Frank Ockenfels/FX


Photo by Frank Ockenfels/FX

“The Americans'” Martha Hanson Is More Than Just a Sad Sack

We are as guilty as the KGB for dismissing the FBI secretary as easy romantic prey for their mission. A fact that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings each discover in ways they never imagined.

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The man was surrealistically ideal: smart as hell, but not in a smug, lordly way; the perfect kind of awkward, sweet not creepy; and, yes, he was handsome. Best of all, he gave good email. His messages to me, sometimes several a day in the first volleys of our courtship, were witty and wry, revealing and solicitous. He contacted me after reading an essay of mine online—and whether it was the way he described his honest connection to my work, or his facility with language, or the alacrity of his thought; or the fact that he was attractive, and I’d been lonely for years—I fell for him, hard and fast. I believed that I’d land softly, though; in Skypes that lasted hours (and where he’d joke about how blessedly portable his job could be), through countless texts, and those super-swoony emails, we’d established enough of a bond that he was soon flying out to see me and I was mentally decorating our first apartment.

I told my friends that my days as a Lonely Heart were numbered. But a number of them—either partnered or savvier than I—were wary, and told me to ask him, clearly, what his intentions were. When I did, my querying lips still thrumming from his kiss, I expected to hear that he’d connected with me in a way he hadn’t planned on, and he wanted to see where this would go. I didn’t expect to hear that he was, “in it for a good time” and “seeing other people at home.” I took that hard fall onto the sharp rocks of humiliation. I was inconsolable in my embarrassment. How could I have trusted this guy I barely knew?

And then I found an onscreen soul sister: The Americans’ Martha Hanson, the FBI secretary courted by one of the titular Russian super-spies, Philip Jennings, in his guise of (inexplicably handsome and enticingly aloof) government oversight officer Clark Westerfeld, into providing federal secrets. Yes, Martha, “Poor Martha.”

For Martha has spent much of her tenure on the show hitched to a man who, for the first time in a long time (maybe ever), makes her feel cherished—even as he manipulates and betrays her. I saw myself and my own “Clark” in the lust-sopped, wine-kissed early days of her great love; in her sad, defiant hope of building a home with a man who still keeps his own apartment across town; and in the fathomless horror of that moment when Clark takes off his disguise of glasses and a wig, and Martha sees him for the first time, and recognizes how terribly she’s been played. My own struggle to reconcile my hope for love with the smarter parts of me, the parts that “should’ve known better” is writ large into Martha’s arc. Her rage when he pulls off that wig and looks at her with the face of a new man is a force far deeper and more savage than the pain of being fooled. It is grief. Her hope has had its poor little neck wrung, and hands limp in her arms. 

Philip’s handlers identify Martha as an easy mark precisely because she seems so pathetic and pliant—for a night out, a kiss, even a soft look, she’ll give up everything. And she does. But, as one of the most uniquely feminist shows on TV, The Americans complicates the spinster archetype by making Martha one of its most poignant, complexly rendered, and immensely relatable characters; a woman possessed of an inner life, and a powerful longing for something beyond her workaday existence, that belies anything that “Clark’s” KGB controllers and her FBI bosses (or, the viewing audience, for that matter) may think of her. Martha is a powerful re-imagining of an archetype so often associated with women like me, unattached and over 30—the spinster. The spinster exists across media as the dumpy best friend, the sad-sack big sister, or the Old Maid neighbor who serves squarely as a cautionary tale: Don’t end up old and alone. She pours coffee and types memos for men who acknowledge her with the slightest of nods; she dines alone most nights, a TV dinner and a glass of wine, in an apartment filled with tchotchkes that feel more precious to her precisely because they are so small and worthless to anyone else.

At the series’ outset, Martha is presented as a kind of thematic counterpart for Elizabeth Jennings, who is the more conventional TV badass: sleek, slim-hipped, able to snap necks and break hearts with equal aplomb. If Elizabeth’s animating sorrow is that she has seen too much—surviving rape at the hands of one KGB trainer and the murder of a beloved mentor/father-figure; accumulating a body’s worth of scar tissue through fighting, and a calcified heart, cycling through disguises, trying to be everything, all at once, to so many different people (including Philip and her children)—then Martha’s tragedy is a paucity of experience. Her life orbits around that office: The lone ex-beau introduced on the show is a co-worker (who ends being killed by Philip/Clark for his obsessive prying into Martha’s life), and her current boss, Agent Gaad, remarks that, when he took his post, he’d considered bringing his old secretary along, but that it seemed so cruel to kick Martha off the desk she’d inhabited for so long. It’s a dagger of Nice Guy condescension, and the thrust of it is clear: Poor Martha, there’s no one to take care of her. Still, the show acknowledges that we can’t all be Elizabeth, hyper-competent bad-asses whose porcelain beauty inspires instant devotion. Many of us are Martha, staring wistfully into our mugs of tea and hoping to be noticed.

