Narrative-wise, not much happens in “Travel Agents.” We end the episode more or less where we began “The Rat,” with Martha back in the safe house, struggling to process the circumstances of her new life. The FBI is still hot on her trail, the Rez is still preparing for Martha’s extradition, and the Jennings and Beeman children remain unsupervised and barely considered by their respective parents.
Tanya Barfield’s script almost seems to be taunting us with a lack of actual forward momentum, as potentially major developments are twice thwarted by a well-timed phone call from Martha, the episode’s central distraction. First, a confrontation between Stan and the deputy FBI director over Stan’s refusal to blackmail Oleg is sidelined by a call from Martha to her parents, whose phone the FBI has bugged. Then later at the call center, where Philip is waiting to hear from Martha, operator Alice begins to tell him about the “suddenly accelerated” nature of her deployment, suggesting a big revelation about Directorate S — which is summarily interrupted by a phone call from Martha once again. These little hints at waylaid drama underline the narrative stance taken by the episode: Finding Martha is all that matters. Nothing new can happen until she’s found.
This is not a bad thing. Martha’s panicked odyssey through the streets and parks of D.C. provokes the sort of cat-and-mouse (or in this case, cats-and-mouse) chase that The Americans excels at constructing. Despite its lack of forward momentum, “Travel Agents” is a fantastically tense, capably executed piece of TV storytelling. The episode’s particular structure — with Directorate S and the FBI both circling a target on the run — demands utmost clarity about each character’s location in relation to the others, and director Dan Attias does an admirable job tracking its many moving parts in such a way that not only clarifies the action, but also ratchets the tension ever higher.
“Travel Agents” picks up only 40 minutes after the end of “The Rat” — we know because Gabriel tells Philip and Elizabeth how long Martha’s been gone — and unfolds over half-hour increments, punctuated by calls from Elizabeth to Philip at the call center. (Let us contemplate for a brief moment what a different show The Americans would be were it set in the age of cell phones.) At the same time, the FBI confirms that “Clark Westerfeld” is indeed a fake identity, meaning that Stan and Aderholt’s pursuit of Martha has jumped from exploratory to very urgent. Martha is now the top priority for the FBI — who root through her belongings, tampons and all, in a comically thorough manner — and Directorate S alike. The two factions are equally determined, and equally equipped, to find her.
No one is more aware of this than poor Martha, who wanders through the episode like a deer caught in several pairs of headlights. Out on the streets, she sees men in suits and black cars lurking around every corner, a paranoia that drives her to the relative safety of the park. I say “relative” because there is a big, dangerous temptation in the park: a very tall bridge over some very sharp rocks. The bridge turns out to be a fake-out — aided by a sneaky cut to commercial that re-opens on Stan and Aderholt looking at the same bridge, realizing Martha may have jumped from it — but the visual drama of that moment underlines the hopelessness of Martha’s situation. There are no good outcomes for her, no matter who catches up with her first.
This is certainly on Martha’s mind when she makes that second call to Alice’s line and hears “Clark” on the other side. Philip begs her to tell him where she is, to let him rescue her, and she’s visibly torn whether she should do so. But what other option does she have? At least this way, she can be with Clark. Right?
And here is where the true incident of “Travel Agents” comes into play. For all its focus on cat-and-mouse dynamics, the real payoff of the episode is some much-needed emotional clarity for several characters, Philip and Elizabeth chief among them. The question of Philip’s true feelings for Martha has hovered over the entire season, informing both his actions involving her and his interactions with Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s suspicions about Philip and Martha have been mounting all season, exacerbated by Philip’s squirrely behavior surrounding his charge. Her concern is never verbalized, only suggested through concerned looks and declarative “don’t forget who your real wife is” sexual overtures. When Elizabeth first calls to check in with Philip, she reassures him that Martha will be okay, but the look on Keri Russell’s face telegraphs Elizabeth’s frustration at having to tiptoe around Philip’s feelings. She never says as much, but there’s almost certainly a part of Elizabeth that wants to follow Gabriel’s tacit instructions to take Martha out if she makes another scene — and the way Elizabeth fondles what’s likely a gun in her pocket upon finding Martha in the park suggests she comes very close to doing so.
The fact that Elizabeth instead opts to simply knock the wind out of a hysterical Martha is, weirdly enough, an indicator of her love and respect for Philip. At this point, she believes that her husband is in love with this other woman, or at the very least, has an emotional connection to her that goes beyond mere guilt. Choosing to bring Martha in safely instead of simply disposing of her — as we know Elizabeth could — is an act of vulnerability. Back at the safe house, she tells Philip to let Martha believe he’s accompanying her to Moscow, and then lays that vulnerability bare with a single question: If he could, would he run away from their life together and join Martha?
Philip’s shocked reaction reinforces what he told William back in “Cloramphenicol“: Even if he could escape his life as a spy, he’d never do so without Elizabeth. Philip’s overt rejection of the idea that he could ever have a life with Martha that’s preferable to the one he already has with Elizabeth is one of the show’s most baldly romantic moments, and it reinforces the sanctitude of the Jennings’ relationship at exactly the right moment.
And when Clark goes back to help Martha ice her Elizabeth-induced bruise, he lives up to his promise to only tell her the truth: She will be going to Moscow alone. He won’t be visiting. She’ll have to learn Russian and forge a new life without him. “I’ll be alone,” Martha says, grappling with her own moment of emotional clarity. “Just like I was before I met you.” All the falsehoods upon which Martha has built her relationship with Clark have crumbled, and she’s left with the stark revelation that her life is effectively over.
Over in FBI-land, Gaad is coming to a similar realization. He’s staring out the window, drinking in his office, and mouthing off to the director because he knows Martha’s betrayal represents the end of his career. It hasn’t happened yet, but he knows his days are numbered. All he can do is wait for the inevitable ending.
“Travel Agents” quietly ends on the precipice of major changes. Although some specifics have been filled in regarding next steps — Martha will apparently make her trip to Moscow alongside that dead rat, which is starting to seem like a lot more than a symbol — this episode mostly postpones the inevitable. In that postponement, though, The Americans lets its characters achieve some emotional clarity. And in true Americans fashion, it’s devastating.