clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Americans season premiere tells you what the whole season will be in 10 minutes

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star in The Americans.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell star in The Americans.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This post presumes you've seen the third season premiere of The Americans. If you haven't, read this review of the new season instead.

The first 10 minutes of any season of The Americans tell you everything you need to know about the season you're about to watch. Season one opened with the threat of death giving way to rekindled closeness between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), the show's Soviet spy protagonists. And season two blended Elizabeth's fears for her children (in the form of a mother deer and offspring she almost ran over) with the sheer weight his job was placing on Philip's shoulders, thanks to the ever-increasing death toll he was responsible for.

These sequences function beautifully as prologues, little self-contained stories that set the season in motion but also encapsulate the themes showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields will look at that season. And the first 10 minutes of the season three premiere, "EST Men," are no different.

If my theory's correct, then season three is going to be dominated by two things — Elizabeth's relationship with daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) and the headlong collision course our agents find themselves on with agents of the US government.

Just look at the first shot of the season.

Elizabeth looks small and alone in that bathtub, her thoughts (and the shot) dominated by images of her family. But as she focuses on the task at hand (and the shot subtly pulls focus to her, instead of the photos), we begin to zero in on her thoughts.

She ducks beneath the water.

In literature and filmmaking, water imagery is often associated with rebirth — baptism, etc. — and embracing the best possible self. (Stan and Philip are doing this, too, at the self-help seminar they attend in a couple of scenes.) But Elizabeth isn't really doing that so much as she's returning to an earlier version of herself.

In fact, when we switch from her eyeline (which is direct to the camera) to her point-of-view, we've been dumped into the past, to a time when Paige is much younger and scared to get in the pool.

The past version of Elizabeth reassures her daughter nothing will go wrong if she leaps in the pool. But here's where the other theme — collision courses — wraps itself into the picture. Sometimes, we need to be literally thrown into the worst case scenario to learn what we're made of. Elizabeth scans the pool (notably seeing a father and his child hanging onto the wall and kicking in place — shades of Philip's timidity), then throws Paige in.

Off the splash, we're back to Elizabeth in the bath, bursting out of the past, back into her present. (Baptism again.)

Of course, everybody's on a collision course with something, even if it's just themselves.

Like, say, Charlotte, the friendly, overlooked CIA employee that Elizabeth manipulates in order to get the names of everybody in the CIA's Afghan Group, the better to make sure the KGB can halt American interference in the Soviet Afghan War.

The very first exchange of fully-heard dialogue this season is between Charlotte and Elizabeth. The former asks, "Do you have a daughter?" to which the latter responds, "No." Elizabeth, of course, is denying Paige's existence because it's part of her job, but it also speaks fully to the headspace she finds herself in — forced to consider her daughter not as her daughter but, instead, as a potential asset to her employers, who would turn Paige into a deep-cover KGB spy.

Back to Charlotte. No matter how good it must feel to her to screw over her sexist superiors in the CIA, she's still an American, first and foremost, something that she's reminded of after she's committed treason.

All it takes is something out of the ordinary to jar her from the course she's plotted. That something could be as simple as a drunk woman staggering down the stairs to the bathroom, nearly knocking Charlotte back against the wall.

Or it could be something as complicated as seeing her own reflection in the shiny metal surface of a pay-phone she'll later use to call her superiors to report Elizabeth. If The Americans is, on some level, about how we fundamentally can never know anybody else, then the flip side of that is true. Sometimes, we might know ourselves too well to know what sins we can and can't live with.

Of course, Charlotte isn't smart enough to put one over on Elizabeth. After all, there wouldn't be a show if she was. But I love the choice to have that moment of realization played on Charlotte's face, so we only get to see Elizabeth's realization from the back of Keri Russell's head. (It's a testament to the actress and director Daniel Sackheim's shrewd use of focus that the moment plays.)

But Elizabeth also lets Charlotte know she's not fooled. The second she insists she simply must leave, she wipes down her glass and the table where she sits, leaving no prints and letting Charlotte know whatever collegiality the CIA employee thinks they have, it doesn't really exist. Everybody's using everybody else.

Try though she might, however, Elizabeth is still too late. The FBI catches up with her, which is how Elizabeth meets, for the first time, Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas).

The Americans is so judicious about how it parcels out the moments when characters from different spheres of the show meet each other that it means every moment when this happens continues to thrill just a little bit, even in season three. Even more thrilling is when Elizabeth socks Gaad in the nose.

But return to that image of the FBI looming behind Elizabeth. The danger you're trying to avoid doesn't always come at you head on. Sometimes, it reaches up from behind, or out of the past, to suck you down. Sometimes, it's staggering toward you, slow and unsteady but unavoidable. And sometimes, it just comes when you look into the mirror or feel yourself being propelled out into some unknown abyss.

Or sometimes, it just looks like a motorcycle, coming right at your face.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.