Three years after my own “Clark” got back on a plane to the girls he was seeing back home, after I blocked him on social media and shuttered all of my subscriptions to dating sites, I live a calcified life. My broken hope is tombed in a shoebox, buried in dry soil. Spending my days working and seeing friends is far safer than letting another douche in nice guy’s clothing into my bed. Watching Martha’s current state of peril—being discovered as “bad” by the FBI; finding herself with only the KGB, which happens to include Philip/Clark’s other wife, as her recourse; and realizing that she can never go home again—seems to validate my decision. Then the delicious summer breeze rolls in, and I see people walking hand-in-hand; then another friend takes a risk, and finds a genuinely good partner. And, in those moments, keeping my heart cloistered in stone may be safer, but it’s still just as painful as opening it up to the wrong man.

If Martha is, as critic Margaret Lyons dubbed her, “the saddest character on TV,” it’s not because she embodies the “Cathy” cartoon tropes of singledom; it’s because her loneliness is so profound, so revealing of audacious desire for a raw, raucous love, one that goes beyond a ring around a finger. That desire makes her more vulnerable to “Clark’s” manipulations, and it makes her betray her conscience and her country—but that doesn’t make her inherently pathetic. Lyons writes that, “If The Americans makes brutal spy missions seem cool … then Martha represents the cost of that coolness … Martha’s a nice, normal person who wants a nice, normal life. And she seems like a ridiculous fool and complete patsy and might as well have ‘future murder victim’ embroidered on her nice, normal officewear. Love hurts.” But love—even dangerous, life-altering, if not life-ending, love—is a choice. Martha may not know why she’s being asked to copy documents and plant bugs; she’s surely smart enough to know that what she’s doing is, to put it mildly, supremely suspect. And she chooses to remain complicit even after Clark becomes Philip right in front of her.

“We have to decide things,” she tells him. This act of deciding, daily, to keep the secrets of the man she loves—and, for that matter, to love that man, even though she doesn’t really  know him—is a display of agency as formidable as the iron will Elizabeth forged behind the Iron Curtain. And though Elizabeth may be more prepared for the personal doomsday scenarios wrought by spy-craft, her love of country has left her, variously (and among other things) gut-shot, bound in a car trunk,  whipped on the back by a mark’s belt while playing call girl, and separated or estranged from everyone she wanted to love. “Poor Martha” may be the rallying cry for many fans of the show—but “Poor Elizabeth” is often just as applicable. Martha’s cause is not the overturn of an evil empire; it is to thwart her own loneliness.

When she first meets Clark, Martha is a tight bud finally loosening under an attentive sun; their sex scenes rival Philip and Elizabeth’s for steaminess and intensity, and yet there is also a sense of levity to them—Martha introduces Clark to the Kamasutra in an athletic reverie of positions, ending with them twined upright, an incredulous Clark staring, baffled yet rapt, into her eyes. Even Elizabeth, despite knowing the game better than anyone else, finds herself jealous of what soon becomes Philip’s genuine affection for Martha—though the show is far too smart to play this off as a prelude to a catfight. When, in the fourth season, the FBI gets hip to Martha’s subterfuge and the KGB must instigate a painful extraction plan, Elizabeth feels real sympathy for Martha’s predicament, and for Philip’s pain about his primary role in it. If Philip’s love for Elizabeth crackles and blazes, then his feelings for Martha are like a candle’s warmth: softer and subtler, but no less present. After all, it is to Martha alone that he confesses the cardinal ache of his boyhood: how he bludgeoned one of his teenage tormentors to death with a stone. And throughout that scene, I wondered if all the late-night confessions my own Clark had made weren’t just hooks on a fishing line, but real attempts at connection—even if, in the end, he didn’t want me the way I needed him to.

Giving pathos to her struggle not only elevates Martha out of the sad spinster archetype, it universalizes her vulnerability: Martha is everyone who has ever daydreamed about an unattainable classmate or co-worker, or some beautiful stranger on a train; who catches the refrain to “Is That All There Is?” looping inside their heads during another three o’clock meeting; and who knows that there is something fragile and exquisite in the center of their chest, just waiting for a gentle hand to pull it out. Martha’s portrayer, Alison Wright, tells Vulture, “I thought of her as being a very open person that doesn’t really have any armor. She’s a little more like the rest of us, she’s a little more like the audience …  Now women come up to me often and talk about how bad they feel for her, and how lots of their girlfriends from their 20s into their 60s can empathize with her and take her plight seriously.”

Martha’s plight has become increasingly dire over the past several episodes; she is now, in spy parlance, “in the wind,” twisted with rage and estranged from any place she might call home. When she wakes up in a safe house without the man she’s been calling hers, that last bit of hope—as sweet and fragile as any knick-knack on her shelf—shatters on a hard floor. She storms out of that safe house and screams at Philip’s KGB handler—not the safest choice, but, in making that choice, she proclaims that she is not that pliant, pathetic woman. She has failed in love, and perhaps in life—but she is her own woman, even if she is a broken woman. I hope that tonight’s episode of The Americans isn’t the last we see of Martha, although even if it is, I am a better woman for having known her. I see the dignity in my own heartbreak. In the end, I was crushed by my Clark—but I don’t have to see that only as a defeat; because, for a moment, that press of flesh against flesh, breath into breath, I gave myself exactly what I wanted.

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