Review: Can ‘The Americans’ bring Martha in from the cold?

Senior Television Writer
04.20.16 102 Comments

A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as I show you how to do your homework on the computer…

“I think Martha's bad.” -Stan

Few things can be more frustrating than watching a TV show where you know much more about what's happening than the characters do. Even if it's not the fault of the ones in the dark, it's hard for them to not come across as dumb, irritating plot devices.

Somehow, The Americans has made it three and a half seasons (and counting) with Stan not figuring out what his neighbors are up to – other than a brief whiff of suspicion way back in the very first episode – without damaging that character in the slightest. Stan is impulsive and willful and not immune to mistakes, but there's never a moment where he and Philip are hanging out where I want to scream at the TV, “HE'S YOUR NUMBER ONE TARGET, DUMMY!”

Still, it was awfully satisfying to spend so much of “The Rat” watching Stan and Aderholt finally put together the pieces about Martha. They've been suspicious for a few weeks now, and ironically Philip's move to bring her in from the cold is what finally convinces them that they're right, but watching them descend through the complicated layers of her double life felt like an enormous relief, even as the other half of the episode was again making it acutely obvious how terrible it is for Martha to be trapped in this situation.

In particular, the scene where the two agents bring Gaad into the vault to break the news to him was delightful in its economy. Gaad and Stan may have been at odds lately, but he knows Agent Beeman wouldn't float a wild theory without solid evidence, and he catches on pretty quickly once they get going. (That he instantly knows to ask about investigating death certificates for Clark's name is a reminder that Gaad was once a field operative himself.) And Richard Thomas' delivery of “That's… that's crazy!” is my new favorite thing in all of television(*), packing so much stunned emotion into a few simple words, and providing a release valve for all the tension going on in the rest of the episode.

(*) Even more than Andre Braugher quoting “Funky Cold Medina.” It's maybe the most amusing line delivery (especially of something that's not inherently funny on the page) in a drama since “NOT GREAT, BOB!”

In fact, it was so invigorating to finally have the FBI on the trail of a major KGB asset that I'll overlook the one piece of sketchy plotting on the Soviet side of the hour: Given the fraught nature of the Martha situation, her bond with Philip, Gabriel's physical condition, and the fact that William also knows Elizabeth, it made precious little sense to insist Philip go along to collect the new virus sample. Even if they needed a second person to do counter-surveillance with Hans, it's hard to imagine the local KGB intelligence network not being able to shake somebody loose to do that while Elizabeth handled the actual meeting. With Philip absent and only ailing stranger Gabriel to watch her, Martha gets both motive and opportunity to bolt the house, and even shout about the KGB in the front yard – which, based on the look on Gabriel's face, only increases the level of jeopardy she's now in. It's definitely not the most elegant story move from a show that usually keeps the seams hidden, but even there, Alison Wright and Frank Langella were so good that it almost didn't matter.

All of the best Americans stories tend to be about espionage and marriage at the same time, and our time in the safe house put two different marriages under the microscope, with Martha finally getting a fuller picture of Clark's life when he's not with her, and Elizabeth coming to realize just how deeply Philip has come to care for his other wife. When Elizabeth asks if he wanted Martha to see his real face, there's some professional dismay in the query (though not as much as Gabriel offered when he found out), but it feels so pointed because – as happened a couple of years ago when she had the terrible idea of  having sex with Clark – she's intimidated by the connection Philip has with this woman. And Martha's realization that Clark is involved with his “sister” was so devastating, and so thoroughly knocked Philip off his footing, that you can't blame him for finally explicitly telling her where he's from and for whom he works. That was an incredible scene, and made all the uglier for Martha insisting that everything will turn out okay “as long as we're together,” little realizing that Oleg and Tatiana are plotting to send her off to Mother Russia by her lonesome.

The Americans has reached a point of no return with the Martha storyline, it seems. Stan and company know too much about her, and she knows too much about Philip (everything but his primary name, at this point), for her to return to her old life. And with her out in the wild, the safest course of action for the Centre may be to have her eliminated. But the show only killed off Nina a few weeks ago, and while it's not historically implausible that two assets tied to the same operation would die within a short time of each other, it seems dramatically simplistic for a show that has very cleverly avoided killing off significant players except when absolutely necessary. (It's also not ideal in a period when it seems like every drama on television is killing off female characters.) Back in season 1, speculation seemed evenly split on whether Martha or Nina would be killed by that year's finale, because their deaths seemed so inevitable. Instead, the show found incredibly smart ways to keep both in play for a very long time. But Nina pressed her luck too hard earlier in this season, and Martha seems on the verge of doing the same (with some nudging from a paranoid Philip) right now. We'll just have to see if she ends up flying to Russia with a suitcase, or zipped inside of one.

Hoping for the former as her best outcome at the moment, dreading the thought of the latter. And yet as bad as I feel for her, good on Stan for finally figuring out just how bad Martha had become.

Some other thoughts:

* Speaking of notable character deaths, nice for Stan to remember his late partner Chris Amador in the midst of all the Martha research, and realizing that's yet another hinky detail about their favorite secretary.

* No Young-Hee appearance (boo), but Elizabeth does use one of Young-Hee's recipes to cook for the kids. Also, tofu really was something you had to explain to people in the early '80s.

* After the show has spent so much time having characters discuss Martha's attractiveness level (here with Aderholt acknowledging there's something sexy about her), I was amused to see that her replacement on Agent Gaad's desk was a generically pretty blonde.

* Is the computer to Henry what breakfast was to Walter White Jr.? Discuss.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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