run, must choose the best of two terrible options, while everybody else hunts for her. In the end, she winds up in the arms of "Clark," again, but he can't lie to her: He won't be joining her in Moscow.
And … Jesus. This is some bleak stuff. Even as the episode is a master class in tension and suspense, it's telling a parallel story about marriage and infidelity.
Of course you can read Philip's relationship with Martha as an affair, even if his wife knows, approves, and understands it as part of their overall mission.
But on some level, The Americans grasps that you can love multiple people at the same time, that it's possible to get different things from vastly different people, even if they're not sexual. But you can only build your life with one of them. And the moment when you're forced to choose between two possible futures is always wrenching.
All evidence to the contrary, did you hope Philip would get on the plane that Tatiana and Oleg commissioned, if only so that Tatiana and Oleg would have something to do in this episode?
Libby Nelson: To quote Elizabeth in a scene that absolutely wrung me out emotionally: Are you crazy? I've found Philip and Elizabeth's relationship ridiculously compelling since the first episode, and even though I shouldn't, I still root for them, despite everything; their conversation, when he chose Elizabeth, felt cathartic.
But that the moment felt like a choice at all speaks to how much Clark/Philip and Martha's relationship has deepened and developed. Consider that he told her his real, real name, for example — that's something that took Elizabeth much longer to learn. I didn't think he'd get on that plane. But I wasn't sure he wouldn't.
Do we think, by the way, that Martha is going to make it to the glorious motherland? Tatiana's dialogue was cryptic enough to make me think the "sample" being transported might be the rat. My guess is the KGB don't intend to keep Martha safe, but that Philip isn't going to let her die.
Caroline Framke: I don't see how this ends with Martha alive, to be honest.
Many people have been expecting Martha to die since before the end of the first season, with The Americans' showrunners insisting that her demise was never their plan for just about as long. But we're in the middle of season four now, everything is falling apart, and it's hard not to feel like Martha has been backed into her last corner.
Also, as Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have said before (and told me in person last November, when I interviewed them for this piece), the real-life inspirations for Martha's character met awful ends. High-ranking secretaries with lackluster personal lives were frequent targets of KGB espionage. The three examples Weisberg and Fields mentioned to me all died. When one was told that her husband was actually a KGB operative, she walked out a window.
Who's Philip telling the truth to? Martha? Elizabeth? Both?
Amanda Taub: Todd, I'm glad you brought up the fact that "Clark" wouldn't lie to Martha. For me, it was really telling that Elizabeth told Philip he should lie to Martha right after asking him if he wanted to go to Moscow with Martha — if, had their children been grown and Philip's responsibilities been different, he would have chosen Martha over Elizabeth.
Philip said he wouldn't, and his shock at being asked seemed so palpable that it was easy for me to believe him. But I wonder if Elizabeth believes he was telling the truth — or if he was just giving her a version of the lie she had suggested he tell Martha.
Even if she thinks it was a lie, it seems like one she appreciates. The Americans has returned time and again to Philip and Elizabeth's struggle to "make it real" when seducing or manipulating their marks and sources — to believe so much in the lies they tell that those lies become powerful enough to support the mission. But, as Philip admitted to Elizabeth last season, sometimes that means "making it real" with each other, too.
Viewed in that light, Elizabeth isn't just telling Philip to lie to Martha to get her on the plane. She's telling him to preserve his relationship with Martha until the last possible second.
But Philip doesn't do that. He refuses to lie to Martha. We could read that as a sign of their relationship being different from his relationship with Elizabeth or with other sources — that telling the truth means it is real, not that it has been made real.
I don't think I really believe that, though. I think Philip's refusal to lie to Martha is his way of ending things with her — his way of putting a stop to making it real. And it's not real. "Clark" doesn’t exist. A moment of honesty might as well be a divorce.
Libby: I've started mentally calling this the "honesty season," and I can see Philip's refusal to lie as a part of that.
Caroline: Every time Philip told Martha a new truth — his face, his job, his name — I was stunned.
