Title: The Rat
Episode M.V.P.: Alison Wright
This is the second week in a row that Alison Wright shone the brightest among the many acting superstars in this talented cast. And what I loved most about her performance in “The Rat” was the way it grew naturally and realistically out of her performance in last week’s “Clark’s Place.” That episode showed Martha’s spirit beginning to die and resignation beginning to set in, and this episode showed that downward spiral continuing. Some of the most heartbreaking and chilling moments in “The Rat” were moments where the camera focused on Wright’s face when she was alone in a room and we were able to see the emptiness in her eyes. Martha may not be dead yet, but Wright’s performance continues to show us that she is a dead woman walking in more ways than one. It’s not easy to convey the death of someone’s entire reality without making it melodramatic, but Wright has made every step on this sad journey—including those horribly tense steps away from Gabriel and toward her own doom—feel grounded in a brutal kind of reality. Martha isn’t just a character we pity; she’s a character we empathize with, and that’s an important difference. Because most of us have—at some point—opened our hearts to someone and trusted them, only to find out they’re not exactly as advertised. It just so happens that Martha’s version of this story is a lot worse than most of ours.
Wright—like most of her fellow actors on this show—has a true talent for reacting. One of the most painful single shots of this episode was her reaction to Philip’s admission that he works for the KGB. Without any words, Wright made me feel sick to my stomach for her character. Through the slight sinking of her posture, Wright showed the brutal force of Philip’s confession while still leaving enough ambiguity in her performance to hint that Martha probably knew in her gut that this was a possibility. But Philip confirming it destroyed any last ability she had left to remain in denial about who she’d been helping, and the weight of that makes her physically shrink, as if she’d lost another part of herself.
Following that stunning moment, Wright showed Martha’s desperation to remain in denial about one final thing: her husband’s love for her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sadder sex scene on television. It was hard to watch, and the reason I felt so uncomfortable during it was because of how completely broken Martha was and how vulnerable Wright’s performance was in showing Martha’s desperate desire to cling to this final lie. And once that final lie seemed to be over—once Martha woke up and Philip was gone—it was easy to believe this woman would snap. The way Wright’s performance over episodes and whole seasons built to that confrontation with Gabriel was nothing short of brilliant. For the first time, Martha chose herself, but in choosing to walk away, she most likely signed her own death certificate. It feels now like we’re living on borrowed time when it comes to appreciating Wright’s talent, and I plan to use all the time we have left to scream from the rooftops (or at least whisper-shout in the middle of the street) about how good she is.
Favorite Scene: “Did you want her to? To see you?”
Sometimes a scene can bring into sharp focus all the things that make a show special, and that’s exactly what happened when Elizabeth walked into the safe house as “Clark’s” sister “Jennifer,” only to discover that Philip had shed his “Clark” disguise weeks ago. In one short scene—one brief exchange of only a few lines—the show’s themes of honesty, intimacy, family, and loyalty were all put perfectly on display. And in one barely perceptible moment, I was reminded that no other show on television can make me feel as deeply for literally every character in a given situation as The Americans can.
The camerawork during the moment in which Elizabeth entered the kitchen to see Philip without his disguise was brilliant. It was shot from her perspective—putting us in her shoes as she comes upon the shock of seeing her husband and not Martha’s husband standing in front of her. The camerawork was unsteady, adding to the feeling of being thrown off balance that Elizabeth certainly felt. And it was important to see Elizabeth talking in her disguise while both Philip and Gabriel looked like themselves. It added to the feeling that Elizabeth didn’t have all the information she needed, and it made me feel uncomfortable for her, which was necessary to heighten the impact of what was happening between her and Philip.
The discomfort I felt on Elizabeth’s behalf only worked because of the way this show has so skillfully woven Philip and Elizabeth’s partnership into a deeply intimate and personal one, in addition to a professional one. Because on one level, this was a scene about what Philip did to endanger the mission, and that was handled exactly the way Elizabeth would have handled it in Season One: by telling him that he should have told her that he removed his disguise because—as his KGB partner—she needs to have all the information. But on another level, this was a scene about what Philip did to endanger their marriage. And that resonated because of what we’ve come to know about Philip, Elizabeth, and how intimacy functions in their marriage.
