Warning: This post contains major plot points from tonight’s episode of “The Americans,” “Travel Agents.”
The big question hanging over everyone’s heads at the conclusion of tonight’s episode of “The Americans” isn’t so much “Is this whole spy game worth it?” but “Is learning the truth worth it?”
In yet another stellar turn by season MVP Alison Wright, Martha‘s story may have come to a dismal end in “Travel Agents.” After spending much of the episode on the run – her consistently petrified facial expressions reiterating how she had absolutely nowhere or no one to turn to at this point – the fallen KGB asset was reunited with Philip/Clark after a wild goose chase around Washington, D.C. Now fully aware of everything about her faux husband, Martha is finally facing the consequences of having all the facts: The fantasy was way better than the reality.
She ends “Travel Agents” having learned Clark’s real name(s) (both Philip and Mischa – though I believe this is the first time we’ve ever heard Philip provide his birth name of Mikhail). But in the most devastating blow – one that must’ve been far more painful than the physical one Elizabeth dealt her in the park – Martha is also informed that she will be exfiltrated to the Soviet Union, where Philip will not be joining her.
“I’ll be alone,” she laments to Philip. “Just the way it was before I met you.”
Martha wanted honesty, but all it’s seemed to get her is a one-way ticket to Moscow, where she’ll be surrounded by people who will treat her with “respect and honor” (while providing Russian-language lessons) – but not love (or what she believed to be love). Doesn’t sound like much of a fair trade-off, even if her other choice is an American prison.
Another person who probably would’ve preferred to remain in the dark tonight is Agent Frank Gaad. Thanks to the superior work of his counterintelligence staff – headed up by Stan and Agent Aderholt – the proof of Martha’s treason can no longer be denied. Not only was Gaad’s secretary dating a KGB officer, but he is stunned to find out “they seduced and married her.” Now in possession of Martha’s marriage certificate, Gaad knows that his days are numbered as the head of counterintelligence. As he tells Stan, between the pen bug planted in his office, Gene’s death and now Martha, there is no way the FBI will allow him to keep his job. But at the same time, this scene just proves how out of touch Gaad has been all this time, asking Stan of Martha: “Was she that unhappy?”
Yes, Mr. Gaad. She was, but you never noticed her, did you?
Also, perhaps the less Elizabeth knew about the depths of Philip’s relationship with Martha, then maybe the Jennings marriage wouldn’t be hanging by a thread – and Martha wouldn’t have suffered a severe sucker-punch to the gut. After Gabriel tells Philip and Elizabeth that Martha bailed from the safe house, the Jennings spring into action, combing the city so they can get to their asset before the FBI does. But beneath Elizabeth’s dowdy exterior as “Jennifer,” there breathes an angry, jealous wife/agent, which she’s been ever since Martha overshared during a drunken girls’ night back in season 2.
The moment she tracks Martha down, Elizabeth appears more than willing to put everyone out of their misery by shooting her husband’s lover point-blank. She reaches into her pocket, but ultimately decides to keep Martha alive. Still, that’s not going to happen without Elizabeth taking at least some of her long-simmering frustrations out on the woman who horned in on her marriage: True, Martha’s frightened, hysterical reaction to Elizabeth’s presence is completely natural, but I think it’s safe to say that Elizabeth got a little enjoyment out of driving that silencing strike into her rival’s stomach.
Moscow Is Lovely This Time of Year
Once Martha has been returned to the safe house, Elizabeth confronts Philip over both their own marriage – and his relationship with their asset. It’s another one of those rare moments where we get to see Elizabeth’s vulnerability; it’s always been there, but she just does a much better job than anyone else at hiding it. She basically gives her husband a get-out-of-jail-free card, offering him the opportunity to go to Russia with Martha: “I’d understand,” she says. Elizabeth knows how desperately Philip wants to leave this lifestyle, and for a brief second, is prepared to sacrifice her children’s happiness, as well as her own, for his.
Philip, however, insists that leaving his family is not what he wants – and that his relationship with Martha isn’t what Elizabeth thinks (well, I think we’d all disagree with that statement). But that realization winds up being a huge turning point for Philip, because even he can’t keep playing this charade with Martha anymore. Elizabeth encourages him to spend his last night with Martha, and give her (false) hope that he’ll join her in the Soviet Union soon. Before she leaves, they kiss passionately, another signal that Philip has made his choice.
The one thing he refuses to do, out of respect to the woman who devoted her life to him for so long, is lie to her any further. This means, instead of feeding Martha a false promise that they’ll be together in Moscow one day, he pretty much tells her they will never see each other again after tonight. The only assurance he does give her is that he’ll get a message to her parents – whom she calls earlier in “Travel Agents” in an absolute panic, with only enough time to let them know she loves them. They deserve that much.
As Philip and Martha lie side by side in bed, neither one is able to sleep. Across town, at the Jennings residence, Elizabeth is battling insomnia too, suggesting that just because Philip “chose” her, it doesn’t mean their marriage is back on track yet. This part of the story appears to have come to an end, but instead of feeling any sort of relief or resolution, it’s not only the viewers who are suffering from a severe depression, but the characters as well.
It would seem uncharacteristic of a show like “The Americans” to suddenly find a way to give Martha a happy ending (see: Krilova, Nina). But as long as the character remains alive – and as of the conclusion of “Travel Agents,” still on American soil – I wouldn’t blame anyone for secretly hoping that somehow Martha won’t be relegated to a Russian-language redux of her previous life.
- With this week’s narrative devoted entirely to a single subject – watching both the KGB and the FBI hunt down Martha – it made sense to give Paige, Henry and Matthew Beeman a couple of scenes together to highlight the sheer irony of what was going on just outside their door. While Stan was preoccupied with cracking the “Clark Westerfeld” case (still clueless that it’s his pal Philip), the latchkey Jennings and Beeman kids bonded over beer and Brooke Shields‘s famous Calvin Klein jeans commercial.
- When Philip goes to the call center in hopes of hearing from Martha, it’s a nice touch seeing how the blond woman who runs it – named Joan – hasn’t entirely adjusted to her new American cover identity. She mentions to Philip how her assignment to the United States was “accelerated” (owing to her predecessor’s assassination in season 2), which explains why she’s still cooking up cold borscht for lunch.
- Even in an episode entitled “Travel Agents,” it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Philip and Elizabeth are not in charge of making Martha’s flight plans. Even the KGB knows by now that they’re terrible travel agents (even if Gabriel doesn’t), which is why Oleg and Tatiana are given the assignment.
“The Americans” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Follow our recaps all season long, and head over to the WSJ TV Club to discuss your thoughts on this week’s episode.