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The Americans season 4 premiere: on FX's brilliant series, bad decisions create even worse consequences

Three of our writers discuss an exciting, despairing return episode.

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

How the opening sequence of this episode predicts the season to come

Philip in The Americans
The opening of the latest episode focuses on Philip (Matthew Rhys).

Todd VanDerWerff: The Americans begins season four roughly where season three ended — with everybody in emotional turmoil, with Philip slowly unraveling from his guilt, with Paige caught between her parents and her God-slash-country. The result was a premiere, "Glanders," that was simultaneously busy and uneventful.

But I'd like for us to start by zeroing in on the first scene, because if there's one thing I've learned from this show it's that the opening sequence of every season teaches you how to watch the episodes that follow it. It previews every major conflict in miniature. So, with that said, what do we think we can take away from this season's opening, other than the suggestion that season four will be Philip-heavy?

Libby Nelson: What struck me is a new sense of Philip as a victim of some serious childhood trauma. We know that about Elizabeth — her childhood of poverty and deprivation, and especially her rape during her KGB training — but Philip’s guilt and turmoil have up until now seemed to have a more recent source. He started the series as the happy-go-lucky one who liked America and kind of wanted to defect, remember?

But between this premiere and last season's "Salang Pass," which showed Philip’s bleak sexual initiation as an agent, we’re seeing his life as inflected with a deeper trauma than we realized. This sequence also reminded me of the season two premiere, when Philip killed the busboy at the Afghan restaurant; beyond the blood spatter (and credit where due: The Americans really does bone-crunching noises well), it was a reminder that his past and present are both pretty damn dark.

Philip later went to Martha’s, perhaps because he was thinking about what it feels like the first time you realize you have blood on your hands. The visual effect of seeing Philip with Martha, instead of Clark, was visceral for me — "Stan knows what you look like!" I yelled — but it added to an impression from the first few sequences (Philip and Martha, Elizabeth and Paige) that characters were being far more honest with one another than usual.

And yet the honesty did nothing to lift the darkness. Am I wrong to feel like even by The Americans’ standards, this was a very bleak way to start a new season?

Caroline Framke: You're not wrong.

Usually an Americans season premiere will involve a splashier spy mission, or at least something overtly shocking. With "Glanders," that moment comes in the first 30 seconds, with the flashback to Philip beating his bully to death. But from there on out, everything is more muted, or at least more grounded in personal angst.

Even more than Philip’s acknowledgement of his own grave past, the episode explores what it means to forgive.

Philip doesn’t know what it means to forgive himself; forgiveness doesn’t really exist in the world as he now knows it. Anton Baklanov talks to Nina, movingly, about how he believes his transgressions will make his son’s memories of his father faint at best, sour at worst. Sandra is trying to move on from Stan, but Stan can’t let her go; doing so would probably mean admitting that their marriage was never going to work. And if Philip can’t forgive himself for what he’s done, how can he ever expect his daughter to?

Meanwhile, the ability to forgive, even if you can’t forget, has increasingly defined Martha, who keeps supporting "Clark" even though she knows unequivocally that he’s doing Bad Things to keep her safe.

Her reaction to learning that her husband killed her co-worker to keep her safe was gut-wrenching — Alison Wright is incredible — but for me, that moment was easier to swallow than the moment when Martha recommitted to her partnership with Clark. You can tell Philip appreciates her continued, unwavering support of him more than he can say, but it also makes him feel even worse about how he’s manipulating her.

It seems to me that season four is decidedly more about the personal than the political — even with the involvement of bioweapons(!).

Which betrayals could Martha forgive?

Martha on The Americans.
Martha (Alison Wright) learns something absolutely horrifying.

Libby: But I totally buy Martha standing by Clark. I can even see how she'd see the situation as romantic in the same way their secret relationship was: It's them against the world now.

The betrayal I'm sure she couldn't forgive isn't that he's a Soviet spy, but that he's an already-married Soviet spy. The way things are going, that seems like it could come out.

Todd: And, lest we forget, married to someone she thinks is his sister!

I think the involvement of bioweapons decidedly nods toward how this season is more personal than political. Think about it: An atomic bomb kills a whole bunch of people all at once, but a bioweapon kills more slowly, turning your own body against you. It's one of the more intimate forms of mass murder that humans have devised. You don't have time to react to the bomb; with a disease like glanders, all you have is time to react.

Also, how nauseatingly tense was that closing sequence between Philip and Stan, where the personal and geopolitical crashed up against each other?

