The Americans, Season 3, Episode 7: “Walter Taffet”
Written by Lara Shapiro
Directed by Noah Emmerich
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX
Something is rotten in the CIA, as Agents Gadd, Beeman, and Aderholt discover in “Walter Taffet,” this week’s installment of The Americans. Martha has been spying on her co-workers for a while now, as a favour to her husband “Clark,” and the episode finally sees her misdeed being acknowledged.
The moment comes across as a welcome shock after a couple of fairly uneventful hours (with the exception of Nina’s betrayal of her cellmate and a few other events). While the recent episodes have been compelling, and certainly effective in developing the characters (most notably the triangle between Elizabeth, Phillip, and Paige), they mostly haven’t trafficked in the heart-in-your-throat type of feelings, which The Americans does better than nearly any other show on television. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because they’ve contributed to the build-up, which makes moments like the reveal of Martha’s pen-bug as effective as they are. Still, it’s those scenes that ultimately stand out as the climactic points of the series, and the Martha scene characteristically does not disappoint.
It’s not just the fact that the agents discover the wire, which would be gripping enough on its own, but the way in which it happens, and the reactions of the characters, that really sells the scene. Noah Emmerich makes his directorial debut with this episode, and one can only hope that he’ll be given the chance to repeat the magnificent feeling of claustrophobia with which he imbues the agents’ revelation. Instantaneously, the men become strangers in their own home (or workplace, but as previous reviews have noted, one of the show’s major themes has been the lack of a boundary between the two), and the close-ups on their faces ensure that the viewer feels the full extent of their horror. Even more compelling is the scene’s coda, which finds Martha in the bathroom, struggling to decide whether it’s her guilt or her fear of being rooted out that weighs heavier on her. Either way, Allison Wright plays her discomfort with a fitting squirmishness that appropriately conveys the depth of Martha’s struggle. Throughout the show, she’s consistently been dealt some of the worst hands in the series, and Wright has done a beautiful job of balancing the character’s more pathetic aspects, without making her too helpless to be believable. That this moment comes within the narrow confines of a bathroom stall ramps up the tension and visually represents the limits of her situation. Her horror at seeing a black stiletto resembles Stan’s desperate scramble in the bathroom of the diner where he eats with Zunaida a few episodes back—we have to assume that the sight is benign, as common sense should’ve allowed him to think, but the ramped-up emotions of their respective situations make every detail seem crucial.
Just as Stan’s paranoia coincides with his personal turmoil over his collapsing relationship with Sandra, Martha’s fears of being discovered relate directly to her insecurities over her relationship with Phillip. After he tells Elizabeth that he has to go see his other wife, the two rendezvous at his “home” in New York, where she explains to him that even her eminently taken-advantage-of self has had enough of his antics. His reiteration of the lack of normalcy inherent in their relationship, normally enough to appease her, fails to keep her happy in the typical fashion. Wright continues to display her remarkable prowess for displaying weakness while keeping her character sympathetic, and Matthew Rhys shows off his feat of layered acting (or maybe not so layered?) as Phillip’s mendacious creation.
There may very well be only one way left to appease her, and Phillip informs Elizabeth of the possibility of him fathering yet another child in the interest of perpetuating their mission. His potential strategy is further complicated by his disclosure to Elizabeth of his long lost son just before the episode’s tag. As one would expect, she doesn’t seem to know how to react, and Keri Russell portrays the nuances of her situation with an appropriate indecisiveness. As they lie in bed together, looking very much like the husband and wife which the KGB arranged for them to be, both actors convey the tension between intimacy and lack of intimacy, which has constantly haunted their relationship and made it as compelling as it has been. The scene closes with a powerful frame filled almost entirely by their faces, not allowing us any opportunity to escape the complexities of their relationship, even if we wanted to.
The shot leads to an action-packed tag which contrasts nicely with the emotional depths plumbed just before the commercial break. Over the course of a montage worth of a Wire season finale, appropriately scored by Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” the Jennings nab their South African threats, Martha takes an ominous elevator ride with the titular agent, and Elizabeth commits a murder that feels cold-blooded even by her bad bitch standards. Hans looks on, stunned and speechless, and the viewer feels the same way after seeing this marvelous episode.