Of all the possible ways The Americans could have ended up this season, I doubt there were any of us who would have thought it would have concluded so quietly and (relatively) bloodlessly. And yet, it was positively explosive emotionally. Particularly in those last few moments: Paige is ratting out her parents to Pastor Tim as Philip seems to truly be on the verge of saying he’s not sure he can do this anymore, all while President Reagan is giving his famous “evil empire” speech and ramping up the Cold War.
But even with all of this going on, my thoughts throughout the episode were drawn towards what wasn’t happening. Where’s Martha? The Americans‘ penultimate episode ended with Philip peeling off his wig and revealing, to her horror, his true self. Was that the ultimate show of trust, or a death sentence? In “March 8, 1983,” he makes some vague comments to Elizabeth about the circumstances around the suicide he planted to get the scent off of Martha regarding PenGate. When Elizabeth presses him to talk to Martha about it first before she hears it from someone else, he’s noncommittal. Is it because she’s already dead?
Philip talks boldly to Gabriel about protecting his wife and children at all costs; is he convincing himself that what he did was the right thing? Or if Martha is alive, is he convincing himself that whatever comes next is worth it? Throughout this season, we’ve seen Philip face some deep and emotionally troubling issues, including his relationship with Kimberly, as well as the fate of Annelise. When Yusef comments that the outcome of their Afghanistan operation must make Annelise’s sacrifice of use, Philip starts to explain and justify, and then pauses for a long moment. “I feel like shit all of the time,” he confesses.
There were a lot of great moments in this episode, including all of the time Paige and Elizabeth spent together traveling, Stan’s dressing down by Gaad and his eventual support from the Director, and even Nina’s interactions with Anton (which have been a low point of the season). But “March 8, 1983,” like most of this season, has truly belonged to Philip.
It can be hard to tell with The Americans when people are being sincere and when they are not, so when Philip started showing up to EST by himself, and ran into Sandra, it felt like part of a scheme. Was he trying to set something up with Sandra so he could later use that as leverage against Stan? Was there someone else at EST he was tracking? Ultimately, though, Philip really looked ill while he was there, like he was truly internalizing what was being said. The fact that it was a sex seminar also seemed to be an important callback to him telling Elizabeth about his own Soviet training, where he was taught how to “make it real” under any circumstances.
But when his mission included getting close to Kimberly, he found he couldn’t do what was required of him because of the truth of the emotional life he’s established with his family, and with Paige. When he set up the computer geek to take the fall for PenGate, he got caught up in the toys and childish appearance of the apartment. Later, he tells Elizabeth that it reminded him of Henry.
Elizabeth, too, has been challenged this season, and has been choosing her family and Philip over parts of her mission. She turned down Hans regarding a romantic entanglement because of her feelings for Philip, and she was very hesitant (emotionally and, it turned out, physically at first) about the affair she needed carry on with the hotel manager. Further, when Paige asks whether or not Elizabeth could ever send her away like Elizabeth’s mother did, she assures Paige that she will never be put in a position like that. Does that means she’s unsure now about developing Paige? At the end of the hour, though, she turned her interest from Philip’s queasy, stumbling confession (a side of him we’ve never seen) towards Reagan’s speech, and became indignant over it. The speech seemed to galvanize her back to the cause, but what about Philip?
As I talked about at length in last week’s recap, the shadow of Season 2 and the legacy of Jared’s murder of his family has had an effect on Season 3. Though we knew Paige would never turn violent against her family, the truth of who her parents are — even though it came from them instead of the Centre, like with Jared — has still proved too much for her to bear. Jared may have slaughtered his family with a gun, but Paige potentially just did the same thing over the phone by revealing the truth of her parents’ identities to Pastor Tim.
As a show that has always traded in the notion of identity, Season 3 has traded on big reveals about the truth. Philip revealed himself to Martha, Elizabeth told Betty the truth about who she was, and Paige now also knows the full truth. But too, Stan was right that Zinaida was a spy, and he also told the truth about his “alliance” with Oleg — it was all a setup. And of course, now Paige has (unless she was talking to a dial tone) told Pastor Tim who her parents really are.
“March 8, 1983” didn’t really wrap almost anything up, but it planted an exceptional number of plot seeds for next season (and thank God The Americans has been renewed for a fourth season). Stan has been unleashed from the bureaucracy, the Jennings’s secret is out, and there’s still so much to explore and understand about where Philip and Elizabeth are emotionally and with the cause. And again, what about Martha?
Throughout this third season, The Americans has developed into one of televisions very finest shows. Some of the narrative arcs have faltered over the course of the season, though they’ve had their moments, and sometimes proved to be of later importance (like life at the Rezidentura, Nina’s Russian adventures, Philip’s dealings with Yusef, and more). But how could anyone not be left completely in awe after a sequence like that of Philip coming home and being alone, and his complete change of countenance when Elizabeth and Paige returned? It’s almost beyond description. You watch it, but you also experience it. It is in these emotional scenes that The Americans reveals its true self: as a quietly spectacular series.
Episode Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Season Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Musings and Miscellanea:
— I really loved the scenes of Paige and Elizabeth traveling, particularly when they were in the hotel room together. There is something kind of special about spending time with a parent like that, and I felt like the show really embodied that naturally and totally.
— Philip: “I’m sorry I never got to meet her.” Elizabeth: “You wouldn’t have liked her.” She didn’t seem all that bad!
— “To lie for the rest of my life … that’s not who I am” – Paige.
— The Americans has always been at its best when portraying moments of a marriage, and Stan and Sandra dividing up their stuff in the divorce was one of the most awkwardly realistic things it’s ever shown.
— “I can’t keep buying back my life” – Nina. Nina’s relationship with Anton took on an interesting angle at the end, when he counseled her on how to take matters back into her own hands by not playing their games. As much as I adore Nina, her story has felt like an unnecessary holdover. I have a feeling it will tie back in next season though, as Oleg and Stan continue to try and work for her release.
— FX really hit its “shit” quota in this episode, didn’t it?
— “It’s a big day of disappointments for all of us” – Gaad, who truly surprised me with how he blew up at Stan.
— “Grow up” – Gabriel to Philip.
— “They are the focus of evil in the modern world” – Ronald Reagan.
— “They’re not Americans. They’re Russians” – Paige.