This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 6
Espionage would be a lot easier if “rats” and “moles” were well-trained literal rats and moles and not actual human beings with agendas, prejudices and these pesky feelings.
No one in “The Rat” ever explicitly refers to Martha as a “rat,” not Philip, Elizabeth and Gabriel nor Stan and everybody at the FBI. But it’s clear that Martha is the “rat” that the title refers to as Philip strives to bring her in to safety and Stan comes to realize she was likely leaking information this whole time and there is no such person as the adulterous Mr. Clark Westerfeld.
Martha is a rat and by almost any definition Martha has been an absolute A+, five gold star version of one. She’s bugged the FBI’s Langley, Virginia office on several occasions. She’s gained access to the invaluable Mail Robot and she’s provided the KGB with the tracking schedule for William. Nearly everything that Philip and Elizabeth have accomplished in the past four years has been because of Martha.
Martha has been so successful because on a very real level, she never actually perceived herself as a rat. First, she was just offering some crucial quality control information to Clark Westerfeld about the inner-workings of this particular FBI office as a kind of internal audit for the government. Then, when that reality falls away, she is able to convince herself she is doing this spying for love. She doesn’t know precisely who Clark is working for but it doesn’t matter because she’s working for him. They’re a team. To Martha, Clark and Martha are Philip and Elizabeth in her own internal version of The Americans.
Then in “The Rat,” Martha wakes up from a Xanax-induced nap in a safe house, with her husband away on an inexplicable mission yet again. She’s just moments ago found out that she has been doing work on behalf of the KGB and someone has now stolen her gun from her purse and she is alone in a house with some weird, old British guy. All pretenses have fallen away. She isn’t doing this for the government. She isn’t doing this for love of Clark. She is a rat. And so Martha Flips. Her. Shit.
She runs away from a hobbled Gabriel into the D.C. streets in broad daylight, yelling that she’ll expose all of them if Gabriel comes after her. How on Earth did we get here? At the beginning of the season, Martha seemed ready to ride or die with her hubby after accepting that he had murdered an innocent person on her behalf. It all comes down to that human element that the KGB can’t seem to understand.
When Paige found out about what her parents really do for a living, she asked them exactly what that entails. Not wanting to admit that a lot of straight-up murder goes into it, Philip and Elizabeth give a sanitized answer that the nature of their work involves getting people to trust them. This may have seemed like a soft, euphemistic answer at the time but Martha’s meltdown reveals its far more real than anybody could have possibly understood.
Philip and Elizabeth essentially work in human resources to an extreme degree. And just like any human resources department at a mid-sized company, it turns out that upper management has no fucking clue what they’re doing. Philip and Elizabeth are the ones on the ground every day, building relationships, solving problems and making sure everyone’s W4 is filled out properly and then there are their handlers in the background absolutely not understanding that just because you view another human being as a good “rat” doesn’t mean they won’t eventually begin acting like a frightened, unreasonable human again.
Gabriel told Philip last episode that Martha’s work was too invaluable to bring her back in to safety now. And after Philip and Elizabeth’s passionate love-making in the beginning of “The Rat,” Elizabeth assures Philip that Martha will be fine.
Philip thinks otherwise, however, and brings Martha in to a safe house without Gabriel’s permission. Philip is the one doing the lion’s share of work with Martha and the one who thinks he knows what’s best for her. More importantly, he’s beginning to believe more and more that his handler’s have no idea what they’re doing. He’s tells William as much at the beginning of the episode during a meeting in which he tells William they need more glanders. And then at the end when William is delivering a sample of a new, just as deadly virus, he casually asks Philip what happened with his agent as though he were asking how the chrysanthemums were coming in.
“I brought her back in,” Philip says.
“Good for you!” William responds, without sarcasm for once in his life. William tells Philip that when the KGB opted to bring William’s partner back to Russia, he wanted to fight it but didn’t and has regretted it ever since.
Philip’s decision to bring Martha in is all about a “gut feeling” he says. “The Rat” begs the question: how much of that gut feeling is not his gut telling him he’s right but his gut telling him Gabriel doesn’t know what he’s talking about?
And as it turns out, Philip is indeed right. Stan is hot on Martha’s trail and by the time she calls off work the next morning, he has pretty much figured the whole thing out. Credit The Americans for making Philip and Elizabeth’s main foil a hyper-competent agent instead of a bumbling fool. It’ll be embarrassing for Stan when he finds out that his next door neighbors were KGB agents this whole time but at least he’s pretty much the uber-agent in almost every other aspect.
Still, “The Rat” brilliantly leaves the door open as to whether Philip really had a gut feeling or any logical pretense for brining Martha in.
After Gabriel attempts to tell Philip that Martha cannot stay at the safe house and will be returning to work tomorrow, Philip explodes. You don’t know because I was there!” he says. “Stop handling me, Gabriel because Martha is DONE.”
Philip reacts to passionately and so personally that it’s clear that when he yells “Martha is done,” he is at least in part, yelling “I’m done.”
The KGB has ignored the pressure it has placed on Martha and it’s understandable they wouldn’t have a good handle of what her limits are but what’s more egregious is that they clearly have no perspective on where Philip’s limits lie. Gabriel nor anyone else at the Rezidentura understands the hell that Philip has had to go through to maintain this asset.
“The Rat” helpfully reminds us of the psychic damage Philip has undergone with just an absolutely brutal, heartbreaking scene. At the end of “Clark’s Place” Philip and Elizabeth shared a passionate, meaningful, very, very real lovemaking session. And then in “The Rat,” not one day after Philip and Elizabeth’s beautiful encounter, Martha in a moment of frightened desperation tries to do the same thing with Clark. And it’s not the same. It’s quick and illicit and sad and both Philip and Martha look more miserable after because they both know there’s no real love behind it.
And so Martha is out on her own and the only rat that Philip and Elizabeth are left with is the actual one infected with a mysterious virus that William has brought them.