For a while there, I thought The Americans’ central concept was deception — that, at its purest level, the show was driving at ideas of lies and construct and performance. (The Wire’s central concept is rot, for example; the intensity and action of the show rely on an atmosphere of entropy and decay.) In The Americans’ first two seasons, the emotional thesis of the show was, “yes, you can fake it,” and all the jazzy spycraft was there to show us the tools of artifice (namely wigs and enthusiasm). In season three, though, the show has become richer and more affecting because now the driving force isn’t deceit: The overwhelming sensation of The Americans is dread. And Martha is at the center of that dread. Oh, Martha. Oh, Martha.
In season one, Martha was TV’s saddest character, and now things seem more dire than that: Every second she’s onscreen, I’m wondering if the person she’s talking to is about to kill her. (And hats off to Alison Wright for playing Martha as smart and self-possessed, only as vulnerable to targeted psychological manipulation as anyone else would be.) Could Clark kill her? Yes. I thought for a second Agent Beeman might, because everyone has a darkness, as this show reminds us. Even the mail robot could go rogue and take her out. Every part of Martha’s existence elicits an “oh God, something bad is going to happen” response from the audience.
That dread is the densest around Martha, but it exists in the entire show. We know how the Cold War ends and what happens to spies who are captured, and we know there’s nothing too wonderful waiting for Philip and Elizabeth, no matter what they do. (Have fun moving back to Russia in the early ‘90s?) What good can possibly be in store for Stan? If he discovers that Philip and Elizabeth are spies, then it’s how could I be so stupid? If he never does, he’s actually just being stupid. We know how Stan is, so we know the impending self-recrimination is monstrous and potentially life-ruining. Paige’s life seems completely doomed. There’s no good answer for Henry, either: Are you better off not knowing the family secret? Or are you better off hearing it from your parents? Or from the people arresting them? If someone asks you, “do you want to know the truth?” the answer isn’t “yes” or “no.” It’s “oh, shit.”
What makes the dread on The Americans particularly potent is that the show is full of bad wishes come true. Uh-oh, are they going to kill that guy? Yes, they are. Oh no, what’re they gonna do for her tooth? They’re going to just yank it out, right then, like a bunch of monsters. They’re going to throw that woman’s body in the trash, they’re going to walk into hotel rooms where families have been massacred, they’re going to turn their own children into spies. That dread isn’t paranoia; it’s based on a demonstrated history that bad things happen. People die. People endure torture.
Especially Martha. We’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth kill people, but nothing is quite so terrible as what Mischa-as-Philip-as-Clark has pulled on this woman. Not only am I not who you think I am, but by convincing you to marry me and give me a variety of classified secrets, now you’re not who you think you are, either. Do you want to know the truth, Martha? It won’t set you free. It won’t help you, at all, since you have no espionage skills, but it will utterly destroy any ability you have to trust other people or yourself. “Clark” taking off his wig was one of the most arresting moments of TV in ages, because it at once seemed like a grand kindness — yes, I will finally admit this to you — and a death sentence — but now that you know ... Living a lie is no fun, but even worse is living someone else’s. So oh, no. Something bad is definitely going to happen. It already has.