Stan's just mad about how little control he has over his ex-wife and, by proxy, the woman he tanked his marriage for, who's still in a Soviet prison. Philip, meanwhile, knows both a potential cause of his death and proof of his true allegiance — rising closer to the surface every day, thanks to his daughter — is right there in his pocket.

Structurally speaking, I've always thought of The Americans as a five-act play, which means we're now in act four, when the characters start to realize how horribly trapped they are by their actions. And the looming threat of Pastor Tim — whom the show is increasingly making us sympathize with — hangs over this entire episode, a Chekhov's gun that could go off in numerous different ways, all of them awful.

How are we feeling about the Paige of it all?

Libby: That scene with Philip and Stan was almost painful to watch.

Those two have always been one of my favorite character pairings; The Americans has long implied that Stan got up to some pretty deep, dark stuff while undercover with the white supremacists, and I’ve always believed that if Philip and Stan could ever talk honestly about their work, each one would really get what the other was going through.

I like the idea that, somewhere in our present-day 2016 Washington, DC, they’re two guys in their 70s, sitting at a bar and finally trading stories about the Cold War days. (What can I say — I’m a sucker for a happy ending, however improbable.) Losing Stan means Philip is even more isolated than before.

And speaking of isolated … poor Paige. Poor, jet-lagged Paige, who is almost certainly wishing she’d never asked her parents for the real story. I’ve never found Pastor Tim to be a particularly sympathetic character, Todd, but I do feel for him here.

And while I once would have predicted he wasn’t long for this world, I learned my lesson when I spent most of The Americans' first two seasons predicting Martha’s imminent demise. Elizabeth and Philip are good at their jobs, but they’re human beings, and it’s the connections they’ve made in spite of themselves — with their daughter, or with Philip’s second wife — that will end up imperiling them.

As for Paige herself, she can’t even bring herself to say the Pledge of Allegiance, she’s so divided by her personal and political loyalties. If only Paige — so sure that her parents will never talk about anything — could see Philip at est.

Also, is it me or did this episode feature less lying than just about any before it? And on the topic of women keeping secrets, was I the only one shocked to learn in the last few seconds of subtitled Russian dialogue that Nina has a husband?

Welcome, Dylan Baker, to the world of The Americans

Caroline: Nope! I was shocked! But at the very least, it drove home the point that of all the regular character on this show, we really don’t know Nina all that well outside of her conflicting duties.

The Americans
Dylan Baker joins the cast as William.

Since the very beginning, Nina has hung in the balance. More than anyone, she really only has her wits, her persuasive words, and, yes, her lies, to help her survive. So once I thought about it, I wasn’t that surprised to know she has an offscreen husband after all.

But Nina and Paige (poor, confused Paige!) aren’t the only ones whose pasts and discoveries are catching up to them. "Glanders" really does drive home just how ​hard everyone’s jobs are on this show.

Maintaining some semblance of order and control — whether you’re undercover, working in the CIA, or just trying to deal with a huge new truth like Paige — is grueling, constant work. It’s catching up to Stan, and it’s certainly catching up to Philip, who’s shown signs of stress before but never quite so blatantly as he does here.

Meanwhile, I've written hundreds of words about this episode and not a one about new series star Dylan Baker, whose appearance as William, a Soviet spy working as a scientist, turned me into the real-life version of the heart-eyed emoji. What spot-on casting — and since his life’s work has been about procuring the bioweapons he hands off to the Jennings, I think this is far from the last we’ve seen of him. And to that I say, excellent.

Todd: Seeing Baker pop up in the credits, I had one of those moments where you think, "Oh, I never thought about this, but he will be excellent on this show." And he is!

Baker has a dry, sarcastic manner that mixes well with the show's overall dryness. The Americans is often (unfairly) derided as humorless, but one look at Baker, as this guy who has been drawn into this world he doesn't fit comfortably within, and you instantly sense the sly comedy of his entire presence.

I'm sure that will deepen and grow more mournful as the season progresses (it always does on this show), but The Americans is really great at finding actors who add new flavors to enhance its overall stew. Baker feels like another win in that regard.

But he also underlines something this show offers a little more of with every season — the idea that the decision to get involved in this soul-eroding occupation was a choice somewhere along the line, but one that can't be unmade. The Philip who fights with Stan in his garage is just the culmination of events that happened to that little boy who beat his bully to death.

The Americans, more than any other show on the air right now, suggests that bad decisions compound themselves, that lies multiply, that you can't escape your worst self. God, I'm glad to have it back.

Join us each Thursday for a new conversation about the latest episode of The Americans. Watch new episodes Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on FX.

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