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The Americans asks “How do you solve a problem like Poor Martha?”

Illustration for article titled The Americans asks “How do you solve a problem like Poor Martha?”
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The concept of home is elastic. Home doesn’t have to be where you sleep at night, where you keep your stuff, or where your parents live. It’s a state of mind more than anything, a place of inner peace and security that is often, but not always tied to a place. In “The Rat,” Martha is driven out of her home, regardless of how she might define it.

A short while into her stay at Gabriel’s flophouse, Martha cycles back to the first stage of grief. She asks Philip if, just maybe, he has inflated the direness of the situation. Maybe Agents Gaad, Beeman, and Aderholt aren’t onto her after all. She can show back up for work and mumble something about a 24-hour bug, then slip back into her routine like none’s the wiser. (She would have been harder to talk down had she known that Gabriel shared her rosy outlook.) When Philip tells her that isn’t an option, it finally hits her: “I’m not going home, am I?” It’s a brave moment, one that speaks to Martha’s ability to be rational and clear-headed even while being blinkered enough to still feel affectionate toward the man who seduced and destroyed her. Little does she know the worst is yet to come.


“The Rat” is the latest demonstration of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ commitment to never getting too comfortable in their storytelling. The discovery of Martha’s betrayal and Philip’s decision to bring her in means an altered status quo and a new normal for nearly every character in the show. This is the perfect moment for such a leap, considering that season four is the first time when it seems like The Americans might not be willing or able to deliver on all its promises. The season three cliffhanger, Paige’s confession to Pastor Tim, seemed like a knot too difficult to untie, but six episodes into season four, Pastor Tim hasn’t been nearly the problem he initially appeared to be.

I take no issue with how the writers initially handled the Pastor Tim story, and I admire the discipline of keeping him alive rather than erasing him with a hasty assassination. There are seven episodes left to go in the season, and nothing to suggest the Pastor Tim conundrum won’t rear its head again. But the adverse effect of the show’s conscientious pacing is that it can be hard to tell whether a storyline has vanished permanently or is lurking just outside the frame. And Nina’s abrupt exit serves as a reminder that The Americans will always earn its emotional peaks, but won’t usually offer tidy or satisfying outcomes.

In addition to being the ideal vessel for Alison Wright’s insane talent, “The Rat” is a good-faith gesture to any fan who fears deep down that The Americans might be dangling more threads than it can realistically tie up. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman wrote a relatively scathing review of “March 8, 1983,” in which he argued the show might have made a fatal error by failing to revisit Martha after Philip shed his Clark visage. I’d love to know what Goodman thinks of “The Rat,” which circles back to the Clark reveal in a meticulous way. The episode isn’t just about the fact that Philip complicated Martha’s handling by showing her his real face. It’s about how Elizabeth feels about that decision and how it affects the genuine intimacy and trust underpinning their relationship. It’s about how Gabriel feels about it, as his professional relationship with Philip continues to fray at the edges. That tense moment when Philip revealed his real face is returning, along with potentially lasting consequences.

For Elizabeth, Philip’s decision—which he failed to mention to her—will undoubtedly add to her increasing anxiety about how deep Philip’s feelings for Martha actually go. That reaction would be completely reasonable given the circumstances. At this point, Philip and Elizabeth think nothing of sleeping with other people as a function of the job, but when they’re wearing elaborate costumes and adopting fictitious identities, it’s easy not to think of what they’re doing as cheating. It’s no different from how many married couples negotiate the issue of fidelity, making demands and compromises until there’s a loose list of arbitrary rules like “Don’t have sex with anyone else within 10 miles of the house.” That kind of boundary seems technical until someone crosses it. If Martha has seen Philip’s face, it can be argued that she’s having sex with Philip and not Clark, especially when they’re having noisy sex in a KGB safe house after she’s been mostly apprised of the situation. Elizabeth could reasonably conclude that this is the first time Philip has been unfaithful to her.


I’m less concerned about Philip and Martha’s relationship than Elizabeth, because within the larger context, it’s clear that Phillip is feeling no more than a professional duty to Martha. Not to minimize what that means, because duty doesn’t technically qualify as an emotion but it certainly behaves like one. Elizabeth felt a similar professional duty to a mark in “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep,” which, like “The Rat,” was written by Joshua Brand. Elizabeth had to do a cruel, awful, final thing to a genuine, vulnerable person whose only mistake was proximity to information the KGB needs. She showed herself to Betty, just for a moment, and told Betty the words that might offer her the most comfort in an excruciating time. Obviously they’re two radically different relationships, but Philip is no more in love with Martha than Elizabeth thinks of Betty as a second mother. They’re just duty-bound professionals for whom, sometimes, showing glimpses of the humanity underneath the exterior is the best way to get the job done.

Philip’s concern about Martha is just as valid as Elizabeth’s reaction to that concern. Philip and Elizabeth hate being put in situations where they don’t have the information or resources they need to do the job, or don’t trust the people handling them. Since the show began, they’ve been doing the best work they possibly could considering how often they’re kept in the dark. The staged kidnapping and interrogation—if you’ve forgotten it by now, rest assured Claudia has not—was the worst offense in a long history of the Rezidentura alienating their best assets. In “The Rat,” Philip is stuck trying to convince William to obtain a new sample of glanders or some other easily weaponized chemical agent. William doesn’t have any clue how to get another sample, and as he listens to Philip’s Martha problem, he reveals that he’s still sore about the Rezidentura’s decision to send his wife/partner back to Moscow. It’s never felt more like the KGB is stumbling around blindfolded, and Philip feels a duty to make sure Martha, who didn’t ask for any of this, can at least feel like she isn’t being kept in the dark.


But that isn’t what Martha needed. What Martha needed was to know that even though she lost two homes—her apartment and the office where she spent more than a decade—there’s one home that remains intact. In one of Wright’s many brutal, effective scenes, she tells “Clark” she doesn’t care about her old life as long as he’s a part of her new one. Clark is the only home Martha has left, and she needs to know that its on a solid foundation. Instead, she wakes up to find Philip on a KGB errand and Gabriel waiting to attend to her in Philip’s stead. Feeling isolated and paranoid, she bolts out of the house and threatens to expose Gabriel if he gets too close. Leaving Martha in the wind puts The Americans in the position to explore how far Philip is willing to go to protect her, and that kind of nuanced exploration of the Jennings marriage is exactly what the show does best.

Stray observations

  • I can’t imagine how Gaad keeps his job after this news moves up the chain, but I’d love to see him cheat death. Richard Thomas’ line readings are my favorite thing.
  • Martha’s gun is on the move!
  • This makes the second episode to show Martha popping a daily pill, and I don’t recall the show every mentioning some kind of chronic condition she’s dealing with. Unless I’ve forgotten a detail (which is entirely possible with this show), that ought to pop up soon.
  • A belated congratulations to Brandon J. Dirden, who as of “Clark’s Place” is officially a cast regular. That means I can worry slightly less about when Aderholt going to become the next Chris Amador.
  • Thanks much to the estimable Erik Adams for letting me fill in this week. He’ll be back for next week’s episode.

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