Like the spies it chronicles, The Americans plays the long game. Back when it cast Alison Wright as Martha Hanson, the lonely FBI secretary main character Philip Jennings began to work and woo in an attempt to gain access to the Counterintelligence office’s inner sanctum, there was no reason to believe she’d have a bigger part to play than any of the other marks and assets the Jennings and their rivals targeted. Now Martha’s at the center of the story, arguably the series’ most exciting and excruciating one to date. And like she’s done for several seasons now, the actor playing her is delivering one of the finest performances that prestige drama as ever seen. Martha’s own career as an agent may be going up in smoke, but it turns out Wright was just the right woman for the job.
“Travel Agents,” this week’s episode, concerns itself almost solely with the hunt for Fed October, as it were—Martha has gone AWOL from Gabriel’s KGB safehouse and from her job at the Bureau, and now two different intelligence agencies are working overtime to track her down. For her part, Martha seems to have no clue what to do, adding an extra element of tension and uncertainty to an already riveting situation. As the various players’ paths crisscross and near-miss, we’re never sure what will happen. Will the Russians catch Martha, or kill her? With the FBI find her first, or find Philip or Elizabeth while they’re in the process of tracking her down themselves? Will the officers of the Soviet Rezidentura effect her exfilitration, or is there some sort of internal double-cross in play, perhaps centered on relative newcomer Tatiana’s connections to the bioweapons program now residing in the form a dead rat in Gabriel’s freezer? Will Martha screw up (as she seemed to when she called her parents’ obviously bugged phone), or cut loose and disappear from the scene completely (the inverse of The Sopranos’ most famously unresolved storyline—Martha as the un-Russian), or end the chase and kill herself? Until it’s all over, with Philip and Martha lying wide awake in bed in the episode’s final scene, the answer isn’t clear; given how much can still go wrong, it’s not even clear then, really. It’s a recipe for absolutely crackerjack spy-thriller cinema.
Here’s where it’s worth noting that the contrast between the intensity of the suspense and the laid-back approach of nearly all the actors involved is absolutely sumptuous. To a man and woman—Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Frank Langella, Noah Emmerich, Richard Thomas, Brandon J. Dirden—the agents on either side speak softly, as if risking an avalanche; tread lightly, as though the gravity of the situation would knock them through the floor otherwise. The wordless glances between Aderholt and Beeman about their distraught boss, Gaad closing his eyes and sighing, the pauses on the phone between Philip and Elizabeth: These all speak volumes about what this work is doing to these people, and how little they feel the need to shout for their feelings to be heard. Wright’s performance as Martha—teary, shaky, barely holding it together, and at this point prone to panicked shouting—works so well not only because of her own skill, but because of how it stands out from the cold, consummate professionals who surround her character. Note that when Elizabeth is finally forced to take drastic measures to secure Martha’s cooperation, she punches her hard in the side, with the express purpose of silencing her. Silence is the only way these people know how to stay alive.
Amid all the pulse-pounding cat-and-mouse games, the little moments stand out all the clearer. Most obviously, there’s that cutaway to Paige and Henry Jennings sneaking beers and being teens with Matthew Beeman. The sole scene in the episode that had nothing to do with the hunt for Martha, it never once elicited the “oh come on, get on with it!” reaction you might expect, not from me anyway. Rather, I was right there with them, (re)experiencing the illicit thrill of three kids deciding, collectively, that they weren’t kids anymore. A very soft echo of their parents’ skullduggery, their shared deception and defiance is only made possible by that skullduggery, since that’s the reason why they’ve been left to their own devices. Constantly lied to by their folks, they construct a little lie themselves, thus showing one another a respect the adults in their lives never do. Napoleon and Deadwood agree that history is a lie agreed upon; this is the Beeman/Jennings kids becoming the great men and women of their own history, one sip at a time.
A more chilling aside takes place at the KGB call center where Philip waits to hear from either of his wives. The operator, used to a life of isolation, seems nervous about the goings-on but happy enough to have company, serving Philip cold borscht he finds delicious despite his lack of appetite. (“Ginger?” “You’re good.”) But something else is eating at her. Asking him if he ever met her predecessor, she tells him that when she was brought over, it happened in a big hurry. “I got this weird feeling,” she says. “Like something bad had happened—” She’s cut off by an incoming call, so Philip never has to come up with an alternative to telling her that the last woman to hold this job was murdered by an American black-ops killing machine her government was unsuccessfully blackmailing, and who nearly murdered Philip in turn. It’s been ages since that storyline came up; the message is that there’s no escaping the crimes of the past, however much time passes.