As “The Americans” heads into its fourth season, it’s time to praise the show for what it hasn’t done.
Since it began, this spy drama has supplied exciting twists, fabulous performances, a wonderfully mournful atmosphere and a stellar re-creation of the mid-’80s Cold War in the Washington, DC area. It’s hard not to take these things almost for granted, even as they impress anew in season four.
What’s even more admirable is the way the series has quietly rejected the idea of changing its DNA in order to make itself more commercial. It’s never had the ratings it deserves, but in pursuit of bigger numbers or a higher profile, executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields never pandered or turned up the dials on the show’s more sensational aspects. “The Americans” easily could have gone in cartoonish or preposterous directions, but it never succumbed to the temptation to make itself slicker and less intelligent. That’s a worthy accomplishment in this day and age, when the cacophony of shows doing superficially outrageous things for attention grows louder by the day.
Sure, the narrative includes murders, but each one is deeply felt and often even more deeply regretted. There are sex scenes, but every one boasts layers of nuanced intensity. The betrayals and turnabouts that take place can be shocking, but they’re hard to shake, in part because viewers know how each setback will reverberate within the characters’ lives. The chase scenes and bare-knuckle fights that break out skillfully punctuate the low hum of tension, as do the wry jokes and ironic asides, but the real focus of the show has always been on what transpires on psychological and even spiritual levels.
This season, it very much feels as though “The Americans” is heading into the home stretch. Revelations at the end of the third season made the positions of undercover Russian spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) even more untenable, and the show has never been one to drag out developments past their potency.
Of course, there’s no word on how many more seasons FX will give the period piece, but this is one of those perfectly calibrated shows that should not overstay its welcome. It’ll be hard to lose the series, whenever that is, but it would be even harder to see it contort itself in untenable ways in order to keep going. That scenario is unlikely, however: By this point, “The Americans” has earned an almost unlimited supply of trust, given how smart it’s been about staying true to its strengths.
Writing about the performances of Russell and Rhys often devolves into simply listing an array of rapturous adjectives. It may be more helpful to say that this season, even more so than in the past, both actors say and do so much without words. The two have had plenty of time to build up the central couple’s challenging relationship, and the writers know by now that a tired sigh or a frustrated shrug can convey a great deal. That’s not to say the dialogue isn’t good — it is — but the show’s minimalist tendencies only help it maintain its distinctively watchful atmosphere.
As Philip, Rhys’ eyes convey so much tender concern that it’s almost hard to take at times, but there is more to the man, who would and does kill to keep his family (and secrets) safe.
Russell doesn’t so much play Elizabeth’s toughness as radiate it quietly from the center of her being; it’s always in the room, making her the unquestioned center of gravity in the Jennings household. “The Americans” has never hedged Elizabeth’s strengths or tried to make her seem “likable,” whatever that means. The show simply makes her worries understandable, and her actions always reflect her flinty pragmatism and intelligence. From there, it’s up to the audience to decide whether or not to like her. And as Philip has found, it’s nearly impossible to do anything but love her.
“The Americans” has always been about people faced with impossible choices. No matter what Philip or Elizabeth do about their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who now knows their secret, or what they tell their handlers (who include the great Frank Langella and Margo Martingale), someone eventually will get hurt. The Jennings have long since stopped caring about what happens to them as individuals if they decide to forsake the Soviet Union, but they want their children to survive the extremely dicey situation the entire family is in.
The unspoken wish that underlines every situation is something they almost never talk about: Philip and Elizabeth, who started out as strangers, want their marriage to survive the coming reckoning as well, but neither of these very smart people can quite figure out how to make that happen. It’s a tragedy, but one they quietly endure together. This show has hit upon the magic formula that turns stoicism into romance.
Over time, “The Americans” has expanded its array of characters facing similarly brutal situations. Philip’s other “wife,” Martha (Alison Wright), has never been played for a fool; she could have been a punchline, but the show has always treated her with compassion. It’s been a pleasure to watch Taylor’s role grow within the show, and as season four progresses through its first four episodes, she does an excellent job of displaying Paige’s terror, confusion and even her competence. It’s entirely possible, after all, that Paige is fated to be the next Soviet operative in the family.
Disgraced Soviet bureaucrat Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru) continues to occupy a parallel narrative that takes place on another continent, but her storyline couldn’t be more thematically appropriate. As she tries to extricate herself from a dangerous situation, she is continually faced with decisions that might affect the future of Russia but will certainly define the quality of her soul. None of her options are good, and it’s tremendous to watch Mahendru quietly imbue each choice with dignified sadness. Like the other characters on the show, she clings desperately to the idea that meaningful connections can survive, even inside a nightmare, after dogma, politics and belief have all fallen away.
There is something very Russian in the soul of “The Americans,” which shows how impossible and important compassion is, and which finds beauty in sacrifices that may be pointless. In its first three seasons, the show’s melancholy nature set it apart, as well as its commitment to exploring complicated ideas about dignity, autonomy and the harsh outer limits of morality. It’s long been in the top tier of TV dramas, and this year, it looks set to stay there.