But I shouldn't have been, really. He made a very conscious, brazen decision to tell the truth in all instances with Martha, like that could help ease his guilt. But I agree with Amanda: that last truth was his way of ending it. Refusing to massage her expectations anymore — to purposely avoid telling her that he'd join her in Moscow for a lifetime of evening tea and sweaty Kama Sutra sex — was him letting her go.
Of course, their apparent "split" is still entirely on Philip's terms. Martha, despite trying to take matters into her own hands, has never had a say in their relationship, and that didn't change by the end of this episode.
For what it's worth: I felt Philip's sincerity when he told Elizabeth he loved her. Now, Philip is very good at making women believe he's sincere (see: Poor Martha), but the sheer bewilderment on his face when he realized how hurt Elizabeth was by his affection for Martha was really compelling. Like Libby said, Philip's all about honesty this season, for better and for worse.
Libby: I don't think he doesn't love Martha! I just believe he does deeply love Elizabeth — which makes me better understand how pivotal her illness in "Chloramphenicol" was in a season that's mostly put their relationship as a married couple on the back burner.
A few words on the FBI
Todd: I mentally squirmed a little when Philip told Martha his name was "Philip." If she is somehow apprehended by the FBI, I can't imagine that little detail won't come out.
Caroline: I hadn't thought nearly at all about what would happen with the FBI once it cracked the Martha/Clark situation. As always, Stan has the right instincts — and is closer to Philip than he's ever been — but is still two steps behind.
Is Gaad done for? It feels like he is (and probably should be).
Amanda: The poor FBI counter-terrorism office is starting to seem like the hospital on Grey's Anatomy. One disaster after another keeps befalling the same small department.
Libby: We talk a lot about how the KGB seems doomed to fail right now, but "Travel Agents" was a good reminder that the FBI hasn't been doing a great job, either.
One scene that jumped out at me, though, was the agency's thorough search of Martha's apartment. There's nothing like having law enforcement examine every single tampon to drive home the point that nothing about Martha's intimate life is her own anymore.
Amanda: Yes, and it is that much worse because some of the agents unrolling every tampon and flipping through the Kama Sutra were her colleagues. That search would be invasive no matter what, but these are people Martha knows. She liked them, and valued their opinion of her. And now her sex life has become a matter of professional concern for them.
Todd: Watching that search — and later, seeing Stan look over Martha's photos — made me realize how intelligently the show built to this point all those years ago. Philip always insisted there could be no evidence of his presence in Martha's life, and we're now seeing his precautions bear fruit.
Amanda: Except for that fingerprint.
Libby: And they have a sketch that looks slightly more like him than the earlier one did. And if they catch Martha, crucially, they have his name. I feel like this season is building to Stan catching on before the finale, something I didn't think would happen until much later in the show's run.
Todd: I've been quietly blown away by Richard Thomas's performance as Gaad in these last couple of episodes. His "That's crazy" in "The Rat" is already legendary, and his disbelief at the fact that Martha was married all this time was similarly good. Gaad's carefully constructed image of himself is completely disintegrating.
And let's be fair to Stan — he knew something was up with Philip and Elizabeth way back in episode one. One of the show's unremarked upon seductions has been Philip turning his neighbor into his best pal, the better to keep his guard down.
That fingerprint also reminds me of how The Americans' first season really played up the irony that Philip and Elizabeth had to be model citizens, because they couldn't have their fingerprints on file or anything like that. They had to be invisible by conforming.
Caroline: Stan's always been so close to catching them, and not just because he lives across the street. He's a really fucking good FBI agent with killer instincts, but Philip and Elizabeth have always been ready for him. I'm just not sure how much longer that will (or can?) — remain true.
Amanda: One thing I found particularly poignant about the FBI's pursuit of Martha, at least before they realized she had married a KGB officer, was that they seemed to think they were trying to save her, not just arrest her.
They were worried that the KGB had her. When she called her parents, their relief that she must have escaped the KGB's clutches seemed like it went much beyond the hope of catching and interrogating her. That's the flip side of their search of her apartment: To them, Martha marrying into the KGB isn't just a professional betrayal, it's a personal one, and a personal loss. They're worried about her, not just angry at her.
