In its second season, The Americans made huge gains. After an interesting premise that never really seemed to catch fire in Season One, Season Two kicked off with a devastating event and a central mystery that gave the whole series new life. Though the resolution to the murder mystery resulted in somewhat of a lackluster finale, what resonated in the end was how Philip and Elizabeth had to truly come to terms with the intersection of their job and their family.
Season Three has so far, wisely, not set up a central mystery to follow, because it doesn’t need to. The individual threads that The Americans built up last year are more than enough to propel this new season forward. “EST Men” was full of potential, and even some payoff.
Firstly, “EST Men” really mixed things up with Philip and Elizabeth’s assets, which made the spy-side of things feel completely fresh. Elizabeth’s meeting with Charlotte, the disgruntled CIA worker, initially had all of the markers of a typical meet. Elizabeth wore one of her worst wigs, as Charlotte rambled out her justifications for giving Elizabeth a list of operatives working on the conflict in Afghanistan. But things started to feel a little dodgy when Charlotte went to use the bathroom, and was bumped into by a drunk woman. Already, Americans fans should have had the antenna up: was the CIA onto her? Were they about to take her out? Was this all a setup, and if so, who was double-crossing whom?
Charlotte ‘fessed up to her bad behavior, and then begged Elizabeth to stick around. But Elizabeth’s spidey senses were on high alert, too, and as she explained to Philip later, the encounter ended up being a very close call (after a brutal fight scene). The meeting with Charlotte defined a few things about what the expect from this season, though. The details of the fight started to trigger something in Stan’s mind, potentially, about Elizabeth’s involvement. It also brought up a theme that was present throughout the rest of “EST Men”: the variable of human emotion.
When Philip (as Scott) met up with Annelise to get intel on Yousef (a storyline that was planted last year), the unexpected outcome was that she had truly fallen in love with him. That miscalculation on her part led to her death, since her confession forced Yusef to make a hard choice. The same theme echoed in Nina’s story, another ghost from last year. Though Gaad tells Stan that she has been convicted of treason, Oleg is still trying to help her. When Arkady suggests that — given some conspicuous holes in the paperwork — Nina might have been meeting with Stan off the books because she actually loved him, Oleg struggles briefly, but still wants to try and save her.
When The Americans is at its best, its spy stories are as compelling as its personal drama. The show has always excelled in giving its central characters dynamic relationship — they aren’t always easy (most of the time, they’re really, really hard), but they feel real. And when all is said and done with the assets and the codes and those ridiculous wigs, The Americans pulls its strength from the very grounded marital relationship between Philip and Elizabeth, with Paige having more and more of a central impact.
Though Elizabeth and Philip can seem robotically icy at times, last season in particular showed cracks in their facade. Though Philip was able to look past Annelise’s murder (not without difficulty, but) in service of continuing to work the asset, he’s also the kind of man who gets so angry at Elizabeth for even considering bringing Paige into their way of life. Elizabeth may indeed be thinking about throwing Paige into the deep end of spycraft eventually (to echo that bathtub memory), but she also breaks down when she hears her mother’s voice, and shares her pain later with Philip.
The Americans has always been, ultimately, about identity, and it’s an exploration of that that makes to show so good. Elizabeth and Philip are always central to this, but in “EST Men” there were other examples: Sandra lays down some truths to Stan when it comes to trying to placate her into getting back together, saying that that was a central problem in their marriage: “you weren’t yourself.” At the Rezidentura, Oleg believes in the Russian cause, of course, but he also very much enjoys (and champions) American ways, like that of free speech.
“EST Men” was a strong start to a season that has continued to build on last season’s foundation. A good show might just carry on plots from before, and add in a few new characters to mix things up. A great show, though, leaves some things behind, starts anew, but still feels completely familiar in the best of ways. The Americans, more and more, seems poised to finally be great.
Episode Rating: ★★★
Musings and Miscellanea:
— You might have noticed we’ve changed up our ratings metric — click the “Episode Rating” link for a full explanation of how the new system works!
— “Reagan wants to turn Afghanistan into our Vietnam” – Gabriel (Frank Langella), Elizabeth and Philip’s new/former contact.
— I love how Elizabeth had to fight Gaad right off the back. Making one of the agents pursuing her be a familiar face was the right move to help tie everything together.
— I’m not big into spycraft stuff, but I do love little touches like Elizabeth wiping down her glass before she left, and changing her coat inside out afterwards (it didn’t help, though!)
— Real-life politics are, of course, always in the air on The Americans. Seeing Russian unease over Afghanistan about to become their quagmire was interesting foreshadowing (and apparently, those brutal recruiting videos are not a new invention). Further, there was a little Brezhnev name dropping.
— I think what Elizabeth told Gabriel is the truth regarding her feelings about Paige, and that Philip is right that Elizabeth is kind of “working” her, especially after she said “ideologically, she’s open to the right things.” His anger and their lingering tension were great moments.
— The Americans trades in sex + death a little too often, but frankly I never found Annelise to be a very strong character, and if it takes Philip to new and difficult places emotionally to deal with Yusef now, so be it.
— Speaking of sex, though: Philip’s face during his Kama Sutra with Martha!
— Martha’s gun storyline is not going away, which clearly has dark portends.
— “I can make this go away” – Philip.