When Elizabeth asked Philip when he revealed himself to Martha and told him he should have let her know he did that, she could have been speaking to him strictly as a fellow KGB agent. However, as soon as she asked him if he wanted Martha to see him, there was no doubting that she was speaking to him not as his fellow agent but as his wife. She was asking not about actions but about the feelings behind them, and that’s not something the Elizabeth of the show’s pilot episode would have ever done.
Keri Russell’s delivery of that line broke my heart more than almost anything else in this episode. Martha couldn’t escape the truth of who her husband really was in this episode, but neither could Elizabeth. She finally had to face the fact that her husband has reached at least some level of intimacy with Martha that she thought was hers alone. Intimacy is such a difficult thing for these people to achieve, so it wrecked me to see Elizabeth honestly ask (with uncharacteristic uncertainty in her voice) whether or not Philip actually wanted to find the kind of honesty and intimacy she thought only they shared with someone else.
Watching Russell display Elizabeth’s anger, jealousy, and sincere hurt in the tiniest physical reactions (the way she sipped from Martha’s wine glass to gather herself, the set of her shoulders, the clipped tone of her request for Philip to go home) was so powerful. And when Philip chose to spend the night with Martha instead of his family, I knew he should have done so because of the mission, but I was no less devastated for Elizabeth because of that. Russell’s ability to make me feel so sad for Elizabeth in such a small moment is a testament to both her power as an actress and the show’s skillful building of this character through her slowly developing sense of intimacy with her husband.
• My favorite thing about this episode was the way it highlighted the differences and similarities between the two women in Philip’s life and his relationships with them. Because not only did Elizabeth have to deal with the fact that Philip has a more intimate relationship with Martha than she thought; Martha also realized that about “Clark” and “Jennifer.” And then the parallels between those two women’s relationships with Philip were made explicit when Martha straddled him the same way Elizabeth did in the last episode. However, while Elizabeth’s actions led to some intensely passionate sex, Martha’s actions led to some incredibly depressing sex. Matthew Rhys should win an Emmy for a lot of reasons, but this scene alone should be a big reason. The dead look in his eyes as Martha begged him is still haunting me. And the distinct lack of eye contact between them was such a stark contrast to the way Elizabeth and Philip’s sex scene was shot with such a strong focus on their eye contact. Because no matter what Philip feels for Martha or what Elizabeth now thinks, Elizabeth is still the only person who has ever seen him completely in the most intimate ways.
• Martha crying as she had sex with Philip is still haunting me. Even the tooth-pulling scene from last season didn’t mess me up the way that sex scene did.
• Another Martha moment that made me feel sick because of how much pain Wright put into it: the moment she told Philip she knew she wasn’t ever going home again. It was even worse because she still so desperately wanted to believe it would all be okay because he’d be with her, when we all know that he may sincerely care about her (and even love her on some level) but he’d never abandon Elizabeth and the kids to go with her.
• When Philip told Martha that “Jennifer” works with him for the KGB, I could have slapped him, because not only did he put his life in jeopardy by finally confessing who he works for; he put Elizabeth’s life in jeopardy, too. I know that he wanted to clear his conscience, but Elizabeth’s secret is not his to tell.
• For as much as it pained me to see Martha as the victim of it, I was happy to see Stan get a win. Watching him finally put the pieces together was rewarding, but then I remembered that Martha was going to be in trouble because of it. Once again, why must this show make me care about everyone?
• I only smiled twice during this whole episode. The first came right at the start, when Elizabeth and Philip were talking in bed, because I could watch an entire episode of the two of them doing only that. Rhys and Russell’s chemistry is so strong at this point that I could watch them just stare at each other for an hour. The other time I smiled was when Elizabeth got Paige to try her Korean food. I love the genuine warmth Elizabeth has shown at home with her kids this season. It adds so much to this already complex character.
• Does anyone else want to know more about William’s wife and why she was sent back home?
• I loved that I thought Martha was going to die so many times during this hour: I thought she was dead from a Valium overdose when Philip couldn’t wake her up; I thought Philip was going to shoot her with her gun because it might have been the kindest option; and I thought Gabriel sent Philip away so he could have her killed. So kudos to the show for subverting all my expectations by having Martha live and walk away in the end. Although I think we all know time is still running out for her. How do you think her story will end?