The Americans (Season 4, Episode 7, ‘Travel Agents’)

by Stephanie on April 30, 2016

I started watching The Americans early in 2015, and was very quickly hooked, churning my way through the first three seasons in record time. Season 4 is now airing, and because I am watching it alone and don’t want to spoil the show for anyone else by spewing my thoughts on social media, I’m blogging it instead to indulge my need to talk about it. Spoilers follow, so don’t read on if you’re not caught up.

martha

This week’s episode, ‘Travel Agents’, focuses on Martha, who has escaped from the safe house, threatening to expose Philip, Elizabeth and Gabriel, the day before she’s due to get on a plane to Russia. Meanwhile, the FBI have her rumbled, and it’s a race against time to see who can get to Martha first.

It’s not just the operation but Philip and Elizabeth’s real identities that are at stake, because Martha has seen Philip’s real face—something Elizabeth reminds him of repeatedly. Indeed, one got the sense from her reaction in the previous episode that Philip removing his disguise for Martha was not just a problem of him being too honest and therefore compromising their identities, but that it also betrayed a kind of unspoken bond of intimacy between himself and Elizabeth. Their relationship might not be sexually monogamous, but the fusion of their home lives and their secret lives has allowed this intimacy to flourish between them. The relationship that they’ve developed over the series has hinged upon the life that they share together. Philip revealing his face to Martha removes the barrier between his life with Elizabeth and the persona of ‘Clark’, and while it’s clear he cares for Martha to some extent, it’s not just a professional line that’s been crossed here.

Martha, momentarily free, heads towards home, but suddenly she is seeing agents everywhere; every man in a trench coat, every pay phone, every car circling the block spells potential doom. It is at this point that she realises the trouble she is in, and she is right: the FBI is poring over her apartment, unscrewing the light switches, melting the ice cubes from her freezer, sifting through her photographs, opening every tampon. So she heads to the woods, and makes a phone call to her parents, alerting the FBI (who have tapped their phone) to her general location.

Meanwhile, Philip is struggling. He clearly cares about Martha, but he is not beyond understanding that Martha is in mortal danger—that she is stumbling blindly through a game without knowing any of the rules, and that one wrong, ignorant move will mean her death—and that he may eventually need to be the one to kill her. Elizabeth clearly knows it’s difficult for him—perhaps she has some sympathy, though, for his situation: after all, she lost her own lover, Gregory, earlier in the series—but even while she recognises Philip needs emotional support, her priority is the work and their safety.

It is Elizabeth who finds Martha first, and in spite of the revelations of the past few episodes, Martha’s first thought is to infidelity. When she asks, ‘Are you sleeping with my husband?’ Elizabeth doesn’t hesitate before answering, and her ‘No’ is, in a way, true: ‘Clark’ is to Elizabeth as unreal as any of her own personas. The compartmentalisation of home life and spy life is much stronger in her than it is for Philip at the moment. One wonders what Philip would have done if he had been the one to find Martha, but when Martha threatens to scream and raise the alarm, Elizabeth punches her hard, knocks the wind out of her, and explains the situation for the first time in the clearest terms: either she follows Elizabeth’s instructions or she will die.

Back at the FBI headquarters, Gaad is basically finished, at least in his own estimation, and it’s hard to see how the show can keep him around much longer. He has discovered Martha’s marriage certificate, and in the bleak assessment of his prospects, he finally sees Martha for the first time: ‘My secretary married a KGB officer. … Was she that unhappy?’ The answer, of course, is yes: Martha was terribly lonely. She wanted more than anything to believe that her life might be different, and the operation capitalised on this, even as Philip is now beginning to feel sorry for it.

Elizabeth has picked up on this despair in Martha, and again in a kind of unexpected show of empathy, and she pulls Philip aside and tells him he should lie to Martha about going to join her in Russia. Her real exposure of herself and her own vulnerability, however, lies in her follow-up question: ‘If you could go back, if our kids were grown … and get out of this whole life, would you go with her?’

The question isn’t really would you leave this life? but would you leave me? And correct me if I’m wrong, but I am pretty sure this is the first time Philip has actually told Elizabeth that he loves her. There have been hugely significant moments between them before—points of deep intimacy—and we’ve known since basically the beginning of the show that he had feelings for her. But he has not said this to her before. Elizabeth doesn’t respond in kind, precisely—she has always been the least likely of the two of them to indulge in an expression of sentiment—but she is grateful for it, she believes it, and showing sympathy and understanding in insisting Philip stay with Martha for Martha’s last night in America is her expression of this.

Some commentators have suggested that as Philip is so accustomed to lying in order to ‘make it real’, this could simply be him smoothing over another bump in the road. But I don’t agree; Philip is not pretending in this episode. There’s a weariness to him, and honesty in his face—literally, as for the first time in the show, he is without disguise, in his own clothes, with nothing more than a baseball cap and sunglasses to hide his identity on the street. (Consider the contrast in costuming to Elizabeth, who spends the entire episode in her ‘Clark’s sister’ disguise, with the exception of this penultimate scene, in which she removes her glasses, effectively creating a window in her disguise, through which to speak.) Philip, though, has taken off his armour entirely. What’s on display now is the part of him that found himself drawn to EST; that started to crack open at the end of Season 3, and that he has been struggling—though not yet able—to set free. His subsequent honesty with Martha, finally telling her that he won’t be joining her in Russia, is not only the end of their relationship, but signifies Philip finally accepting the reality of his choices. I can’t imagine there won’t be fallout from this in the coming weeks.

I also can’t imagine Martha is going to find her way to the Soviet Union unharmed, since Tatiana seems to have strategically omitted her from her brief to the pilot. And interspersed with all of this is a domestic scene between the Jennings children and Stan’s son Matthew. Henry, who has spent most of this season either hanging out with Stan or with his head in a video game, finally seems to get a glimpse of a new side to his sister, while Paige’s willingness to be amiable—and present a semblance of normalcy—suggests that her new knowledge about her parents is sinking in somewhat. The trailer for next week’s episode suggests that veneer of normalcy won’t last long.

Previous post: