Kids change everything, and not only in ways you’d expect. You can always guess at the obvious ones. First a parent is hardened by sleepless nights, then softened by baseball games and ballet recitals and eventually terrified by ravenous teenage love. Then there’s the unexpected. Like Philip, you can come to realize that the life you’ve chosen for yourself is not the one you want for your kin. Or like Elizabeth, you can realize that the life you’ve chosen for yourself is exactly the one you want to pass down.
Or you can be like Martha Hanson and begin to fear that your rarely around, ridiculously-quaffed spy husband may not be spying for the right team.
Philip as Clark marrying Martha in season one was one of The Americans first truly mind-bending moments and showed just how deep into espionage the Jennings are willing to go. In season three, however, Martha hasn’t had much to do other than pine for children with Clark. But that’s unfairly reductive to Martha. On a show where the doomsday clock of the world is constantly at five minutes to midnight, one woman’s biological clock is going to pale in comparison. Still, it matters to Martha. Adopting or birthing a child is a little apocalypse unto itself. Everything ends and then starts anew. So when Agents Gaad, Aderholt and Beeman discover the listening device she planted in Gaad’s pen for Clark, Martha wakes up. The combination of how visceral and scary potentially being caught is with the prospect of soon being responsible for another life finally makes Martha realize just how little she actually knows about her husband.
The aforementioned scene where Gaad, Aderholt and Beeman find the bug is fantastic in its placement. Philip had Martha plant that very early into season two and both the Jennings and we as an audience have taken for granted that it would just always be there. There was nothing thematically to suggest that the bug would be discovered anytime soon. Gaad’s pen just stopped working in the middle of an episode, like pens sometimes do. And Aderholt happens to be able to hear a device rattling around inside it. It’s mundane and lucky – just like a lot of spywork on The Americans. The technology Philip and Elizabeth have access to is tremendous for its time period but just like any and all technology – it fails sometimes. More importantly: the “deus pen machina” immediately creates tension and another important plotline for the season out of thin air.
The FBI brings the eponymous Walter Taffet (Jefferson Mays) in to investigate who could have planted it. Martha in her enlightened state smartly destroys the transmitter Philip gave her. The ordeal makes Martha do something she had not done before: ask to see Clark’s apartment. It seems like Philip would be screwed but of course, the Center had a contingency for that, just like always. Clark does have an apartment and it seems pretty close to normal, if a little off, just like Clark, himself. For the first time in three years, Martha seems legitimately uneasy with the mysterious man she married.
While Martha and the FBI are dealing with their issues, Philip and Elizabeth have turned their eyes to South Africa. The KGB is interested is Hans discovery of a radical South African named Eugene Venter trying to turn college students to his cause. Elizabeth rendezvous with South African communist Reuben Ncgobo to concoct a pan to nab Venter. Just like everyone else on this season, Ncgobo has children (four boys) and very particular ideas on raising them.
At least for the time being, this sudden turn to a South Africa storyline while the seduction of Kimmy and the wooing of Lisa* is still ongoing is a little frustrating. The Americans still has six episodes to tie everything together but “Walter Taffet” suffers for this diversion.
*I thought Philip’s wig while playing Elizabeth’s boyfriend Jack when meeting Lisa was the worst wig we’d see in this episode. His wig in the kidnapping scene rendered me very, very wrong.
The writers must be aware of this and pull out their action movie bag of tricks for a violent and satisfying ending (which is sharply directed by Stan Beeman, himself, Noah Emmerich). Philip posts up at a diner, monitoring South African radical Todd and waiting for Venter. Elizabeth waits in a van doing the same. Everything builds up wonderfully thanks to yet another perfectly utilized Fleetwood Mac song* and the kidnapping is done with shocking speed and precision, leading to a civilian death as well.
*The song is “The Chain” and it goes toe to toe with “Tusk” as the best use of a Fleetwood Mac song in an Americans action scene, which I never thought would be possible.
For as effective as the action setpiece is, it’s still a little tacked on and pales in comparison to what precedes it. When Philip gets back in bed with Elizabeth after his tense night with Martha, Elizabeth softly apologizes for not telling him about her talk with Paige. Philip responds by telling Elizabeth he has a son in Afghanistan. Even though they’re tearing each other apart in their war for Paige’s heart and mind, Elizabeth still reacts appropriately to this news, supporting Philip. “I don’t know but I don’t think I’m ready for another kid,” he jokes the next morning about Martha.
But he must know on some level that Martha may not want to adopt with him anymore. Clark’s own darkness was discovered alongside the bug. And Martha wouldn’t want to bring a child into that union. Or hell, maybe she would, just to ensure that Clark is firmly on her side. It worked for the KGB. On The Americans, the children aren’t just our future – they’re our excuses.