From the very beginning, fans of The Americans have been expecting the character of Martha to die at any moment. But for viewers, that would mean the loss of British actress Alison Wright, who, over time, has served as both welcome comic relief and an important audience surrogate.
Early on, Matthew Rhys’s KGB agent Philip Jennings—in disguise as American bureaucrat Clark Westerfeld—seduced and ultimately married the FBI secretary, convincing her to share top-secret information with him about her bosses’ every move.
Now, midway through the fourth season of the expertly crafted FX drama, Martha has learned that Clark isn’t who he says he is, that he killed her colleague Gene to protect her, and, now, that he works for the Soviet Union. On top of all that, the FBI now seriously suspects she is a mole and is preparing to arrest and interrogate her.
All of those revelations are what make the final scene of this week’s episode so fraught with suspense and danger. After Philip and his real wife Elizabeth leave Martha in a safe house with their handler Gabriel (played with frightening gravitas by the excellent Frank Langella), she makes her escape.
Gabriel tries to go after her, but doesn’t want to make a scene on the quiet suburban street. “Stay away from me. I’ll scream,” Martha says to him, louder than he would prefer. “And everyone will know you’re KGB.”
With that, she turns and walks away down the street, a look of terror crosses her face, and the screen cuts to black.
The Daily Beast spoke to Wright about the episode, the first half of Season Four and her character’s increasingly traumatizing journey as a whole. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
I think I speak for all fans of The Americans when I say that we are very worried about Martha at this point. Can you talk about the moment at the end of this week’s episode when she walks away from Gabriel?
In a way, it’s the strongest that we’ve ever seen Martha. She woke up that morning a new woman, you know? She found out the night before exactly who Clark works for and she’s been up through the night dealing with the ramifications of that in her head. And then she pops down for a little nap, she wakes back up and Clark has done the worst thing and left her alone. She goes for her gun, the only thing she really has to protect herself at this moment and somebody’s already taken it.
So she’s in this room with this scary man downstairs that she can only suppose is somebody higher up than Clark in the KGB. I think she gathers up all the strength she possibly can and gets some gumption and some moxie from somewhere to split and take things into her own hands. I don’t know if the Martha that we’ve known up until now could have done that [or] would have thought to do it, would have thought about her self-preservation that quickly. But she does. She goes out and she’s furious. She takes out a lot of her frustration on Gabriel that she’s not able to take out on Clark. And not just because he’s not there, but because it’s easier to hate Gabriel than it is to hate Clark. So he gets the brunt of her anger.
You say she does it for her own “self-preservation,” but it’s hard to imagine she knows just how dangerous it is to walk away from him at that moment. At the same time, she has the FBI going after her. How did you weigh those two sides of it?
It’s very complicated and she has a million things going through her head, no doubt. What I will say is that when she is walking out of that house, she has no idea where she’s going. She doesn’t know where she’s going to go past getting outside of the house onto the street. And I think we see that in the shot when, after she yells at Gabriel, she turns around and then the panic sets in a bit more. “Where do I go now? What do I do now?” And of course we’re going to have to wait until the next episode to find out. Because, you know, there’s lots of things that she could do, there’s lots of people that she could reach out to, confess to, ask for help. We really don’t know what she is going to do in that moment and neither does she.
Going back to the end of last season, can you talk about the moment that Clark removed his wig and revealed himself to be someone else? What did that revelation mean for Martha?
I was kind of astounded when I first read it in the script. I thought, “Why would he do that?” It took me a second to get on board with the idea that he knew instinctively that that’s what she needed. She needed that transparency, otherwise she wasn’t going to stay. She’d had enough, she couldn’t take it anymore. So of course it was a moment of kindness from him and surrender and remarkable trust. Because these people don’t take off their disguises in front of people. There’s a beautiful, beautiful scene [this week] when Elizabeth walks into the safe house and sees Philip without his disguise on and she’s just like, what the fuck? Her reaction to that in that gorgeous scene really brings home how terrible it is, what he’s done. And how dangerous it is. Her reaction is so furious, I just love it. I think Keri [Russell] did an amazing job.
But when Clark does do that, I think he means it. It’s coming from a place of love, but Martha can’t really receive it from that place. Because this is a stranger standing in front of her now. He looks markedly different without his disguise. And if he’s been in this much of a disguise all this time, what else isn’t real? What else is a lie? All of those thoughts are going through her head as she’s watching him. And she has no words, there are no words that come to her. I think it was really a paralyzing, terrifying moment for her. And ultimately depressing, because things are worse than she ever thought.
