“The Americans” has completed its most satisfying season, while striking a blow for that much-maligned staple of serialized drama, the irritating teenage child. Deriving considerable strength from a storyline that saw the central couple faced with a dilemma regarding their daughter, this FX series didn’t tie up many loose ends with its third-season finale, but certainly left plenty of tantalizing threads to explore between now (or really, 1983) and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There were obviously other factors that enriched the season that closed Wednesday (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), including the beleaguered Martha (Alison Wright), who had the misfortune (some might call it hair-raising) to fall for a Soviet spy; and the unlikely partnership between FBI Agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Russian embassy operative Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), joined in their eagerness to find a way of saving Nina (Annet Mahendru), the woman with whom both were involved. Of course, Nina found her own path to redemption in the eyes of her captors, even if that meant betraying others.
Frank Langella also lent an enormous touch of class as the avuncular contact of sleeper spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), whose tasks this season included Philip’s extremely uncomfortable assignment to potentially seduce a teenage girl not much older than his daughter in order to secure information.
Nevertheless, the key issue remained whether the Jennings would allow the Center to recruit their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) for the dangerous life they have undertaken, as well as the hurt and anguish she has felt about having to harbor their secret in the wake of that revelation.
In the end, Paige – who, seeking meaning, had embraced religion over her parents’ objections – spilled the beans over the phone to her pastor, laying the groundwork for plenty of intrigue in season four. And while “The Americans” has always grappled with a certain improbability factor in the contortions engineered to bring Philip and Elizabeth to the brink of detection without abruptly terminating the series (as bloodhounds go, Stan clearly suffers from a faulty sense of smell), there was an inherently human quality in Paige’s plight that was beautifully played and gradually unfolded without belaboring it.
Put another way, and with apologies to “Homeland,” “The Americans” brought the kids into the story with nary a Dana Brody moment in sight.
All told, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have done an admirable job of working through some awkward patches during the first season, and developing a roster of characters that force the audience to uncomfortably look over the shoulders of what would otherwise be the bad guys. Moreover, they have done so while continuing to explore the outer reaches of the protagonists’ ruthlessness, which has left behind a lengthy list of collateral damage, and generated sequences of sex and violence that at times felt gratuitous. (Case in point: the brutal strangulation of a naked woman, and disposing of her body.)
Such series are always a balancing act, and there have been times along the way when “The Americans” felt somewhat overrated as it piled up critical accolades. For the most part, though, the premise – provocative from the get-go, although the ratings have been relatively modest – has grown richer and more assured, building a support system around the leads that captures how intramural politics and frustrating bureaucracy were unifying elements for those on both sides of the Cold War.
“Grow up,” Langella’s character, in a rare flash of anger, snapped at Philip during the finale. And whatever one thinks about Philip’s ethical struggles, in the best ways, “The Americans” has.