Title: Walter Taffet
Episode M.V.P: Alison Wright
“Poor Martha.” That’s been a common refrain for fans of The Americans for a long time now. However, has it ever been more applicable than it was in this episode? “Walter Taffet” was the episode when Martha’s world began to cave in around her—when the secrets that once seemed exciting and romantic suddenly became overwhelming and terrifying. In this episode, “Poor Martha” wasn’t something I said out of pity; it was something I said out of genuine fear for this woman and what she was immediately going through. I felt Martha’s fear and growing sense of unease about her marriage intensely, and it was all because of the stunning work of Alison Wright.
It seems that every actor on The Americans has the ability to make magic happen in silent moments, and Wright is no exception. Martha didn’t say much in this episode, but it was her story and her emotional turmoil that meant the most to me throughout the hour. From the moment the curtains closed around Agent Gaad’s office to her final moments with “Clark,” I couldn’t have taken my eyes off her face if I wanted to. But why would anyone want to when so much was being conveyed with each breath and blink?
Fear is a difficult emotion to play because it so often leads to overacting—excessive hand-wringing, heavy breathing, looking like a caged animal, etc. And for some people, that’s an honest depiction of fear. But for others, fear manifests itself in quieter ways. I loved that Martha cried more than once in this episode from the weight of the stress she felt. It felt incredibly honest and made Martha once again a tangible link to humanity in this cold world of espionage. Each time Wright wiped her eyes (in the realistic way we as women often do to keep our mascara from running and giving us away), my heart broke for Martha. But watching her fight those tears made me feel something besides heartbreak, too—and that was admiration. For all the realistic, palpable fear Wright put into her performance, she also took great care to show that Martha was strong enough to keep that rising fear at bay when she needed to. It reminded me of the old adage that bravery isn’t the absence of fear; it’s being terrified and choosing to keep going anyway.
There was such nuance in Wright’s performance as the episode went on. The paranoia and desperation in the painfully tense bathroom scene gave way to the façade of calm that masked her nearly overwhelming fear during the search of the office. And that façade was still in place during her moments with “Clark,” but then Wright showed us something besides fear under the surface of her “just a bad day” façade: doubt and skepticism. Martha was once one of the few openly trusting characters on a show where people are always skeptical. Now, however, Wright showed by the subtle changes in Martha’s body language (stiffness, her slow steps around “Clark’s” apartment) that her blind faith in her husband has been shaken.
The defining moment of the episode in terms of Martha’s character came when she went through her drawers and focused on two items: her gun and her copy of the Kama Sutra. Wright gave real weight to Martha’s attention on both of those objects, and in that small, silent moment, it became clear that everything has changed for this character. Her faith in her marriage has been shaken, and you could feel her sense of uneasy acknowledgment that she might have to actually use that gun—on “Clark” or on herself. In that moment, I was genuinely afraid that she was going to kill herself, and that’s still a fear I feel acutely right now thinking about Martha’s character going forward. The fact that Wright could make me so afraid of what this character could do to herself without using any dialogue speaks to her tremendous talent and its central role in this episode.
Favorite Scene: Philip coming home to Elizabeth
“Walter Taffet” was an episode about the dissolution and building of trust in relationships, and it all started and ended with the show’s central couple. At the beginning of the episode, Philip’s trust in Elizabeth was all but destroyed when he discovered that she started the process of telling Paige the truth about their identities without ever telling him about it. Matthew Rhys’s delivery of Philip wondering if he was going to come home one day and find out that Paige knows the truth was heartbreaking. You could feel his sense of disappointment that the partnership he thought he had with his wife—however tentative that may be at times—was basically shattered.
