[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
As the Cold War has gotten colder, the heat has been turned up on the Jenningses and their perfect facsimile of the perfect American household. When the temperature rises, layers begin to be shed, or they simply peel away. And as with any great TV drama, The Americans has many layers, more layers than a Russian babushka in winter, in fact.
As such, the series begins season 3 by tearing through those layers – which, in this case consist of elements far more substantial than surprisingly secure wigs, pairs of non-prescription glasses, and maybe a fake mustache or two – in order to probe deeper into the richly drawn characters populating what has become the best series on television.
Last season left Philip and Elizabeth Jennings at a crossroads of sorts, where the two avenues of their lives were heading for a nasty collision. Orders from the Centre to begin prepping their 14-year-old daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to learn the truth about her mother and father, and by virtue of being their firstborn child, the truth about who she is, threatened to undo the armistice between the couple, who after more than a decade of marriage had just begun to discover how to live as husband and wife.
Like the war they were recruited to help wage, Philip and Elizabeth found themselves on the verge of another conflict sparked by differing ideologies. This time, however, the battle was to be fought within the four walls of their suburban D.C. home.
With Elizabeth wanting Paige to know the truth, because, as she explains to Gabriel (Frank Langella), the couple’s original handler, “Ideologically speaking, she’s open to the right ideas,” and Philip wanting their daughter to have the freedom to choose the life she wants for herself – the life her parents only pretend to have – the surging pressure around these two spies is palpable. The escalation of tensions between Superpowers is nothing when compared to the immeasurable emotional forces at play within this seemingly normal household.
These forces cannot be contained in perpetuity. With all that compression, it is inevitable that something will have to give. But secrets like the one being held by the Jenningses are no different than any other; the truth is and always will act as the lone relief valve. The only question is: What will cause more damage, letting the pressure build until the contents erupt, destroying everything in the ensuing explosion, or allowing the truth to be released into a cloud of scalding reality?
As last season focused on Philip’s rising weariness with the emotional encumbrance of his task – i.e., the burden of taking lives in the name of Mother Russia – season 3 begins with a rare peek into Elizabeth’s past. Submersed in memory, Elizabeth takes stock of her nurturing nature, recalling a time when she taught Paige to swim by literally throwing her into the deep end.
The struggle with identity (maternal and otherwise) continues throughout her meeting with Charlotte, an angry CIA analyst passed over for promotion, seemingly on the grounds of her being a woman. There is a hint of gender politics being spoken underneath the din of office and cultural politics, which have all been hidden under a superficial layer of confused realpolitik.
Her encounter with Agent Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas) and his partner isn’t quite as productive as the one Elizabeth had with Charlotte, but she handles herself efficiently in both situations, wiping the floor with Gaad as skillfully as she wiped the fingerprints off a glass of beer.
Afterward, Russell’s nuanced performance adroitly conveys how Elizabeth’s injuries become the figurative starting point for her character’s arc this season. Unable to seek help for her wounds, they are forced to fester, kept out of sight, hidden under layers of clothing or the skillful application of foundation. All the while, the bruises and broken things inside Elizabeth develop into a symbolic representation of her true self, the real state of mind resting just beneath the surface. But the tension of that surface is further disturbed by the news that her mother is dying, another ripple to be hidden underneath Elizabeth’s otherwise calm exterior.
With a G-Man’s arm wrapped around her neck, it’s hard to believe Elizabeth’s near-death experience is anywhere near as invigorating as the EST talk Stan and Philip attend suggests. Non-experience isn’t exactly in the Jenningses playbook, which might explain why, in the wake of Stan’s marriage falling apart, they seem to have become something of a surrogate family for their neighbor in the FBI – the enemy is right there in the kitchen, helping himself to a beer.
But it’s a good fit; the three are more alike than they know, especially Stan and Elizabeth. Both must come to terms with the things they’ve done in service to their country and their family. The real difference is: with Nina convicted of treason in Russia and Sandra shacking up with her EST man, Stan stands alone – a realization that Noah Emmerich’s nuanced performance conveys when Gaad lays it out on the table.
That kind of subtle but powerful performance can be found throughout the episode. It pops up again when Philip’s asset Annelise (Gillian Alexy), in an attempt to unburden herself, comes clean to her lover Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), only to wind up strangled on the bed they shared. Despite the layers of character Matthew Rhys is seemingly buried under, Philip’s reaction, to use Annelise’s death as leverage to turn Yousaf, is as chilling in its effortlessness as it is in revealing the things Philip is capable of in these moments.
Still, no matter who Philip and Elizabeth become, no matter how many layers they bury their true selves under, they are a unit that has to act as something more than just spies at the end of the day. Something where a symbolic gesture like a brownie wrapped in a napkin speaks volumes. A brownie isn’t just a brownie; it’s a sign of goodwill, a veritable olive branch and a message that, underneath the deception, there is one truth: maybe they are a family after all.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Baggage’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Michael Parmelee/FX