In its fourth season, The Americans continues to be an unacknowledged masterpiece.
BY ERIC EIDELSTEIN
In “Stingers,” the tenth episode of The Americans’ third season, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings sit their teenage daughter Paige down around their dining room table. As she shifts her anxious gaze from parent to parent, it appears that we’re about to hear, “Your father and I love each other very much, but just not the way we used to.” Although the scene’s set up in such a way, Philip and Elizabeth are not about to split. Instead, they tell Paige that they are spies, sleeper agents sent to the U.S. almost two decades prior from Mother Russia.
The premiere of Season Four of The Americans, which aired March 16, examines the consequences of the Jennings’ reveal. The drama that was initially interested in questioning and problematizing the sanctity of marriage as we know it has expanded into one involving every member of a family, the secrets they share and the ones they hide.
Three years ago we were introduced to the Jennings. On the surface, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are your average Waspy couple; with their two kids, home in the D.C. suburbs, and cover job as travel agents, they have been able to successfully blend in as Americans — even more of a feat considering they’re living during Reagan’s xenophobic regime. Then there’s Paige (Holly Taylor), their teenage daughter who isn’t so much angsty, but intuitive enough to know that something is off with her parents. She has a right to be upset as they’re the ones getting home late and making lame excuses for their absence. Desperate for something real to grasp onto, to be passionate about, Paige soon finds herself attending a local church, much to her parents’ chagrin. Henry (Keidrich Sellati), the youngest Jennings, remains oblivious, and practically spends the first three seasons of the show immersed in video games.
Since it first aired, critics have raved about the show, comparing it to The Sopranos for its depth, performances, and ability to challenge viewers’ expectations. But like other acclaimed FX shows (Justified, Louie), The Americans remains trapped with the “critical darling” label, and not only receives very little awards attention, but struggles to pass the million-viewer mark week to week. It’s unfortunate, because in its fourth season, The Americans remains television’s best and most nuanced drama.
Paige, and the anxiety she faces after learning of her parents’ secrets, takes control of Season Four. In its early episodes Paige must cope, at a much faster rate than her parents, with the new identity thrust upon her. She’s not just an American teenager growing up in the 80s, but an American teenager with parents who are not Americans and spend their days committing the highest form of treason. The burden proves to be too much and she understandably confides in the only person she trusts: her pastor, Pastor Tim.
Philip and Elizabeth soon learn of their daughter’s betrayal and the first few episodes deal with the difficult decision they must make. They could always run, raise their American kids in the homeland. They could kill the pastor and hope that Paige never learns of their unforgivable act. Or they could stay and do their best to convert the man to their cause, make him an asset. Like with everything and everyone in The Americans, there’s no easy decision and there’s certainly no right one.
It’s part of what makes The Americans so complex. No one has a single motivation and, in a way, its identity politics are more in line with Mad Men’s than The Sopranos. The Americans doesn’t show people as unchanging; rather, it reveals that we all put on s masks, or in the case of Philip and Elizabeth, wigs.
Outside of the Jennings clan we have Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who is still dealing with his new new bachelor status and his betrayal of Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru). He’s also figuring out how best to go about his burgeoning friendship with Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), a Russian diplomat working at the Soviet embassy who was in love with Nina before she was sent to the Gulag at the end of Season Two. His alliances are all over the place, and season four continues to show Stan, the sole patriot at the beginning of the series, losing faith in the institutions he used to unquestionably revere.
While having shots and scenes of Nina in isolation has worked considerably well for over a season, her situation in prison, her refusal to betray anyone else and turn over a new leaf, seem like a dead end for the character, who initially worked at the Soviet embassy before being blackmailed into becoming an American asset before, once again, turning back to her home country.
Then there’s Martha, poor Martha, as so many have learned to call her. She was a secretary at the CIA; in Season One we saw Phillip, disguised as an internal affairs person named Clark, first grill her, before seducing her, and later marrying her. In late Season Three and more so in Season Four she has a vague idea of his massive deception and must wrestle with the fact that the man she loves has essentially ruined her life. What else can she do but move forward?
There are a couple of new characters in season four of The Americans, another veteran sleeper agent (played by The Good Wife standout Dylan Baker) and recurring players include Gabriel (Frank Langella), the Jennings’ handler, who remains a mystery despite insisting that his loyalties lie with the Jennings. There are also the standard heists, killings, and seductions that have become trademarks of The Americans. But beneath it all we have a layered drama that is more concerned with dissecting each of these characters — their pasts and presents, their dreams and delusions, and, perhaps most significantly, their loyalties, to their countries, to each other, and to themselves.
Originally published 05/10/16