This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans: Season 4 Episode 7
“Travel Agents” is two worthwhile episodes of The Americans indelicately smushed into one. The first is an exciting KGB vs. FBI pursuit of everyone’s favorite unwitting secretary turned mole Martha. The second is essentially a marriage drama in which Clark is forced to finally “break up” with Martha.
Both aspects of the episode work on their own but the sum isn’t equal to the parts. “Travel Agents” feels more like two distinct blocks rather than one cohesive narrative. Still, those two blocks are strong enough that the episode is worthy of belonging in this rather great fourth season.
The first half of “Travel Agents” that covers the KGB and FBI’s respective pursuits of the AWOL Martha is an excellent example of how The Americans can ratchet up tension in its own unique way. The Americans does espionage and spy drama right and it does so by depicting how unassuming and low-key the whole thing can be.
Try to think of how many times a character has flat out run in The Americans. Elizabeth did so last season when she was being pursed by Agent Aderholt. Beyond that, I’m hard-pressed to think of many other examples. Good spies don’t run. Because if they did so frequently, it would mean that they were consistently bad enough at their jobs that their cover would be blown and they’d have no other recourse but to take off.
It’s important to The Americans that its chief characters involved in this espionage game — Philip, Elizabeth and Stan — all be competent at their jobs. And as such, they operate with calculated precision instead of frantic scrambling.
If there were ever a time for frantic scrambling, it would be the mission to recover Martha. She knows Philip’s face and as such could jeopardize the lives of the entire Jennings family. And for the FBI, bringing her back into the fold would help rectify what is shaping up to be their biggest embarrassment of the ‘80s. Still, Stan, Philip and Elizabeth all go about the process of finding her using the tried as true methods. A lot this requires just kind of sitting around.
Philip heads right to Joan’s place to wait by the phone in case Martha calls the number he gave her. Elizabeth heads out into the city to systematically run through Martha’s known haunts.* And Stan posts up in the FBI’s office, waiting for one of the city’s tap public phone lines to bear fruit.
Everything we know about the visual arts tells us that this should all be dreadfully boring. But The Americans wisely bets that the circumstances at hand are so inherently stressful and important that its characters can behave in logical, by-the-book ways and the audience will feel the tension anyway.
And it is tense. Mostly thanks to Allison Wright’s performance as Martha as somewhere between a tweaking meth addict and a frightened rabbit. We get to see what the world now looks like through her eyes and it’s a world where any man wearing a nice suit is a potential threat and the bridge where she spent time with her family is a potential option for suicide.
The other characters’ reaction to the situation is telling as well. Poor Agent Gad looks almost as miserable as Martha herself. At one point Gad sticks up for Stan in front of the FBI higher-ups but then he acknowledges that this will likely be the last favor he ever gets to do with him as Directors who don’t notice their secretaries are moles for years aren’t traditionally retained.
Joan** tries to get Philip to eat some borscht while he’s waiting for Martha to call and at first he happily downs the beet-y goodness. It’s the first time he’s had a taste from home in years. But then the latest progress report from Elizabeth convinces him he’s not hungry after all.
Fittingly, Elizabeth is the one to bring Martha in and does so by punching her hard in the stomach so she can’t scream and then walking her away from Valley Trail at Rock Creek Park. Oleg and Tatiana have scrambled together a flight and a pilot for Martha so everything should be wrapped up and ready to go.
There is still, however, the human element. The element that the KGB has so long ignored that got them into this whole Martha mess. With Martha in place and everything calmed down, Elizabeth and Philip are forced to confront the emotional carnage alone.
After Philip reveals his name to Martha*** at the safe house, he heads back downstairs to talk with Elizabeth.
“Philip…if she runs again,” she begins.
“I know,” Philip says.
“You should tell her that you’ll join her. She’ll need that hope to get on the plane.”
Philip doesn’t say anything in response to this and Elizabeth adds in the kicker. She asks him if he could go back to Russia with Martha — if the kids were grown and he had an easy out from this life, would he?
Philip answers quickly, “It isn’t like that,” implying truthfully that he loves Elizabeth and his regard for Martha is more out of a sense of duty and responsibility for her life. But I think Philip misunderstands Elizabeth’s intent in asking…and maybe even Elizabeth fully doesn’t understand either. At least part of Elizabeth knows that Philip loves her and Martha isn’t a threat or problem to her in any way. Instead what she’s asking is if Philip had the option to leave this life of theirs together in America, would he take it?
The presence of Martha has been like a conversational safety valve in the Jennings life. Whenever things got too real and whenever it looked like Philip was about to crack and leave this life behind, they could instead just focus all of their efforts on Martha — Philip straining to keep her safe and alive and Elizabeth straining to make it seem like she was at least slightly jealous even when she wasn’t.
But now Martha will be heading back to Russia and Philip tells her he will not be joining her, eschewing Elizabeth’s advice. Then Jennings will soon no longer have a mole to take care of and may have to confront the unspoken fundamental problem at the center of their marriage. One of them wants to run away; the other doesn’t.
*I find it interesting that both the FBI and the KGB incorrectly assume that Martha’s first trip would be to her church. It’s like they’re both operating under stereotypical assumptions about American citizens and not analyzing the human being involved.
**I’d been calling Joan “The Phone Lady” for awhile now, not realizing she had a name. Getting Philip to hang out in her apartment, with all the wires and recording devices is one of my favorite parts of the episode. I can’t quite articulate why but seeing Philip in this environment is kind of like Dorothy hanging out with the man behind the curtain. “The Phone Lady” had a near mythical status to me and seeing that she lives not dissimilarly to Philip and Elizabeth is weirdly jarring.
***I find it unlikely that the supremely stressed-out Martha would have the wherewithal to ask for Philip’s “real” Russian name but I think it’s powerful in the context of the season for Philip to say out loud “Misha.”