Infidelity has always been a part of The Americans. It’s a job requirement for the Jennings, who must maintain the front of a happily married couple while using their sexual wiles to acquire intel, information, and blackmail material. In the reflection of Philip and Elizabeth’s domestic life across the street, faithlessness haunts the Beeman household: Stan’s tryst with Nina tore his marriage to Sandra apart. In the web of fantasy the KGB spun around Martha, Martha added her own thread of adultery, telling Aderholt that the mystery man she’s been seeing is also a married man.
But what’s always been a background concern for the show has swiftly become a primary theme in season four. As the emotional collateral damage accumulates in “Travel Agents,” a facet of The American’s marital analogy crystalizes. During the search for Martha, Agent Gaad sulks like a spurned lover. When Elizabeth catches up The Other Woman in the park, she takes Martha to a little place Loretta Lynn likes to call Fist City.
When you cheat on your significant other, you’re branded a two-timer, someone who’s chopped out of family photos and referred to by impolite names among polite company. When you cheat on your country, you’re branded a traitor, and the consequences are far more severe. Poor Nina has already experienced both sides of this coin. As of “Travel Agents,” Poor Martha’s knee deep in it.
In a just world, Alison Wright wins the Emmy for Supporting Actress in a Drama Series on the strength of Martha’s “Travel Agents” phone calls alone. As the target of simultaneous manhunts conducted by the FBI and the KGB, Martha is the Woman of the Hour, and that gives Wright several opportunities to flex her crying muscles and convey, in measured, affective doses, the fragile state of a woman on the brink. The mist of paranoia at the edges of “The Rat” blooms into a full-on fog in “Travel Agents,” as Martha’s flight into the D.C. streets is halted by a black sedan and men in trench coats. Their innocuousness is revealed soon enough, but Wright and director Dan Attias work hard to make it seem like any smiling face Martha encounters could be the last she ever sees. The camera swoops around and zeroes in on Wright like she’s Mia Farrow at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, all the better to put us in Martha’s head. Wright’s mask of determination becomes a look of terror in the blink of an eye, and though there are no demonic eyes waiting for her behind the bassinet curtains, the effect is just as bone chilling.
The cheater’s greatest fear is that of exposure, and that’s the fear that drives the front half of “Travel Agents,” the most suspenseful stretch of season four to date. That risk is something Philip has already rationalized and taken, but it’s new to Martha, and for all her hide-and-seek skills, she’s exposed like no other Americans character before. Stan’s already poked around her dirty laundry, but here the minutiae of Martha’s life is spilled out for all her co-workers to see. While Agent Beeman strips an electrical outlet, his colleagues in forensics raid the cupboards and pull her tampons apart. In the search for answers, these tiny details are all potential clues, as illustrated when “Travel Agents” moves to the vault. Necklaces and family snapshots are juxtaposed with the real evidence hanging on the walls, and a scrapbook is temporarily rendered as explosive as the composite sketch of Elizabeth hovering above Aderholt.
Leave it to the cheater to pull out the one relevant detail from these big piles of nothing: The photo of Martha and her parents by the Taft Bridge. By the time he gets to the bridge, Martha has already left, but the fact that counterintelligence even gets that close gooses the suspense of “Travel Agents” tremendously. For 20 minutes or so, the episode is a tightly wound chase, as the telecommunications technologies of the 1980s allow Martha to slip through the nation’s capital relatively unnoticed, her only footprints marked by phone calls that take too long to trace. Perimeters are set and expanded, Philip goes to the switchboard operator’s hideout to eat borscht and wait nervously by the phone, and Oleg and Tatiana plot Martha’s exfiltration behind the scenes—all of it feeding the episode’s sense of tension.
And then Elizabeth punches Martha in the cut, and the whole thing swivels. “Travel Agents” is the first Americans script by playwright Tanya Barfield, and the intimacy of its second half evinces a writer with a theatrical background. It’s a stunning translation of the show’s two faces, with the spy stuff lighting off fireworks in the opening acts, their brilliant flashes then illuminating the quieter scenes that follow. But first there’s that punch, which is so unexpected and visceral that it actually made me gasp in unison with Martha.