From that moment on, Noah Emmerich’s direction emphasized the cold distance between the characters by showing them through windows and mirrors with clear lines of division between them. They were often in the same frame, but it never felt like they were sharing the same space because of the way those scenes were set up—except, of course when they were pretending to be in love for their cover. And all that distance and visual tension culminated in the moment when Philip told Elizabeth he was going to Martha’s for a seemingly unplanned visit, preying on Elizabeth’s insecurity about his feelings for Martha with the cold, manipulative precision of the ruthless spy he is with basically everyone else but her.
However, things with Martha didn’t go according to plan, and Philip was reminded that nothing about his relationship with her is real. Her uneasiness around “Clark” was a reminder that Martha has every reason not to trust him because there’s nothing honest about their relationship on his part. In Philip’s life, there’s only one relationship that’s completely real and honest, even when that’s painful—and that’s his relationship with Elizabeth. You could see that dawn on him through the beautifully soft touch Rhys gave to his actions as Philip returned home to a sleeping Elizabeth, especially the surprisingly tender way he brushed her hair back.
And then Elizabeth answered his softness with a gentle touch of her own, pulling his arms around her in her half-asleep state. I’ve liked the way this season has made moments like this one believable for these characters by putting them in positions where intimacy is easier because their guards are down—whether it was this episode’s honest period between asleep and awake, Philip’s semi-stoned talk about his sex training, or their I-almost-died-today embrace before he pulled her tooth. It makes it feel more real for them to open up to one another because they’re in situations that would naturally make them more vulnerable.
In this moment of tentative, hesitant intimacy, Elizabeth admitted to Philip that she should have told him about what she was doing with Paige before she did it. For as many bombshells as this episode dropped, this was one of the biggest because it signaled a priority shift for Elizabeth: choosing to protect the sense of honesty that’s been built in their marriage over doing things the way Mother Russia wants them done. For a character like Elizabeth who had always chosen duty over love, this admission that she should have prioritized her husband’s feelings over her sense of duty was a sign of character growth as much as any we’d ever seen from her. And, as is usually the case for this show, it came not with a shout but in a perfectly-delivered whisper from Keri Russell.
Elizabeth’s openness and rededication to protecting the trust between her and Philip allowed him to feel safe enough to tell her about his son. This secret had been hanging between them since Season One, and I was so happy it was finally out in the open. I loved that Elizabeth reacted to it with very little unease or anger; she seemed more concerned about his place on the front lines in Afghanistan and what that was making Philip feel than the fact that her husband fathered a son with a woman he loved 20 years ago.
When Elizabeth turned to face him and they held each other, I felt like I could breathe a sigh of relief. For the entire episode, the framing of their scenes built a sense of tense separation that faded away during another intimate moment in their bed that had nothing to do with sex. Trust is a tricky thing to build and maintain in any relationship, so it never fails to make me emotional to watch two people who deal in deception for a living build a sense of trust with one another.
• This episode was Emmerich’s directorial debut, and it left an incredible first impression. His attention to detail in every frame was stunning, and he was asked to direct some pretty major scenes (Martha in the bathroom, the hunting for the source of the bug, the big action sequence at the end, etc.), which he handled with an expert touch. I hope he’s asked to direct more episodes in the future.
• The “bug hunting” scene was one of those rare TV moments where I realized midway through it that I was actually holding my breath and my hands were shaking. The great thing about this show is that it was just as likely Martha would get caught as it was that she wouldn’t.
• For as sad as I felt for Stan when Sandra told him it was time to get a divorce, I was also incredibly proud of him for opening up about his past to his son. Emmerich was wonderful in that scene, and it provided a great foil for Elizabeth and Philip’s debate over telling Paige what they do for their country.
• Elizabeth’s short blonde wig is the most beautiful wig Russell has worn on the show yet. She looked gorgeous. And Rhys looked like Steve Perry in the best possible way.
• No other show on TV can pull off action sequences set to Fleetwood Mac music like The Americans. First “Tusk,” and now “The Chain.” The editing of the scene worked so well with the music, and the lyrics fit brilliantly with the entire theme of the show. Damn your love. Damn your lies.