[This is a review of The Americans season 4 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Nothing on FX’s always-stellar Cold War series The Americans is ever simple. The smallest incidents and the most benign decisions often lead to pain and perfidy. Early in the first season, it was made clear this was a series about people asked to do “impossible things.” That episode, fittingly titled ‘The Clock,’ involved bugging the home office of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. An innocent man died, other innocent lives were threatened, and the resolve of two spies who had begun to realize their arranged marriage might be something more was stretched to its breaking point. Since then, the idea of a clock – both the one in Weinberger’s office and the one metaphorically ticking away for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) – became a central unspoken facet of the series. It became a figurative presence, counting down to each and every character’s personal doomsday.
That the series takes place during a time when the Science and Security Board had moved the symbolic Doomsday Clock closer than ever to metaphorical midnight makes The Americans a unique television time capsule and an oddly prescient viewing experience on the macro level. But, as has always been the case, it is the catastrophic events unfolding at the micro level, the shattering interpersonal betrayals and compromises, that make this series consistently one of the best shows on television. While the world outside threatens to disintegrate under a devastating mushroom cloud of radioactive particles, the Jennings’ household is also on the brink of a different sort of collapse, a distinct implosion of the soul-crushing variety.
The start of season 4 makes quick work out of weaving the series’ many threads together, binding the ongoing central Cold War spy narrative with heady, intimate examples of its ruinous effects on individual lives. While Philip and Elizabeth are now more devoted to one another than ever before, the displaced guilt of all they have wrought (upon friends, strangers, themselves, and their children) is like water seeping through the mended cracks of their recently refurbished foundation. But as ‘Glanders’ makes clear in its opening moments, assigning blame for crises of faith, conscience, and national allegiance is not as simple as merely pointing to the corrosive effects of deplorable actions undertaken in the line of duty. As a chilling flashback focused on a young, pre-American Philip demonstrates, the reflexive actions that shaped the man he has become were made long before he answered the call of Mother Russia.
The Americans uses flashbacks sparingly, and usually to make a point about where the character is now by showing where they began, rather than to expound on matters pertaining to the main plot. Not long ago, the series interspersed flashes of Elizabeth in the bathtub with a glimpse of her offering her young daughter harsh instruction on how to swim. The symbolism of Paige (Holly Taylor) being tossed into the deep end and the effect of what would eventually be disclosed to the young woman as her parents – especially Elizabeth – came clean by revealing their true selves was certainly not lost on anyone watching. And yet the scene did more than foretell Paige’s current predicament and moral quandary; it expressed Elizabeth’s maternal state of mind and the relationship she had and wanted to have with her oldest child. For her, Paige’s indoctrination into the Soviet mindset was the only way to dull the razor-like edge of her shortcomings as a nurturer. Conversely, the blunt impact of Philip’s bloody retribution on a pair of milk-stealing bullies acts like a whetstone for the blade of his guilt.
Although it offered an astute observation of the psychological maelstrom raging in Philip’s head, as he wrestles with matters beyond Paige and fears that he and Elizabeth will soon be discovered by Stan (Noah Emmerich) and the FBI – matters like Martha and the innocent man (do you see a pattern here?) he killed to protect her – the scene seemingly had another, more pointed objective. Philip’s nightmare/recollection also feels like, at the start of its fourth season, The Americans is no longer concerning itself with attempts to appeal to new viewers. Watching a young Philip bash the skull of his tormenter with the most rudimentary of weapons was like the viewer being tossed in the deep end of the series’ intricate storyline. Previously on segments aside, creator Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner Joel Fields don’t have the time or the inclination to try and lure absent member of the audience who should have been in on this series from day one. Instead, the show does what too many series fail to do in an effort to always remain palatable to those who’ve never tuned in: it moves its storyline forward with a straightforward, borderline severe dedication to the progression of its characters.
Both feel like fitting descriptions for The Americans as the show begins season 4. It is the start of a season that, because of how the show handles the concept of consequence and how distinctly it focuses on the peril – psychologically and otherwise – of Philip, Elizabeth, Paige, Stan and so on, is like watching the hands of a Doomsday Clock inch ever closer to twelve. That sentiment is made more effective and anxiety inducing with the introduction of a plot thread concerning biological weapons from a prickly asset played by the always-fantastic Dylan Baker. The threat of nuclear war has always loomed large over the series, but an actual atomic altercation was mercifully never in the cards. Instead, the show found greater purpose in an exploration of brinksmanship and all the ways a lifetime spent teetering on the edge of oblivion could imbue the promise of annihilation with more than a hint of sweet release.
Now, the inevitable variable of germ warfare flips that script in compelling ways. The threat is just as devastating, though it comes with the added assurance that the end will come not in a flash of blinding white light, but in the form of a slow, agonizing, and mucus-y death. As the series approaches its own seemingly logical conclusion (Fields and Weisberg have stated it’ll probably wrap up with season 5 or 6), and narrows its focus on the tortured consciences of its characters for all they have done – and been mistakenly accused of doing, as is the case with Stan’s tobacco tin-smashing reproach of Philip in the episode’s closing moments – television’s most beautifully bleak series appears to be on the verge of its own metaphorical midnight. As is always the case with The Americans, it may be grim, but it’s always worth your time.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Pastor Tim’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Eric Liebowitz & Jessica Miglio/FX