This is a blow that Elizabeth has wanted to strike for days, the path of her fist tracing back through the conclusion and laundromat call from “Clark’s Place.” The encounter between Elizabeth and Martha harkens back to the Pastor Tim dilemma from earlier in the season: Elizabeth enters the scene with her hand in her pocket and her finger presumably on a trigger. She could take Martha out then and there, relieving a tremendous personal and professional headache. But Philip would never trust her again.
In this moment, Elizabeth walks right up to a ledge and decides to throw a punch instead of pitching herself into the abyss, and she spends the next few scenes testing similar limits. It seems like that’s what she’s doing in the “Would you go with her?” exchange, a “Would You Rather?” scenario that ticks off every box on Philip’s retirement wish list—with one key exception. Caught in a situation where extramarital sex is actually starting to feel like extramarital sex, Elizabeth just wants to know if Philip cares enough about Martha to theoretically leave for Russia with her. His answer is almost as unexpected as the fist in Martha’s stomach: “I love you.”
I’m having trouble remembering if we’ve ever heard the Jennings say those words to one another. But even if this isn’t the first declaration of their feelings, the impact is still huge. Philip, who’s been learning to articulate his emotions at EST, loves Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who’s always been terser than her husband, reciprocates with involuntary smiles, a kiss, and three words that show how deeply she knows and loves Philip: “You should stay.” It’s touching stuff, buoyed by the knowledge that the Jennings have once more come perilously close to losing one another.
But some unease lingers. Elizabeth has to go home alone. Martha and Philip can’t sleep. The switchboard operator remembers feeling that “something bad had happened” to her predecessor. There’s a dead, pathogen-carrying rat sitting next to the ice tray, and Tatiana is awfully vague about that “sample” for which she’s arranging transport. The feeling is summed up in Stan’s last scene with Gaad, which throws Martha’s sham marriage certificate on top of the evidence pile. Richard Thomas delivers his lines with a mix of resignation and disbelief, like Gaad just found out he was being cheated on for a decade, and missed every single sign. (“Is the Kama Sutra that good? Or was she that unhappy?”) We know it’s only been three years since Martha’s initial betrayal, but that doesn’t lessen the sting. Under Gaad’s watch, his office was bugged and his secretary got married to a KGB agent. (And neither snow nor heat nor rain nor gloom of night can stop the Soviet bug that still roams the halls of the FBI.)
Stan, however, is very good at picking up signs. He remembered the bridge, he can tell when too many beers are disappearing from the fridge, and his hunch about Martha panned out. Slowly but surely, season four has been reinforcing Agent Beeman’s powers of observation. Can it be much longer before he’s accusing Philip of something other than sleeping with Sandra?
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week Seven: B+. “Travel Agents”’ most defining wig choice is the wig that goes unseen: Martha is still calling Philip “Clark,” but Clark’s blonde mop appears to have been retired. R.I.P. Clark.
- Was there any Mail Robot? You grow cold when you keep holding on.
- There’s an “unsupervised youths in the suburbs” authenticity to the snack and soda choices Henry and Matthew make in “Travel Agents”: There’s a box of Jujyfruits for each of them, and they didn’t stop at Pepsi—they went straight for a can of Royal Crown Cola.
- Meanwhile: Nothing comes between Henry and nothing coming between Brooke Shields and her Calvins.
- I’m really enjoying season four’s glimpses at other lives within Directorate S. Last week, William elaborated on why he works without a partner, and this week Philip spends a tense afternoon with the switchboard operator. The switchboard operator’s isolation is implied whenever she contacts the Jennings, but she appears downright starved for company here. Not starved for borscht, though—plenty of that to go around. Her secret ingredient? It’s ginger.
- When Martha asks Elizabeth “Are you sleeping with my husband?”, I thought “Couldn’t Elizabeth ask Martha the very same thing?”