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?
Now that I’m fully caught up and watching alongside, it means I can comment on these! YAY! Katie, you know you are an excellent reviewer, and you know how much I adore all your reviews, but the ones you write for The Americans are undoubtedly your best. Your language, tone, and passion weave so beautifully together, THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT A PROFESSIONAL REVIEW SHOULD LOOK LIKE. This show leaves me with a lot of emotions, but your reviews make me love it even more.
And oh man seriously, when I saw Wright’s performance in that first scene, I already said to myself Katie’s going to pick her as the MVP. She broke me so much in that scene. It was so raw. So heartbreaking, I’m in complete awe of her.
Agreed 100% on Paige. That scene with the pledge was the perfect manifestation of not only how difficult these burdens are on her, but how lost she know is when it felt as though she was finally growing into someone she was proud of. Faith was able to give Paige such confidence, self love, and hope, but the truth about her family made her do a complete 180 and trying to figure out who she is now is going to be such a devastating and difficult journey. It’ll give Holly Taylor lots of great material to work with, but watching it I’m sure will leave us wrecked. If all teenagers on TV could be like her, it’d be wonderful. I still can’t believe this show’s mastered it as beautifully as it has.
Also, Nina’s husband thing. I know I bingewatched this so I should probably remember but I don’t either!?!? And it just made everything so much more interesting for her arc I cannot wait to see where this goes.
Thank you so much for saying such kind things about my writing about this show, Giss! I feel so inspired by this show, and it’s always fun to write about a show that works really well with my writing and analyzing style. More than any other show, this one engages me like those great books I wrote papers about in college, and I always want to honor that depth and nuance in my writing to the best of my ability. It means so much to me that you see the love I feel when I write about this show.
Also, let me officially welcome you to these posts! I cannot wait to talk about this season with you each week. You’re going to fit in so beautifully in this comment section. ❤
Man is it good to have this show back, even with all the pain, and equally great to read your thoughts! As someone who binge watched seasons 1-2 before 3 started, it was a little hard picking back up after such a long break when there are so many story lines going on, but by the end I was pretty much back to speed.
I am not surprised you picked the scene where Paige was afraid to say the pledge of allegiance as your favorite. It was a very worthy moment and definitely one of my favorites as well. It just reinforces how important the truth is to her. At home she is surrounded by lies, but she refuses to compromise even when it comes to something most people recite without even thinking. Even now when Elizabeth acts like she is being truthful with Paige (when she says her Dad had to go to work in the middle of the night), the actual truth of what that means is kept from her. The devil is definitely in the details.
Philip is really continuing his downward spiral. Its interesting to see him have all these different identities at the moment. What used to be simply “personas” are now much more. We have Philip the father, Philip the KGB agent, Philip the EST seminar participant, and Philip/Clark. How scary was it to see Philip up at the front of that EST seminar reliving his past? One slip and he could be in a world of trouble. We have seen so many moments like this on TV and in movies that would have ended with Philip yelling “because I KILLED him!” but we don’t get that here. I love how this show builds suspense by using those clichés. We know what was about to happen even if it didn’t. And bravo to that closing moment with Stan roughing up Philip in the garage. It was the perfect scene to show just how dangerous their personal issues are at this point because of their line of work. (I am really interested to see how the show explores the ethical issues of biowarfare. Pathogens swear no allegiance and know no borders, and I am curious to see how this affects the loyalty of Phillip and Elizabeth and even the folks at the Rezidentura.)
The identity issue is even more drastic with Philip/Clark. Clark pretty much doesn’t even exist anymore. While he may use the Clark disguise coming and going, with Martha he is now pretty much just Philip. And I think its pretty hard to deny that Philip genuinely loves her. It might not be a healthy or over the top romantic love, but its there, and he doesn’t want anything to happen to her. The easiest way to get out of this situation would have been to kill Martha, but I don’t even know if that option crossed his mind, or if it did he didn’t seriously consider it, and therin lies the danger. And when Sandra tells Philip to tell Elizabeth about his issues, instead he chooses to open up to Martha. Last season the show focused on complicated sexual intimacy issues between Philip and Elizabeth caused by their jobs, but now we are focusing on the emotional intimacy issues. Philip is emotionally cheating at this point, and that’s a whole other level.
And then there is Martha. Its hard to know just how much Philip/Clark has shared with her. Am I correctly assuming she still thinks he works for the US Government? Even though he would have admitted to killing one of their own? Like you mentioned, I felt like this was the episode where Martha went from being a mostly innocent bystander to willing participant. She knows the stakes now and she chose to continue to help regardless of the who/what/why. I was yelling at my TV for her to step away from the copier, because the moment she started making those copies, she was past the point of no return. Perhaps for her she feels like she is already in too deep and she didn’t have a choice. Its scary to think how easily one mistake can turn into escalating criminal acts trying to hide it, and how she has now committed herself to a life of lies and fear. I don’t see how this can end well for her at this point. It was so sad having to watch her meet Philip/Clark at this apartment. Alison Wright was amazing in this entire episode, and a lot has been said about that incredible opening scene (I loved your focus on her simple ‘oh no’), but I think this quieter moment is the one that is going to haunt me. Martha wandering around in the cold unfamiliar apartment in a daze, not even knowing where to sit. The comfort of her previous familiar life gone. It was heartbreaking.
