Episode M.V.P.: Alison Wright
“Glanders” was an episode that arranged the chessboard for the season to come, but in the middle of all the plot setup, there were still moments of startling emotion. I didn’t expect to cry during this season premiere. But two little words from Martha, delivered multiple times with such devastating grief and panic from Alison Wright, sent my tear ducts into overdrive.
While Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell deserve every word of praise sent their way (Rhys, in particular, was outstanding in this episode—a portrait of a rubber band pulled so tightly that it could snap at any moment.), Wright has become this show’s secret weapon. Martha is one of its most tragic characters, and so much of that comes from how realistic Wright has made her feel. And in the moment Philip revealed to Martha that he killed her coworker to protect her, I felt Martha’s fear and loss so acutely it was almost oppressive. Wright was at the center of a storm of emotions in that scene, and she grounded them all in a sincere vulnerability that was best reflected in that broken refrain of “Oh no…”
In that scene, I also felt Martha’s guilt, as she asked “What have I done?” with such heartbreaking horror. “Glanders” spent a lot of time dealing with characters wondering what their choices say about who they really are. Many of its main players were wracked with guilt, but perhaps none more than Martha in that moment. However, the most heartbreaking part of “Glanders” wasn’t Martha wondering what she’d done; it was Martha making the choice to continue doing it—to continue helping Philip despite knowing what he’s done. Wright broke me with her breakdown earlier in the episode, but what’s still haunting me today was her stoic acceptance of her continued role as Philip’s link to the FBI (which I’m sure was connected to the gut-wrenching gratitude she showed him when he opened up to her in such a small way about his past).
For so long, I wondered if Martha was going to have to die, but this—choosing to keep helping Philip even with the knowledge that he killed her coworker—might be worse. It’s like watching someone lose their soul in an effort to keep a relationship that’s not even real, and Wright is making every moment of that tragedy resonate with me on a visceral level.
Favorite Scene: Paige can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance
It’s not easy being a teenage girl and trying to carve out your own identity. It’s even harder when you’re a teenage girl who found out her entire life—and her parents’ lives as she knew them—is a lie. Just as Philip and Elizabeth’s story addresses universal questions about marriage and parenthood, Paige’s story addresses questions we all have as we grow up: Who am I? How am I different from my parents? What do I really care about? And it’s so heartbreakingly clear that Paige doesn’t know the answers to any of those questions anymore, which is such a change from the girl who was so strong in her convictions and her sense of self until she learned the truth about her parents last season.
The Americans does moments of silent, subtle insight into a character better than any other show on television. While another show might tackle Paige’s identity crisis with a big, emotional speech to Pastor Tim, this show chose to focus on her wordless reaction to the Pledge of Allegiance. In the show’s pilot, the camera panned across the members of the Jennings family honoring America with their hands over their hearts, and that moment provided such a perfect contrast to Paige standing outside her classroom during the Pledge of Allegiance, struggling to control her emotions before composing herself and joining her class. Paige isn’t like her parents; she wasn’t trained to lie. So she can’t show loyalty to America while feeling so conflicted about her loyalties in her heart. She can’t pledge allegiance to a country that she’s not even sure she belongs in. How can she be an American if her parents are Soviet spies?
Like so many great moments on The Americans, this moment revealed so much about a character without having that character deliver any lines. Instead, it put the emotional weight of the scene in the hands of Holly Taylor, and she continued to prove why she’s the best young actor on television. I was especially struck by the beat where she collects herself right before entering her classroom. In that moment, she was actually every bit her parents’ daughter: putting on a façade and hiding her true feelings, her true self. But every time she has to do that is slowly eating away at the bright, inquisitive, passionate girl we were introduced to. She’s now filled with shame, guilt, and fear—and all those emotions were brought to the surface by Taylor before she showed Paige compose herself and push them down in order to get through the day.
It’s scenes like this one that remind me why Paige Jennings isn’t just my favorite character on The Americans; she’s one of my favorite characters on television. She’s as complex as the adults around her, but Taylor also never allows you to forget how painfully young she is to be burdened with a truth she was in no way prepared to handle. I always want to protect Paige, and this scene showed me that’s not going to change any time soon.
• The runner-up for my favorite scene in this episode was Stan and Philip’s confrontation followed by Philip checking the vial to see if it cracked. Has there ever been a better symbol for so many characters on this show than that vial? They all have so many destructive secrets that could spill out and infect everyone if they’re pushed the wrong way. And there’s no better example of a vial about to crack than Philip. Rhys showed once again that Philip is one strong shove away from his breaking point, and we saw in those flashbacks to his childhood that when Philip is pushed too hard and breaks, the result is deadly.
• Another part of that scene with Philip and Stan that I loved was that a deadly disease was almost spread not because of political or military reasons, but because of personal ones. On this show, nothing threatens to cause mass destruction more than acting on emotion. And how ironic was it to watch Stan finally shove Philip for something Philip actually wasn’t lying about (having a romantic relationship with Sandra)?
• From the gentle hand Elizabeth placed on Philip’s chest in the opening moments of the episode to their mid-mission discussion of Henry’s awful cologne, I was once again reminded that Russell and Rhys are astoundingly good at making their characters’ marriage feel grounded in reality even when they’re in the middle of intense situations I could never relate to.
• Kudos to the writers for not going with the obvious choice of centering everything in this episode around the fallout from Paige’s confession to Pastor Tim. Instead, we’re left to wait for the fallout to spread like the aftermath of the release of a deadly disease. And that tension was heightened even more by the knowledge that Elizabeth is now listening to Pastor Tim’s conversations. It’s not a matter of if things are going to fall apart; it’s a matter of when. And that’s going to create some delicious suspense.
• I will always love the behind-the-scenes moments we get with Philip and Elizabeth removing their wigs and other parts of their disguises. It further illustrates that this show is about the moments of truth shared in a lifetime spent pretending to be other people.
• I don’t think it’s ever going to feel normal for me to watch Philip interacting with Martha outside of his “Clark” persona.
• Finally, is anyone else shocked that Nina has a husband? Did we know about this already, and I just forgot? Is this new information? Or is she lying?