That's something The Americans does extremely well — it adds a personal dimension to every moral decision.
Libby: Stan trying to make excuses for how Martha could have just happened to fall in love with a KGB agent — maybe they just met somewhere, who knows! — really stuck out there. And it makes me wonder how his history with Nina affected him.
And now … thoughts on why Arkady is the best
Todd: Amanda: I must hear your theory that Arkady is the only moral person on this show.
Amanda: ARKADY IS THE BEST!
He is the only person on this show who has always, consistently aligned his actions with his relationships, his country, his colleagues, and his conscience.
One thing The Americans has told us over and over is that one tiny compromise in any of those categories can set in motion a cascade of devastating consequences. When we originally met Nina, for instance, she was prioritizing her relationship with her family over her relationship with her country, by engaging in petty smuggling of goods from America so that her family back in Russia could have a little extra money.
The betrayal of her country and her morals in that act of stealing started out so slight — would anyone argue that the rules she broke were actually that important, or that her family should have stayed in poverty? — but she did it, and Stan caught her, and then she had no choice but to carry on with her betrayals.
Arkady, by contrast, has always stayed within the lines. He protected Oleg's job even though it meant angering his powerful father and potentially suffering the consequences, and we never saw him demand any favors in response. He granted Nina mercy when she came to him and confessed her betrayal after Vlad was killed.
But even though he clearly cared about Nina, he wouldn't cross any lines to protect her. When she was finally sent to prison, Arkady quietly told Oleg that the KGB bugs of the safe house had revealed that she gave more information to Stan than she had admitted. She really was a traitor, and Arkady wouldn't sacrifice his relationship with his country to protect her.
On a different show, that might make him a boring paper pusher, the bureaucrat everyone rolls their eyes about. But not on The Americans. Instead, he offers a symbol of the ideals that the directorate S agents think they're fighting for.
Todd: I mentioned above that one of the reasons this episode was so good was that it was so tight, focused entirely on the hunt for Martha.
But right there in the middle is that scene where Matthew, Paige, and Henry crack open some of Stan's beer, and it seems like it should Mean Something.
Caroline: Sorry, Henry detractors: the kid’s gonna be around a little while longer, I think. If nothing else, he and Matthew keep providing little pockets of the mundane reality that marches on almost in spite of all the high-stakes espionage swirling around them.
There was something touching and almost eerie about seeing Henry, Paige, and Matthew sitting on the couch together, splitting two beers between them, playing at being adults — though really, all of them have been taking care of themselves for a while now.
I was surprised at how seeing Paige on that couch — sitting between two bored, clueless boys play-acting as men — made me sad. But that's Paige's state right now: She isn't working with her parents, but she can't go back to oblivion with Henry.
If there were someone to challenge Arkady's role as The Americans' most moral character, I'd venture to say it's Paige. She's always made her decisions based on her own loyal and altruistic moral compass, and now, she has no idea what to do. I don't blame her for having a beer.
Paige is trying so desperately hard to be a good and moral person, but knowing even just a fraction of the truth has thrown her entire existence out of whack — a feeling that I suspect Martha could understand.
Libby: Henry saying he'd never drank beer before reminded me of the plot line where he and Paige met the scary hitchhiker guy in season one's "Trust Me," and the hitchhiker offered Paige a beer.
Even if neither of the kids drank then, that's another way that "Travel Agents" rhymed with long-ago plot lines: Both episodes underscore that Philip and Elizabeth's kids are basically good, even when no one is watching. Their daring teenage rebellion is … a few beers on Stan Beeman's couch on a weeknight.
But they're also pretty good at taking care of themselves. Paige's plot line has obligingly been toned down a bit as first glanders, and then Martha, provided more urgent crises to be dealt with. But real life means multiple terrible things can happen at once, and I suspect that Paige's crisis of faith — and its implications for her parents — are far from over.
Programming note: Comments are open below! I (Todd) will be dropping in throughout the day to chat about this episode with you. Please join our fun!