Its gonna be an intense season!
For as happy as I am to be back writing about this show, I’m even happier to be back reading everyone’s thoughts on it—especially yours!
I loved your breakdown of Philip and Martha’s relationship at this point. As someone who loves Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship more than is probably healthy, it bothered me to see him open up even just a little bit about his childhood to Martha when he doesn’t seem to have done that with Elizabeth. And I think part of that is because Elizabeth has told him a fair amount of things about her past at this point, while he still seems like he’s more willing to share those details with people at EST or with Martha. I JUST WANT PHILIP AND ELIZABETH TO BE HONEST WITH EACH OTHER ABOUT EVERYTHING. Which I know is silly because the whole point of this show is the secrets we keep—not just in spycraft but in life. But now his relationship with Martha really does feel like emotional infidelity, and I’m interested to see how it’s dealt with (especially because the show dealt with their issues concerning sexual intimacy so well last season).
I also almost had a nervous breakdown as he was reliving his past in front of that group in his EST seminar. I knew he wasn’t going to say anything to incriminate himself, but the mere suggestion that he could made me almost unbearably anxious. It was like the moment with Stan and the vial. I knew it wasn’t going to be cracked because I don’t think this show would do an “agent exposed to deadly pathogen” story, but it still made me so tense to watch him check that vial for cracks.
Like you, I’m really interested to see how the biowarfare story plays out for all involved. There were already seeds being laid in this episode concerning conflict over it within the Rezidentura (I was way too happy to see Arkady again), and there was so much going on in that shot of Philip over Elizabeth’s shoulder as she was being vaccinated. It seems everything is going to be heightened this season once again, and it’s starting right away.
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I’m so happy to have this show and these reviews back in my life.
One of the things I love most about this show is that it knows what it is. This isn’t an action based spy show that relies on killer wigs (though it sometimes has those) or witty one-liners. It runs at a pretty slow pace and just allows things to slowly build and simmer over. I’m more than a little fatigued with shows that constantly run at a thousand miles an hour and rely heavily on shock value so this show feels like a breath of fresh air.
Add me to the list of people who want to both give Martha a hug because she desperately needs one but who is also very uncomfortable with Philip’s current relationship with her. Allison Wright was so very good in this episode. Her horror at learning what Clark had done to protect her followed by the acceptance of what he needs her to do was just heartbreaking. All this poor woman wanted was to believe that someone cared about her and could love her. She needs to believe Clark is real and being honest about his feelings, even if everything else was a lie. And I think Philip knows that and that is part of why he shared his feelings with her. I think there was some element of that decision that was purely strategic to keep her close but I think there was a bigger part that just desperately needed to tell someone he trusted and that is a role that Martha fills for her. She started out as an asset but he’s grown to genuinely care about this woman and that makes things complicated. Not just for his role as her handler but for his role as Elizabeth’s husband. Those lines are a little too blurry right now and it makes me worry for the safety and happiness of all three of them.
Speaking of characters I just want to hug, Paige continues to be one of the best parts of this series for me. I love that the immediate fallout from her reveal to Pastor Tim wasn’t explosive. Her confusion and struggle to figure out what her life is going to be from now on is so much more compelling than anything else could be. She doesn’t know who she is any more and that is such a dramatic change from the girl we saw navigating her own path last season to the disapproval of her parents. While necessary, telling her the truth completely unmoored her. She doesn’t have anywhere she feels like she completely belongs and I’ll be really interested to see what happens with Pastor Tim and the church in the rest of the season. He supports her decision to keep this quiet now but what happens if something bigger happens that he feels threatens her safety or the safety of the country?
I’m so happy to have your comments about this show back in my life!
“Unmoored” is the perfect word to describe Paige. She’s completely lost, and it’s so heartbreaking. Because even Pastor Tim doesn’t really get it. So she’s feeling more alone than ever, and I just want her to find a place where she feels she belongs and is understood again—wherever that may be.
I also really loved what you said about this show knowing what it is. It has such an air of confidence about it, and I love that. The writers, directors, and actors all seems to know that less is more and that showing means so much more than telling. It allows a story to unfold and for characters to develop within that story naturally, without rushing through important emotional beats or forcing anything for the sake of the plot. And that’s something rare in today’s television landscape, which seems to be more and more focused on shock value.
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