Early in The Americans' season four premiere, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — two Soviet spies who've spent so many years play-acting as a married American couple that they've become a real married couple in the process — are entrusted with a potentially deadly bioweapon.
That bioweapon, highly contagious and often lethal, serves as the clearest and most present dramatic stakes the show has ever had. In some ways, it is this domestically focused series' equivalent of a nuclear bomb on a more traditionally structured spy drama.
The Americans always makes sure its stakes are small but magnified. If either Philip or Elizabeth (whom, I should mention, are played brilliantly by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) dies, the loss will be minor in the grand sweep of the Cold War — but it will feel much, much larger to the people who loved them.
But the bioweapon also functions as what might be the series' most potent metaphor yet for what Philip and Elizabeth do. After arguing for most of season three about whether to tell their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), the truth about their lives, they've finally let her in on their secret — even if it's a sanitized version. (They insist to her that they don't hurt people, for instance.) But now that Paige knows they're spies, their lives are spiraling out of control, as their covert profession threatens to gobble up everything they hold dear.
So it is with a plague or a disease or a bioweapon, an intimate killer that can level cities, but mostly by chewing up families, one after another. Secrets are currency on The Americans — everybody lies as a matter of course. But one moment of exposure leads to far more, until the whole village is aflame.
The Americans is increasingly the consensus "best show on TV"
There's been a slight shift in the way people talk about The Americans as it begins season four. No longer standing in the shadow of series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, it's now become the de facto "best show on TV" in many critics' preseason reviews.
And yet the show has still failed to break out in the ratings in the fashion of those earlier "best shows on TV." Mad Men's ratings might have stunk, but the show still inspired glossy magazine spreads and media-driven post-episode discussion.
The Americans still feels like this tiny cult thing only a few of us know about; it's seemingly still on the air only because FX Networks president John Landgraf loves it so much, and because it's a valuable streaming asset for Amazon Prime (which holds exclusive rights to previous seasons of the program).
But the reason The Americans remains primarily of interest to its small but devoted audience goes hand in hand with the reason it's the consensus best show on TV (a position I will gladly agree with). In contrast to the flashier, more obviously stylish Mad Men, The Americans is quietly competent. It's a story of two people who are tremendously good at their jobs, told in a way that presents extreme feats of spycraft as another daily chore, on par with getting the groceries or checking in with the kids.
That extends to the series' filmmaking, which is frequently brilliant — the shot that ends the fourth episode of this new season is quietly masterful — but rarely calls attention to itself. The Americans' directors hold the characters at a distance, usually filming in wide or medium shots, only cutting in for close-ups when a particularly deceptive con is on or when a moment of raw emotion pierces Philip or Elizabeth's exteriors.
This gives viewers a slight feeling of being Philip and Elizabeth — sitting there, observing, waiting for someone's weakness to reveal itself so it can be exploited. And yet, right alongside that, these characters are building surprisingly robust and functional relationships right atop an edifice rotted out by their lies.
It's the central dilemma of the show, as well as the show's most cogent point about humanity: Everything is real. But everything is a lie too.
On The Americans, espionage is just like normal life
The masterstroke of The Americans' conception, something that carried it through an occasionally shaky first season into the much stronger standing it boasts now, is the series' idea that espionage isn't really different from everyday life.
On some level, espionage is equal to trying to gain the upper hand in a relationship, and that's what all of us do every day — with spouses, with friends, with co-workers, with parents, with children.
The Americans has drawn criticism here and there for not being more forthrightly political, for not boldly condemning communism or capitalism, whatever the politics of the series' critics may be. It seems almost weary of systems as a whole, whether economic or political, too weary to even come out and say, "Everything is terrible. Never leave your house."
But the show doesn't have to be more forthrightly political. Whether its scenes take place in the United States or the Soviet Union (the setting for a few significant plots in seasons three and four), they tend to boil down to two people, in a room, trying to get a leg up on each other. That has no larger politics, perhaps because it's all politics is.
Take, for instance, the friendship between Philip and next-door neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent tasked with tracking down Soviet spies. On a lot of shows, this setup would be hacky — filled with constant near misses. (And in the first season, it occasionally was.) But as The Americans has progressed, it's only gotten richer, with the two men trying to understand the world, their wives, and the inner workings of their own brains together, only to come up short.
Stan sometimes just knows things intuitively. (In a season two dream sequence, his subconscious was way ahead of him on the question of where a leak in his office originated.) But because he, like every other character on the show, remains so unaware of himself, he can't translate that knowledge into action. He is all potential energy, never crossing the line into measurable momentum.
So is his relationship with Philip a lie? If you look at it one way, yes. By managing his friendship with Stan, Philip is keeping a potentially disastrous downfall at bay. But their bond is also very, very real. These two men can be as open with each other as friends can be, which underscores the simmering tragedy: Sooner or later, Philip and Elizabeth must be caught.
The Americans is nearing its end
I opined last year that The Americans was structured roughly like a five-act play, with the story's "climax" (or the point at which everything changes and goes from the untapped potential of rising action to the bloody kineticism of falling action) coming when Philip and Elizabeth told Paige the truth about what they do for a living.
And the first four episodes of season four suggest more than ever that the series is basically structured in exactly that way. (Indeed, the series' showrunners, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, say they have "one or two" more seasons planned in this interview with Vulture.) With all of its characters firmly established, and with all of their relationships firmly in place, The Americans is finally — finally — beginning to tighten the noose around them. They still have room to maneuver, but less so than ever before.
The other major criticism that's often leveled at The Americans is that it's a "cold" show. The distancing effect of its filmmaking — only drawing you in when you know a character is lying — can isolate and alienate some viewers. I have always found the series almost painfully emotional, but those emotions are trapped under glass. They peek through only in moments when nobody might be watching.
Yet season four is shot through with some of The Americans' most plaintively touching moments yet. Elizabeth sees being honest with Paige as a vital part of drawing closer to a teenage daughter who might otherwise grow away from her mother. Philip seems to be carrying around an entire planet on his shoulders. And Paige, poor Paige, is very nearly melting down in fear that she's irreparably ruined her previously perfect life.
It's as if the characters know the end is drawing nigh, that they will eventually have nowhere else to hide. It will be interesting to see how The Americans handles the transition to a more traditional, action-driven narrative in the episodes to come, but if the beginning of season four is any indication, it will do so very well.
On the one hand, everything is doomed. Capitalism wins the Cold War. The Soviet Union crumbles. The Stan Beemans of the world rise victorious. On the other hand, maybe there's still a reason to be hopeful. In the midst of political chaos, people are still reaching out to each other.
Friends are still fighting and then immediately making up. Husbands are still silently reaffirming their love for their wives. Mothers and daughters are still laughing at private jokes. Everything personal on The Americans is also political — but only because everything political is rooted, forever and ever, in the most personal stuff of all.
The Americans returns Wednesday, March 16, at 10 pm Eastern on FX.