With its tongue-in-cheek title, “Travel Agents” is an episode of The Americans that deals with just one question: where is Martha Hanson going? The poor FBI secretary who just wanted to be loved is at a crossroads, and there is absolutely no going back. Just three episodes after killing one character, the FX drama isn’t afraid to steamroll another.
The episode begins as the last one ended: with Martha (Alison Wright) on the run just before Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) can arrive to collect her for her extraction to Russia. In just over 40 minutes panic has ensued – at least as panicked as Gabriel (Frank Langella) ever gets, which is quietly stewing. Philip convinces Elizabeth to lead the search so that he can be there should Martha decide to call. Gabriel warns that if Martha starts something again, they may have to kill her. Because, duh.
On the flip side of the coin the FBI has now figured out that Clark does not exist, which confirms Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) theory that Martha is dirty. He leads a new and much more thorough search of her apartment, while Gaad (Richard Thomas) is going to need a minute and a stiff drink to process this.
So where the heck is Martha? Well, she was going to go home until she saw her colleagues swarming the place like a hive of Sears models, and now she knows the jig is up and she’s just going to have a meltdown on the street. Seriously, the entire first 15 minutes of this episode is dedicated to everyone reacting to Martha reacting to being blown.
Philip has gone to the home of the KGB Operator to wait for her phone call, but when the phone rings it’s Elizabeth telling him that she and Hans haven’t found Martha yet. The fake backdrop behind this phone booth is so unintentionally awkward. While he sits back down dejected, the FBI guys are now tearing apart every aspect of Martha’s life.
The Deputy Attorney General (Cotter Smith) orders Stan to lean on Oleg in order to see if the KGB has Martha; Stan refuses, on the grounds that it would wreck the operation. Thankfully he doesn’t have to keep arguing because Martha is on the phone with her parents, telling them that she’s “in trouble – so, so much trouble” but that she loves them no matter what. This allows the FBI to pinpoint her location. So who will get to her first?
While the FBI circles Martha finally calls Philip, upset that he left her with someone she didn’t know. But not upset enough that she doesn’t tell him exactly where she is. He bolts to meet her with Elizabeth not far behind; the latter gets there first and doesn’t receive a warm welcome. “Are you sleeping with my husband?” Martha demands, which Elizabeth totally is. When Martha won’t stop yelling, Elizabeth is forced to gut punch her and lay on a few warnings while the other woman gasps for air in her arms. Stone cold, y’all.
As the kids get drunk (because the kids have to do something in this episode to remind us that they exist), the FBI laments not being able to nab Martha. Gaad warns Stan that all of this nonsense with the bug, Gene and now Martha has pretty much killed his career. Philip finally gets to the safehouse and comes face to face with Martha, who coerces him to tell her his real name. The actual Russian one.
Oh hey the dead rat with the next Glanders sample is still in the icebox.
But Elizabeth wants Philip to lie to Martha one more time – to tell her that he’ll come with her to Russia and that they’ll have a life there together, so that Martha will get on the plane to Moscow. As if that’s not awkward enough, she asks him if he would seriously go and seems to almost encourage it. “I’d understand,” she says, and he replies, “It’s not like that. At all.” He reaffirms that he loves her, and they share a passionate kiss before she leaves.
A drunk Gaad has sketches that look like Philip and Elizabeth rather than Philip and Martha, and a copy of Martha’s marriage certificate, which explains why he’s so flippin’ drunk. “Maybe they fell in love somehow,” Stan says, trying to make him feel better and not knowing that he’s not that far off. Gaad wonders how unhappy Martha had to be. She’s certainly not having fun at the moment as Philip tells her that she’s going to Russia in the morning. You can’t blame her; the last person we saw go to Russia didn’t come back.
“How soon before you come?” Martha asks Philip and he tells her the truth: “I won’t. I can’t.” Yes, this is where the Martha and Clark love story ends, folks. He assures her that everything will be okay, but nobody – not her, not him, not Elizabeth who waits at home for him to come back – believes that.
With so many characters in its cast, The Americans rarely gets the opportunity to hone in on just one protagonist. But that’s what “Travel Agents” is able to pull off. This is really Martha’s story and everyone else is just orbiting around her; the team at the Rezidentura is hardly seen except for some brief logistical conversations, the kids have their obligatory one moment to remind us they still work here, and Gabriel just does what Gabriel does. There are some good scenes between Stan and Gaad and Philip and Elizabeth respectively, but even those aren’t that long. The real bulk of this episode is poor Martha, who sealed her fate a long time ago and never knew it.
Because honestly, wasn’t this coming all along? Similar to Nina’s story coming to its fatal conclusion once she got shipped off to Russia, once Martha was turned there were only a handful of ways that her arc could go. She was either going to be killed, be forced into becoming a double agent, or get smuggled out of the country.
The first would possibly seem repetitive because Nina just died, and would be possibly even too sad for this show (seriously, look at Alison Wright in this episode and try not to be depressed; even her facial expressions are heartbreaking already). The second is unnecessarily complicated and unlike Nina, Martha’s not cut out for that level of tradecraft; she’d crack in a week. So that leaves us with Martha being sent packing to Russia, which isn’t exactly great either but we as viewers can pretend that she met some nice Russian guy who wasn’t lying to her for the whole of their relationship and lived happily ever after. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
Who knows what all this will mean for Wright’s role on the show – judging from the previews, she’s around for one more episode, but it would seem unlikely that the series would do an extended Martha-in-Russia arc like it did for Nina, since Martha’s story would then cease to be relevant to the rest of the program. If we are indeed looking at her swan song, it’s been a great one and hopefully she gets more recognition; she has been a great soldier for four seasons (and also happened to be wonderful in HBO’s Confirmation as well).
But handling Martha also meant handling the emotional bomb that is the Clark-Martha relationship. We’ve said it for years – that the fake marriage between Clark and Martha is the real, normal life that Philip wishes he could have with Elizabeth. Well, guess what, now that life is gone and the dream is over. What is the absence of that going to do to Philip? Is he going to be hurting emotionally now that he no longer has that idyllic other life to escape to on Tuesdays? He got as much out of that relationship as Martha did, and it’s ridiculous to think that losing her won’t have some effect on him.
Matthew Rhys is excellent here at conveying the initial guilt and conflict going on in Philip’s head, but watch out for long-term damage that we haven’t even gotten to scratch the surface of. This will come back to bite him, as much as it’s also something he should be proud of – he treated Martha with respect and compassion, when everyone else was willing to let her rot in prison somewhere. He was the one who said she was done and it’s because of him that she at least has a chance for a new life, rather than a lifetime of incarceration. As much as this hurts, he should take solace in the fact that he did the morally right thing, and his big heart remains his best quality.
There’s not much to say about everyone else – except for maybe let the speculation begin as to how long it’ll be until Gaad is walking out of the FBI with the contents of his desk, because he’s right about how bad this looks for him – but for an episode that slowed down, “Travel Agents” still had an incredible amount of tension in it. And for an episode that got a chance to focus on a character, it delivered an emotional payout better than any major plot twist. Alison Wright and Matthew Rhys shone here, and Wright should definitely be looking to submit this as her Emmy consideration episode. Poor Martha might be done for, but in terms of The Americans as a show, she’s going out on top.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.