Martha's Storyline on The Americans is Making for Incredible TV

(Episode 4.06, "Rat")

TV Reviews The Americans
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Martha's Storyline on <i>The Americans</i> is Making for Incredible TV

Every great show has something that it does better than any other show. For The Good Wife, it’s probably its brilliant use of guest stars. For Fargo, it’s the show’s ability to make even the most horrific violence seem almost operatic. And for The Americans it’s the drama’s ability to make that which is inevitable—Paige learning the truth, Nina dying—play out in surprising, shocking and riveting ways.

Because here we are, exactly where we knew we would be. Martha is in trouble. Philip has pulled her off the street and taken her to a safe house. She calls in sick to work, which raises red flags for the already suspicious Stan and Dennis. Finally they are able to put most of the pieces together. They search Martha’s apartment and see she’s not there and, therefore, not sick. They search Clark’s apartment and find an empty answering machine, and no photos or personal mementos anywhere. Philip’s rash decision to extract Martha helped the FBI learn the truth about Martha faster. But they would have gotten there soon anyway.

At the safe house, Martha is also having several epiphanies. She realizes that “Jennifer” is not Clark’s sister, and even wonders if they are involved. But it also shows how unquestioning Martha still is—up until that moment, she believed that was Clark’s sister at her wedding. Martha finally asks Clark who he works for, and learns it is the KGB. But poor Martha continues to be blind to the truth about Clark.

Everything else may have been a lie, but she steadfastly believes what she and Clark have is real. “It doesn’t matter as long as we’re together,” she tells him, remaining completely oblivious to what the future holds for her.

Alison Wright was just terrific in these scenes. Martha’s utter naiveté doesn’t make her seem stupid, but more blinded by love. Her near desperate need to have sex with Clark was so tragic it was difficult to watch. She’s enmeshed in her own little version of something akin to Stockholm syndrome.

Back at the FBI, Stan and Dennis tell Agent Gaad their suspicions, and he knows it’s true even though he doesn’t want to believe it. “Martha’s worked here over 10 years,” he says incredulously. “Maybe I got it wrong,” Stan says. But Gaad knows he didn’t. “Nobody could have put that pen there more easily than Martha,” he says.

Gabriel and Elizabeth learn that Philip has shown Martha what he truly looks like. At the most base level, Elizabeth remains jealous of Martha—wondering why Philip revealed himself to Martha, and annoyed that he wants to spend the night with her when it’s Elizabeth’s turn to be on duty.

When Philip has to go meet William, Martha freaks out that he’s not there—believing that Gabriel has done something to Philip, once again identifying with her “captor.” Martha storms out of the house and Gabriel tries to stop her. “I’ll scream and everyone will know that you’re KGB,” she tells him. Did anyone else stop breathing during this final scene? Because I did.

What I find most fascinating about The Americans is that sometimes when I watch I can have completely conflicting feelings. I want Philip and Elizabeth to succeed, but I also want Stan to catch them. This episode was the first time I was so clearly rooting for the FBI to find Martha. With a good lawyer and what she knows, maybe Martha can avoid the death penalty? The big plan is to extract Martha to the Soviet Union via Cuba and Prague. But what would life be like for her in the Soviet Union? I’m thinking not so great.

The episode was incredibly intense. Every time they gave Martha something to eat or drink, I wondered if it could be poisoned. When Philip found Martha’s gun, I wondered what he would do with it. When he found her asleep, I wondered if she had intentionally overdosed. I was expecting that Martha could die at any moment.

The episode ends with both the FBI and the KGB searching for Martha, and Gabriel saying what I’ve feared all along. If they find her and she starts screaming that they are KGB, they may have no choice but to kill her. Philip says that he will stay by the phone in case Martha calls, while Elizabeth and Gabriel look for her. He clearly doesn’t want to have to kill Martha if it comes to that.

Martha’s death has seemed inevitable since the day we met her. But the show continues to surprise me. This was an amazing episode of television.

Stray observations:

Of course all this focus on Martha has put nearly everything else on the back burner. No sightings of Pastor Tim and Young Hee in this episode. And wherefore art thou Kimmy?

Henry is still just worried about when they are going to EPCOT. It’s like he’s on a completely different show. To quote one of my favorite lines from Cheers: What color is the sky in your world Henry?

The storyline finally dovetails Arkady, Oleg and the Rezidentura with Martha.

Can you believe it’s only been three weeks since Philip revealed himself to Martha? So much has happened.

We got more insight into why Martha might have been so vulnerable—her heart was broken by her high school sweetheart and she had an abortion at a time when it was illegal. If the FBI knows this, you know Philip did too.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal ®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and a regular contributor to Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.