You mentioned the scene with Keri Russell’s character and this is the first time you’ve shared a scene with her since Martha and Clark’s wedding. And you also interact with Frank Langella’s Gabriel for the first time. What was that experience like?
It’s fantastic, because on a show like this, a lot of our storylines never cross. Like I’d never been to the Rezidentura set until we were halfway through this season. And I was like, you know what? On my break, can somebody just take me there so I can look at it? Our stories never cross so it’s really lovely and everybody gets excited when it does happen. For Martha, meeting Gabriel is like the worst thing, really. It doesn’t bode well.
And Frank Langella is such a commanding presence that that must have made that easier for you.
Indeed, yeah, he is. On screen and in real life. It was marvelous. I was actually reading his book while I was shooting with him so it was pretty cool.
Martha now knows Elizabeth is not Clark’s sister, but do you think she has any inkling at this point that she’s actually his “real” wife?
No, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. I think she might just implode if she realized the extent of the lie. No, I don’t think she thinks that. Her automatic, natural reaction is to ask, “Are you two... Is something going on?” But I don’t think she’s thought past that. I don’t think she wants to think past that.
Yeah, that seems to be the biggest revelation that viewers are waiting to drop: Will she ever find out that Clark is actually married to another woman? Is that something you’ve thought about, what would happen if that came to light?
You know, researching the real cases and things that happened, three out of four women committed suicide within 24 hours of learning the whole truth. I don’t know if that’s something that Martha could survive, or would want to survive, finding that out.
Another big turning point came in the first episode of this season when Martha learned the truth about Gene’s death. How has that affected the rest of the season so far?
For me, I’m playing close attention to the time. And it’s only been, at that point, like 2½ weeks since [Clark] took his disguise off and told her he’s a killer. Not only is Gene dead, but he’s done it. No matter what she thought about him before and all the possibilities she entertained, I honestly don’t think that she considered that he was any kind of killer or murderer. So it’s just another level of horror that is dumped on her. And she has to proceed with this man, with this new face, who’s now a killer. When she’s still very much in love with Clark and the idea of who this man is.
During her dinner with Agent Aderholt, Martha describes her situation with Clark as “probably the most honest relationship” she’s ever had. What do you think that line tells us about her?
Well, you know, this is a story that Clark has told her to say. When she couldn’t get a hold of Clark before the dinner, I imagine it’s something that’s she’s kind of practiced. I imagine her practicing in front of the mirror, trying to tell this convincing lie. And of course, the best thing you can do if you’re going to lie is put as much truth in as you can. I think that line and the timing of her saying it is absolutely true. Look at what this man has shown her, look how honest and transparent he’s been with her to this point. It’s quite unbelievable the extent he’s gone to show himself to her.
This is obviously a very tense and dark episode, as many of them are. But there is a truly funny moment when Agent Gaad finds out that Martha is “bad,” as Stan puts it, and all he can say is “That’s crazy.” In a way, do you think the FBI is giving her more credit as some sort of evil KGB mastermind than she deserves?
No, what I think he’s talking about is that he can’t believe the KGB beat him in this chess move. He can’t believe that they were that good, to get in. And of course, how dangerous it is because [as his secretary] she’s the best person for the KGB and the worst possible person for him that they could have gotten to.
I have to ask you about Nina’s tragic death in Episode Four. As a viewer, how did you react to that?
It was the first time that I’ve tuned in live to watch the show. I cried when I read it on the page and I cried when I watched it. I thought it was beautiful. And a surprising insight into how humane the Soviet Union was to kill people that quickly. They said that they did it so quickly so that the person wouldn’t suffer or have that long to panic and freak out.
But it makes the proposition of Martha going to live in the Soviet Union that much scarier.
Oh God, I don’t know what would be worse, a bullet in the back of the head and a burlap sack or you know, I don’t know…
I also want to ask you about playing Ginni Thomas in HBO’s Confirmation. What kind of preparation did you do for the role?
I had to do a ton, because I didn’t know anything about it. I grew up in a different country and was underage for the subject matter. Luckily, there is a lot of source material. The proceedings were televised themselves, which was a strange thing to have that kind of source material to work from. I had a great time reading Clarence Thomas’ books and all the books that were written about him. And then I guess I just sat back and let Wendell Pierce do the rest.
Did you see any parallels between the two characters? Both women discover some unnerving things about their husbands.
I do, I absolutely do. It was not lost on me, the irony.