[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 13. There will be SPOILERS.]
The final minutes of The Americans season 3 takes two deeply personal moments in the lives of the Jennings clan and sets them against then-President Ronal Reagan’s famous (infamous?) “Evil Empire” speech, delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals on the titular date of ‘March 8, 1983.’ It is a tense, deeply layered few minutes, filled with crosscut dialogues that are half-heard, either by the audience or the characters themselves, and that further underline the divergent attitudes of Philip, Elizabeth, and now Paige, toward the Cause that brought two of them together, and one of them into existence.
For all the tension that the sequence builds, it also serves as yet another potent example of why the series is the best thing on television. In those final moments, The Americans utilizes key excerpts from the speech, and Reagan’s spiritual motivation for it, to form a direct connection with the larger text of the episode and of the season as whole. In the speech, Reagan appealed to a specific audience to augment the delivery of his words, and shape them from an unambiguously moral perspective.
The final line that we hear is Reagan saying, “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” It’s clear how these words are a direct correlation to Paige’s confession to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) that her parents are “not Americans,” but “Russians,” and it is completely brilliant. The rhetorical escalation of the global Cold War by the president emphasizes with chilling precision the frightening intensification of the micro Cold War being waged inside the Jennings’ household.
There have been questions swirling around about the true nature of Pastor Tim and his wife Alice – that they are part of the Directorate S program, intended to further radicalize Paige and bring her into the fold alongside her parents. Such speculation is not entirely unfounded. Pastor Tim seems unfazed by Philip’s past transgressions, he’s constantly available to take Paige’s phone calls or receive her visits – just as her parents act with their assets. And, it’s worth noting, Pastor Tim has really weird hair – and on a show that practically fetishizes the vast wig collection of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, such a follicular eccentricity could really mean something.
But that is all just speculation. And for a series as smart and dedicated to telling a compelling story as this one is, what if The Americans wanted to do something more interesting than that? What if the show saw Paige’s rebuke of her parents’ attempt to tell their child the truth as something closer to a line being drawn in the sand, a demarcation of sorts, one where in Paige, like Reagan, allowed her religious and moral worldview to point the conversation in an entirely new direction?
At this point, either scenario may be equally valid (or it may turn into something completely different), but that’s just plot. What this series specializes in is filling the spaces between such twists and turns with genuine, often agonizing emotion. That’s why the season finale took Elizabeth and Paige to West Germany to see Elizabeth’s dying mother. It was one last time for Elizabeth and the first for Paige, but writers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg didn’t fill the moment with mawkish dialogue about the years a mother had spent apart from her daughter. Instead, they made it a brief exchange wherein the old woman explained to her daughter, “I had to let you go. Everything was at stake.”
It’s a conversation that takes place while Paige is in the room, and it’s worth noting that all the dialogue spoken by Elizabeth’s mother is in her native tongue. The two women welcome Paige into their circle, but just like the conversation, it’s already a circle she’s not really ever going to be a part of. Paige is an outsider in her own family dynamic. That is a position the series has gone to great lengths to establish all season long, and the payoff here is the surreptitious phone call to Pastor Tim, while Philip attempts over and over again to explain his EST-inspired feelings in the aftermath of the murder he committed to help take the heat off Martha.
Philip’s inability to communicate his thoughts to Elizabeth, and her question of “What do you mean?” isn’t all that far removed from Paige’s inability to understand her mother’s conversation with the grandmother she just met. But it all ties into a subtle thematic core of messages being delivered to a specific audience, and the question of whether or not the message was received. There are all sorts of messages going on, like Stan taking more of a fatherly role with Henry, or the FBI basically giving Agent Beeman carte blanche to pursue investigations, like the one that delivered them double agent Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya.
Then there’s the explicit suggestion by Stan’s ex-wife Sandra that she and Philip “agree to just tell each other everything,” while they’re in the EST graduate sex seminar – a place that Elizabeth doesn’t know Philip’s at, and where its core tenet is the belief that “communicating about sex is communicating about you.”
With all these messages flying around, it’s no wonder then that The Americans would focus not only on a speech that coined the phrase “Evil Empire,” but was delivered by a man dubbed “The Great Communicator.”
‘March 8, 1983’ leaves several plot threads dangling, either to be wrapped up in season 4 or left that way forever. The shift away from closure with threads like Martha, Kimmy, Lisa, and certainly, Nina’s incarceration and budding relationship with Anton Baklanov, actually serves to make the last few minutes more profound and significant. It also demonstrates the phenomenal handle the series has on its many storylines and the direction it plans to take them.
This finale wraps up another stellar season of the series by having Paige figuratively do what she literally did just a few weeks ago: close the door on her dramatically altered relationship with her parents. That action leaves the door wide open for not only the series’ return next year, but also the consequences that inevitably come from Philip and Elizabeth sharing such a painful truth.
The Americans will return for season 4 in 2016 on FX.
Photos: Patrick Harbon/FX