"Poor Martha" has become the most frequent refrain among fans of "The Americans." The FBI secretary-turned-mole (Alison Wright) has had a rough three years, falling for a man who wasn't who seemed, marrying him and living without him, spying on her bosses for reasons she didn't know, watching an innocent man die to keep her safe, being acutely aware that she's drawing suspicion: the whole thing has been a horror show that's led her to taking Valium to deal with panic attacks. Martha isn't in for a world of hurt. Her world is hurt, and in "The Rat," the few things she had to hold onto come crashing down.
Last episode saw Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) making love shortly after discussing their fear that Martha might be in danger, and the episode opens with post-coitus cuddling, Elizabeth tender as she plays footsy with Philip and caresses him, noticing for the first time that one of his nipples is larger than the other. Philip (or "Clark," as Martha knows him) is less playful, a faraway look in his eyes as he worries about the second woman he's come to love. "You think I'm being stupid," he says, to Elizabeth's warm denial and admiration that he wants to do the right thing for Martha. But though director Kari Skogland shoots the scene in tight, cozy close-ups, the two leaning on each other for support, there's little comfort for Philip as he knows how bad the Martha situation is getting. In her apartment, Martha takes a long time to leave, grabbing her Valium and the gun she keeps in her drawer, looking around uneasily at a world that's become more dangerous for her in a matter of days.
That danger comes in the form of agents Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), both aware now that something's not right with their boss' secretary. They've pulled her file, finding more details about her sad life: she had an abortion in 1964, when it was dangerous and illegal, after her high school sweetheart left her when she became pregnant. She's had few personal relationships, and her current one is complicated (possibly with a married man, more likely, as they've found out, with an enemy agent). She's lived a lonely existence, and it's grown more hostile: she walks into work with the camera pivoting from Aderholt noticing her to her walking out of frame, the camera moving from Aderholt to Stan, watching her closely. When she disappears during lunch and doesn't show up the next day, they look through her lover's apartment, learning about a "Clark Westerfeld" but finding few signs: no tape in the answering machine, no photos, no nothing. They take their suspicions to their boss, Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas), and everything clicks into place. No one could have put that bugged pen in his office more easily. She's worked with them for years, and Gaad kept her on instead of his old secretary because he didn't want to cast her aside. "No good deed..."
Indeed. Philip pulls Martha off the street and takes her to a ramshackle safe house, where she meets his handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella) and finally learns the truth: that he and Elizabeth (known to Martha as his sister "Jennifer") are KGB. All things considered, Martha takes the news well, with quiet tears and resolve rather than open horror or anger. "Clark" has said "I promise" hundreds of times, but now he's making the biggest promise, that everything will be OK. The scene is shot with Martha looking at "Clark" through a mirror, finally seeing his true nature both visually and psychologically. The camera moves closer as they make love, Martha taking comfort in the belief that they can run away, but when the camera moves closer to Philip, his eyes are heavy. There's no good way out for her.
That's something that forces Gabriel between a rock and a hard place: he believes Philip has jumped the gun and that Martha can return to work, but she's seen Philip without his "Clark" disguise, and now she knows about Gabriel and "Jennifer." Gabriel is quietly furious. Elizabeth, when she arrives, is mostly just stunned that Philip revealed himself to Martha, seeing that his concern for her goes beyond wanting to do the right thing. There's been emotional involvement beyond what she's given to other sources (save Gregory, the black activist-turned-KGB man from season 1), and just as they've gotten back on solid ground together, Elizabeth sees another problem in her relationship with Philip. Russell plays it well, not with anger but with the shellshocked look of someone trying to keep it together and process that someone she loves has put them in danger.
Martha's down, of course, upset that she's never going to be able to go home, but she has "Clark" to hold onto...until Gabriel informs him that he needs to leave, immediately, to meet biochemical warfare agent William (Dylan Baker) to pick up tularemia samples. Before leaving, he checks on a resting Martha, finding her Valium and, to his shock, a gun. Rhys acts as if the weight of the gun is greater than that of a steamship, at least psychologically, taking it to the window and sadly putting it the back of his pants, seeing how Martha may be a danger to herself (he also shakes her Valium to double check that she hasn't taken all of it).
There's some much-needed dark humor in Philip's scenes with William, as sharp-tongued and sarcastic as ever (when Philip requests more Glanders samples early in the episode: "I really want to do that again"), especially when he pulls out a second namesake for the episode in a dead rat they can get samples from ("I had to improvise"). But as he did in the shut-in episode, William shows his soft side, sympathizing with Philip's concern for Martha and citing his own failure to leave the country after his wife was sent back. William is left to trust people he's known for a short while who nearly got him killed with the Glanders incident. Elizabeth is forced to trust someone who's compromised their safety.
But "Poor Martha," as always, is in the worst situation, and there's limits to her trust. She wakes up and notices her gun missing, "Clark" gone, and Gabriel assuring her that everything is fine. She's been put in so much danger by "Clark" that it's heartbreaking to watch her go in full-on panic mode, sure that her husband is in danger and that Gabriel has the worst in mind. She leaves the safe house, and now the Jennings and Gabriel are in a terrible position of having to decide whether or not she can be left alone or brought back in before she reveals the truth about them to the FBI. "The Americans" plays with trust and marriage in every episode, but "The Rat" is one of its most exquisitely painful hours, in which the one person Martha has to hold onto, and the one who's advocating most strongly for her safety, is the one who's gotten her into this mess and someone who, no matter how this turns out, won't be with her in the end.
-Last episode saw Gabriel calling William a patriot, in spite of his complaining, but he's a very snarky patriot. When Philip tells him that providing the biological sample will make him a hero, he responds, with a heavy scoff, "In a coffin."
-Elizabeth is trying to cook Korean food, influenced by Young-hee. The tofu in it (which Paige tries and thinks is badly-cooked chicken) is a great source of "rubbery protein," according to mom.
-Paige (Holly Taylor) only has a single scene, but the look she gives mom when she mentions that her father is "working" is great.
-Alison Wright, meanwhile, is great at showing Martha's mounting distrust of everyone around her other than "Clark," hitting every note between the shift from her Valium-haze first scene and her desperate exit. The show's actors are continually ignored by the Emmys, and it'd be a shame if Wright missed out for her finest work on the show yet.
-Next week is looking pretty desperate. I don't think Martha is long for this world.