The last two harrowing episodes of The Americans are the perfect excuse to talk about how great Alison Wright has been on the show as FBI secretary Martha, seduced and married off to a KGB officer who was, as we know, already very much married to someone else. Poor Martha. And yet, as I pointed out last week regarding “The Rat,” Martha has really come into her own throughout the last season into this one. She bought her Chekovian gun, she started willingly scheming for Clark (a.k.a. Philip, a.k.a. Matthew Rhys who is another exceptional performer on a weekly basis), and she even came to believe in their cause. Kinda sorta.
Mostly, she was just a fairly simple woman who was desperate to find love, and Clark exploited that. She went along with it, despite his increasingly unfair demands on her, and seeing her delude herself about any power she might have in those compromises was heartbreaking. Clark took over and essentially ruined her life. He prevented her from finding true love, from having a family, from even keeping a job she was great at and respected in (or at least appreciated). Though I was certain throughout most of “The Rat” and “Travel Agents” that Martha would not be long for this mortal coil, her being shipped off to Russia to live out her days scared and alone seemed potentially even worse. Or perhaps she’ll thrive there with a fresh start — if she makes it.
While Alison Wright’s steely determinism that kept breaking with fear throughout “The Rat” was great work on her part (particularly towards the end when she left and stood up to Frank Langella’s Gabriel), the emotional fever pitch she had to maintain throughout “Travel Agents” was masterful. There was never just one note to it. At first she was frightened and paranoid that she was being followed (by FBI? By KGB?), which gave way to a restrained release when she called her parents. She wept and was in terrible emotional pain, and yet, tried to keep her voice steady for them, telling them clearly that she loved them, and then hanging up. Wright here was devastating, especially as Martha then moved calmly to the edge of the bridge and looked down at her possible end.
She returned to a pay phone and to Clark, then, making a decision to live and see this through. Again, the struggle that Wright conveyed as Martha decided whether or not to trust Clark was absolutely incredible. It was the most intimate and knowable look we may have ever had at Martha, and once again (along with the call to her parents) it showed us what we are meant to see with her character. She is not a pawn or a punch line — she is person, a victim. And her death, if it comes, will be the series’ most devastating yet.
Matthew Rhys’ anxiety as Philip throughout “Travel Agents” was also raw and intimate, visually conveying how much he cares about Martha. It’s enough to trouble Elizabeth (Keri Russell) into asking genuinely if he would rather go to Russia with Martha, and intimating that perhaps he loves Martha more than he loves her. Philip shuts this down and I believe him when he says he loves Elizabeth (subtext: more). But he also plays down how much he does love Martha. When they talk in her room afterwards, his eyes well with tears at the pain he’s caused her, and he is done lying to her. He says his name is Mikhail / Mischa, and admits that he will not be joining her in Russia. He also promises to get a message to her parents, something we see him fighting with Gabriel about in the preview for next week’s episode.
Things at the Rezidentura that have to do with Tatiana make me suspicious that Martha will make it to Russia, but it seems fairly clear that either way her story will be wrapping up soon. Her life in America, anyway, is over, with the FBI essentially caught up to her and everything she was doing against them. But what is so amazing about The Americans and its storytelling, as I keep mentioning in my writing about it, is how much it makes us genuinely care about these characters to the point of extreme anxiety and concern. Unless you have a stone heart, you can’t help but feel incredible amounts of both sympathy and empathy for Martha and her plight. It’s built by the foundation of her story, but it comes alive and permeates viewer consciousness through Wright’s emotional performance (how exhausting must that have been to keep up throughout “Travel Agents?”), as well as the reflection of that through Philip.
But for two solid weeks, The Americans has fittingly and wonderfully centered on Martha. If this is her swan song, which is seems it is, what a fantastic final few performances from Alison Wright. Martha, the oft-overlooked person in the office and even on the show, has finally gotten the spotlight she deserves.
The Americans airs Wednesday nights on FX. You can read about former TV Performers of the Week here.