Midway through tonight’s episode of The Americans, after sweeping Martha (Alison Wright) off to a KGB safe house on a leafy suburban lane, Philip (Matthew Rhys) removes his disguise in a fit of pique. Abandoning Clark’s thick coif for his own thinning black Brillo-like do, dispensing with Clark’s specs only to accentuate the hollowness in his eyes, he suddenly seems naked, exposed—so much so that Elizabeth (Keri Russell), still posing as Clark’s dowdy sister, Jennifer, stops short at the kitchen’s precipice. “Did you want her to? To see you?” she asks, and though Philip can only stutter a non-answer, his shamefaced expression and her frosty mien suggest all too clearly that a line has been crossed. In “The Rat,” seeing is indeed believing, and removing the veil lays bare the risk that inheres in the concept of trust.
The issue arises again and again throughout the episode: Philip, planning to extricate her from the F.B.I.’s fast-closing claws, explains to William (Dylan Baker) that Martha trusts him; Stan (Noah Emmerich), attempting to assuage Agent Gaad’s (Richard Thomas) guilt over not having noticed her betrayal, notes the necessity of trust to the counterintelligence division’s daily function; Martha flees from Gabriel (Frank Langella) at episode’s end despite his assurances. “Trust you?” she says. “I don’t know you.” And what is trust if not an assumption that we know the person on the other end of the bargain—not just who they are, but what they value, and how they’ll act when we’re naked before them, our fragile fate in their hands?
The details of the disguises have often been an object of humor in The Americans, a reminder of the era’s now-questionable fashion choices, but “The Rat” reaffirms their importance to one of the show’s central ideas, which is that all of us are, to a certain extent, hiding in plain sight. Philip’s decision to show his “true” self to Martha (a self that is, of course, a far more elaborately constructed lie) shocks Elizabeth, one could argue, because it violates the personal trust between husband and wife as much as it does the professional trust between partners in espionage. To court Martha’s affections from behind the mask was work; to do so after dropping it is akin to cheating.
While operatives at the Rezidentura set in motion a plan to exfiltrate Martha to Moscow, and Stan and Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) intensify their investigation, “The Rat” thus pauses to reconsider the two other legs of Philip’s love triangle, finding fascinating parallels and points of contrast. In the opening sequence’s exquisite design, for instance, Philip and Elizabeth’s entwined hands segue into Martha’s Valium-deadened morning routine, landing on a suggestive note. “The nice thing about where I am now is, I don’t feel the need to be married,” a woman tells Jane Pauley on Today as Martha turns off the TV, underlining Philip’s respective levels of commitment to each relationship. Martha is, in a sense, as single as ever, an unsuspecting participant in the very kind of affair she described to Aderholt in “Chloramphenicol.”
With its usual eye for nuance, however, The Americans signals that Philip’s investment in Martha is no longer purely strategic. It’s notable that William, asking after Martha as he passes off the tularemia sample, reminisces about his wife, or that Martha mounts Philip in the safe house much as Elizabeth did in “Clark’s Place,” hitching up her skirt and straddling his lap. “I need you inside me,” she says, her most explicit expression of desire to date. “Cum inside me.” Given what we learn of Martha’s past from the discussion of her F.B.I. file, with its revelation of a broken engagement and an illegal abortion two decades prior, her plea only deepens the episode’s sense that trust is a dangerous form of human connection, if only because its severance can be so damaging. It’s taken Martha this long to open herself up the vulnerabilities of love again, and now it seems possible that she’s about to be burned.
“I think Martha’s bad,” Stan says to Gaad, as close as anyone in The Americans has come to a moral judgment of the show’s most enigmatic and compelling character, but of course Stan’s assessment is predicated on his own inability to “see” the Martha we know exists behind the mousy secretary. Even the title of “The Rat,” referring at once to the vehicle for the tularemia sample and the slang term for traitor, backstabber, snitch, offers a double entendre for the Janus in each of us. “It eats you up, what we do,” William says to Philip, but as the show’s brilliant fourth season enters its second half, it’s become apparent that this cruel bit of wisdom doesn’t apply just to spooks. After all, the risk that comes with trusting is nothing compared to the hazard at the heart of being trusted, and thus of being naked, exposed: The fear that the person underneath the disguise is no longer recognizable, even if that person is you.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.