On The Americans, forget glanders. Knowledge is a disease.
That sentiment has pervaded The Americans from the beginning as poor, trusting, overmatched Martha has dug herself ever deeper into a hole that she didn’t know she was in. Martha was doomed from the moment she naïvely swallowed Clark’s story about being a government auditor and she began placing bugs in the FBI office, unknowingly becoming a tool for KGB operations. Now, Martha’s actions have finally caught up with her, and she’s facing an uncertain future. Best case scenario? The KGB resettles her in the Soviet Union and she never sees her family or friends again. It’s one thing to willingly risk your life like Philip or Elizabeth, but it’s wholly another to mortgage your future without ever having any idea. Poor Martha.
I’ve been expecting Martha’s death as long as The Americans has been on the air, but, in typical Americans fashion, the show has defied convention at every turn. She survived the discovery of the bug in Gaad’s office, she refused to crumble when Philip revealed Clark to be a false identity, and she escaped Season 3’s intense revolver foreshadowing, growing and strengthening at every turn. Allison Wright has proved an impressive talent, transforming Martha from love-blinded secretary into a knowing, if not willing, accomplice of Philip Jennings. The knowledge that Philip killed an innocent man to cover her tracks would have broken Martha at the outset, but now, Martha has the wherewithal to survive both an interrogation by an FBI investigator and an awkward date with Stan Beeman’s partner by her own wits.
Still, Martha has always been playing a game beyond both her abilities and understanding. Once Stan and Dennis Aderholt focused the brunt of their investigation on her, it was only a matter of time, and the emotional fallout in “The Rat” and “Travel Agents” has been monstrous to watch. The illusion around her relationship with Clark has crumbled as Martha is introduced to the system she’s unknowingly supported for years. She’s met Gabriel, knows that the people present at her marriage were not Clark’s mother and sister, and learns the reality of Philip’s job.
Still, even as the mirage dissolves, Philip can’t bring himself to fully explain that their relationship is a farce. He clings to these falsehoods, still professing his loyalty and conveniently not mentioning his other, more legitimate marriage to Elizabeth as though this one last fiction can save Martha from complete humiliation and loss. “Travel Agents” director Dan Attias does a magnificent job contrasting Martha and Philip’s lovemaking in Martha’s hour of need with Philip and Elizabeth’s an episode before in an emotionally comparable moment. Philip is distant with Martha, unable to reach the same warmth and intensity that he shares with Elizabeth. It’s their marriage in microcosm: whatever feelings Philip has for Martha, their relationship has always been one-sided. He isn’t driven by love, but by guilt.
Martha’s one last grasp at agency in her life is to escape Gabriel’s safehouse and run to a park with both KGB and FBI agents on her tail. She calls her parents to say goodbye before contemplating suicide from a Washington DC park bridge, but Elizabeth returns her to the safehouse before she can act. During her last night with Philip, he finally reveals that he won’t be going to the Soviet Union with her, and it’s unlikely that she’ll ever see him again. After all those close calls with capture and death, leave it to The Americans’ writers to have them looking like preferable options to the life of loneliness and isolation that Martha currently faces.
It’s yet another fantastic season from some of the best writers in the business. Martha’s predicament is just another example of the show’s preference for emotional tension over plot twists. In a world where Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead thrive on character deaths, The Americans has a refreshingly low major character death rate, especially when you factor in the show’s subject matter (and as opposed to, say, Homeland, the characters here are actually good at their jobs).
That’s what makes Nina’s death at the end of “Chloramphenicol” so tragic. She, like Martha, was always playing a game that she wasn’t made for, but she continued to press her luck time and time again. Neither Anton Baklanov’s research or Oleg’s father’s government connections could save her when she was caught attempting to communicate with people outside of her prison camp, and she was summarily executed in a cellblock hallway. Nina’s story hasn’t fit into the larger plot in some time, but the fallout from her death is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Oleg, Stan, and other characters.
Meanwhile, the KGB has Philip, Elizabeth, and Gabriel focused on biological weapons, which almost costs Gabriel his life when he’s accidentally infected with glanders. The Americans’ knack for finding crackerjack supporting actors continues with this season’s addition of Dylan Baker, who is equal parts clinical and deadpan as William, the biochemical warfare scientist who’s passing disease samples to the KGB.
The focus on biological and chemical weapons is a wise move as both a largely unexplored facet of the cold war, and as a metaphorical goldmine for spycraft itself. While Philip and Elizabeth are busy coordinating the transport of glass vials and frozen rat specimens, it’s easy to make the connection between viruses and the metaphorical “infection” of knowledge. Philip and Elizabeth are like disease carriers, slowly infecting those around them while they ineffectively attempt to control the contagion.
Just think of how many people know about their secret careers as spies at this point. Their controllers Claudia and Gabriel know. So does William the biochemical scientist, and Hans, Elizabeth’s grad student spy protégé. Martha is essentially an outbreak that has to be quarantined and sent into isolation before she can spread her knowledge to her bosses at the FBI. Paige almost immediately passed the knowledge to Pastor Tim and his wife, and Elizabeth and Philip are doing their best to keep them quiet. That’s a lot of people before you even consider the network of workers that Elizabeth and Philip have turned while working disguised undercover. In its entirety, it’s a tangled web that represents an increasing danger for Philip and Elizabeth. There are a dozen people who could turn them in or get them caught, and it only takes one to bring down the entire net. And that doesn’t even take their son’s burgeoning father-son relationship with the FBI agent across the street into account. Covert espionage is the most dangerous game.
So, you’ve heard it before, but, once again – like a broken record, The Americans is one of the best shows on TV, if not the best. But what’s really incredible is that, somehow, it keeps getting even better. I trust the writers to keep delivering, but, at this point, the biggest danger the Jennings family faces isn’t Stan Beeman, disease, or secrets. It’s ratings. Less than a million people are tuning in for each episode, and, although FX has stated its loyalty to the show, at the end of the day TV is a financial game. How long will the FX bosses continue to support great art over great money? Here’s hoping it’s a long time.
The Dead Drop
– As much as I love him, FBI Director Gaad is probably toast. He barely survived the discovery of a bug in his office a few seasons ago, and now his own secretary is a spy? No way would I let that guy keep running an espionage department.
– My favorite lighthearted moment of the season? 15 year-old Henry Jennings so desperately attempting to look cool and enjoy the taste of beer. Poor kid just wants to go to EPCOT.
– Very Cherny (Tatiana, the female officer at the Rezidentura) has an ability to look both old and young at the same time that I find completely unsettling. Is her burgeoning relationship with Oleg maternal or romantic? I feel like I have no age-related context clues for this.
– Apparently the use of “Under Pressure” in “Clark’s Place” was all director/Stan Beeman actor Noah Emmerich’s idea. Yet another addition to the list of expert musical cues on The Americans.
See you after the finale.