One of the fascinating parts of watching The Americans over the years is seeing how — completely believably and organically — we’ve watched Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) truly become Americans. Though Philip has struggled for longer, and more openly, with his growing affection for his adopted country (against whom he still spies and schemes in order to bring glory to mother Russia, of course), Season 4 sees Elizabeth realizing, in her own way, what it has come to mean for her as well.
While uncovering military secrets, information on weapons, gathering intel on the FBI, and other spy games have been par for the course for the Jennings (armed as they always are with an array of terrible wigs, added to this season by a beard and a fat suit), Season 4 has introduced a new biological weapon that has them reconsidering everything. That also happens to be coupled with the emotional bombshell dropped at the end of Season 3, when Paige (Holly Taylor) not only learned the truth (or some part of it) about her parents, but then relayed that information to good ol’ Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin).
If you thought that those events would be dealt with explosively in the Season 4 premiere, you have not been a close watcher of The Americans. Everything here simmers against that forever drab background of wintry D.C. exteriors. It constantly layers its stories slowly, building tension and anxiety to a maximum. To that end, to start the new season, many of the craftier parts of the missions are put on a back burner, and in its place, an even deeper exploration of the emotions and motivations behind these extraordinary actions and circumstances. It’s something the show has always done exceptionally well, and giving even more time to those moments takes it to new heights.
Still, The Americans remains its most engrossing and compelling when focusing on Philip and Elizabeth, particular as Matthew Rhys continues to be such a fantastically nuanced performer. Season 3 saw Philip’s split lives build to a fever pitch of emotion, and while Season 4 has pared down some of those subplots, the tension remains high. But those subplots — myriad as they are — are also sometimes a problem, making the story sometimes feel particularly slow and full of asides.
Some of those asides, though, do happen to explore more of the Soviet machine. Nina’s (Annet Mahendru) continued plight is one of those, but the show also seems to realize it’s a thread that needs resolution (Nina’s story probably should never have gone on to begin with, but one can’t blame the writers for wanting to keep Mahendru around). Other Soviet-tinged tales from the Rezidentura and whispers from the Center (through Frank Langella’s Gabriel) feel like vegetables to get to the dessert — it’s necessary, but not always particularly thrilling to watch unfold with such detail.
What is endlessly engrossing, though, are the character moments: Philip beginning to confront his past; the Jennings working through their differences in believably tense but loving ways; Paige being forced to understand the consequences of her actions; Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) taking some time to eat cereal together and discuss Henry’s hot science teacher. Then there’s the blurring of identities, like when Elizabeth goes undercover to work a new mark by selling Mary Kay, and ends up truly liking her new friend and enjoying selling beauty products with her. These aren’t robots, they’re people. They crave, ultimately, friendships, relationships, and support. And heck, fun.
In this same vein, Philip’s relationship with Martha (Alison Wright) continues to be one of the most fascinating of the series, as Philip is often more emotionally open with her than he is with Elizabeth. Martha has been through so much with Clark/Philip, but she’s finally starting to come into her own. She finds a purpose in the work he gives her, and she believes his assertions of love. She describes her relationship with him later to a co-worker, saying that she’s involved with a married man. The work is his marriage in her eyes, but she has no idea how deep that goes, and how literal her metaphor actually is.
That’s the beautiful thing about The Americans; its exploration of identity and loyalty is unmatched, because of how it focuses on the human element so eloquently. Yes the spycraft can be fun and tense and exciting, but it’s the emotional conflicts that set the show a cut above. Season 4 is, so far, full of hard choices, carefully calibrated decision making, and the simple chaos of life that changes everything in an instant. There is also, of course, a knowing sense of dread that this life the Jennings have created — false as it may have started, but real as it has become — cannot last in this same way forever. There are forces marching against them at all times, but the show’s greatest achievement is how deeply we care about that outcome.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
The Americans premieres Wednesday, March 16th on FX.