Warning: If you are not caught up through “The Rat,” there are spoilers below.
The Americans is an exceptional series. Granted, it was one that took awhile for me to warm to, but now I can’t sing enough of its praises. Wednesday’s episode, “The Rat,” proves exactly why it’s so great, particularly through Martha’s (Alison Wright) arc in the series. Martha was introduced to us as something of a pathetic character, a woman so desperate for a relationship and flattered by the attentions of a man she knew as Clark (who we knew as Matthew Rhys’ Philip Jennings) that she was willing to make exceptional personal compromises for him. Now, years later, she’s found herself at the center of a KGB operation. But more importantly for Philip — and for us — the question of whether she lives or dies has become of the highest importance.
There have been a few times over the years where it seemed like we might have seen the end of Martha, especially when Clark revealed himself to be Philip. That was a thread that played out a few times in “Rat,” where Philip had to justify to Gabriel (Frank Langella) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) why he revealed himself as himself to her and maintained the relationship. But even though Philip makes a point over and over about having handled Martha for 3 years and knowing the best way to keep her in the fold, we also know that he does have some genuine tenderness for her.
It’s not even through Philip even that was realize this, though, because he is a master chameleon — it’s through Elizabeth. When she questions him about Martha and saving her throughout “The Rat,” she’s also examining his response. There was something in those moments where Elizabeth seemed to acknowledge and understand — without being particularly happy about it — that Martha has become Philip’s “Gregory,” who was a mark Elizabeth ended up having real feelings for years ago before he was killed. She gets it, and yet, she can’t let it go too far. In fantastically juxtaposed scenes, Martha seduces Philip in “The Rat” in the same position Elizabeth did in the prior episode. It was the perfect way to illustration Philip’s complicated feelings and decision-making process between these two women.
But Martha is really more than just a pawn, and has come into her own over the last few seasons. She’s gone from being something of a dolt to actively doing Philip’s bidding at her job, impressing him along the way. It’s why, I believe, he has come to understand her worth not just as a mark, but as a human being. At some point he began to see Martha as a person, and have actual feelings towards her. We also got a few mentions of her sad, hidden background in “The Rat” through Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Dennis’ (Brandon J. Dirden) investigation of her once they believe her to be the mole, and while it fills in some blanks, our empathy for her is already at a maximum.
There’s also an interesting comparison between Martha, who never intended to do anything but has been a massive help to the KGB, and William (Dylan Baker) who Gabriel points out has been in the U.S. for 25 and hasn’t done anything. Martha has become someone extraordinary, while William yearns to be ordinary. And yet, that seems to be — much like Nina (Annet Mahendru) — her death sentence.
Who knows, maybe she will actually make it to Moscow. But the point is that we care deeply either way, and we know it will matter a great deal for Philip moving forward. The other component is that, of course, she left the safe house at the end of “The Rat,” being tired of this game, the questions, the emotional manipulation, and the lies. The Jennings were trained to become other people, to smother their emotions, and to deal with these split lives (something Matthew Rhys portrayed so exceptionally last season, as well). But Martha, though she has shown incredible resolve (and some deep denial), has reached the end of her rope. Her walking out essentially seals her fate, though how it will play out is something The Americans has shown us time and time again can’t accurately be predicted.
The most recent example is that of Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). Who among us thought that Pastor Tim would still be alive at this point, after Paige (Holly Taylor) revealed all of her parents’ secrets to him at the end of Season 3? But in one of the most interesting moral quandaries the show has presented so far (and there have been many), Philip and Elizabeth openly debate killing Tim and his wife to protect their secret. And yet, because of Paige’s involvement, they know that they can’t. Thus, in an incredible dramatic twist, Paige didn’t condemn Tim with those secrets, but may have actually saved him.
Waiting for these outcomes and what will come next is what makes The Americans so exhilarating and excruciating. Every time there was a quiet moment where Martha was upset and Philip was comforting her, I was certain she was about to die. Though I would love to see Martha come out triumphant from all of this, something nags at me that it won’t happen. I spent almost the entirety of “The Rat” believing that Martha would die before the final credits, and I prepared myself for it (unlike what happened with Nina, which blindsided me), seeing what I thought was foreshadowing at every turn. And then something almost much worse happened. Instead, she survives the episode to enter into a potentially far more volatile and extreme fate, one that will again take us on another rollercoaster of uncertainty. It’s almost too much to bear, and yet, I can’t look away.
That is the power The Americans has in its storytelling. It creates characters and reveals things at a pace that rarely boils over, but sits at a constant, agonizing simmer. It’s best TV analogy is Breaking Bad, which remained panic-inducing for seasons at a time. The Americans’ cat-and-mouse game between the Jennings and Stan / the FBI have their ebbs and flows, yet all exist over a constantly building fever pitch. The horror is the idea that they will be caught and yet, why are we rooting for the spies here? But we do so also for Martha, who, perhaps like viewers, got caught up in something she didn’t know was going to become so volatile. She just wanted love, we just wanted a drama. We all ended up with so much more.
The Americans airs Wednesday nights on FX.