How 'The Americans' is TV's best drama — even when it's messy
"The Americans" just concluded its third season. I have an interview with producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, and my review of the finale is coming up just as soon as I put your toys back where I found them...
"They're Russians!" -Paige
"March 8, 1983" demonstrated all the ways in which "The Americans" has grown into an emotional powerhouse that's the best drama on television at the moment. And we will get to all of those shortly, because every single thing in the episode was extraordinary, to the point where I had to remind myself to breathe a time or three.
But the things that weren't in it — one thing in particular — illustrated some of the misgivings I had about this year. That the show can be as great as it is in spite of that speaks to what an extraordinary job Fields, Weisberg and everyone else have done with the family and spy stories this year. The remarkable thing, though, is that there are still areas where "The Americans" can improve after all this time, and think about what a meat grinder that version of the show would be.
As to the flaws, I spent much too much of the hour waiting for Martha follow-up — and, after Philip murdered Gene the computer tech to serve as her patsy, thereby confirming her survival, waiting for her actual appearance — to at times fully engage with what was actually happening. That scene at the end of last week's episode felt too big to not get some glimpse of Martha dealing with its aftermath, rather than just hearing Philip and Elizabeth discuss how she's on board for now, but might not be once she learns of Gene's death.
Weisberg said he was surprised that anyone thought Philip was showing Martha his true face as a prelude to killing her. But if that's the case, I don't know why the episode was structured this way, where things are left seemingly ambiguous until Gene's murder two-thirds of the way through the hour. If you want to leave the audience guessing about Martha's fate — and don't mind that those guesses may overwhelm their thinking about what's on the screen — then that's how you put the episode together. And if you assume people will understand that he took off the wig and glasses as a way to calm her down and get her to trust him, I think you need some glimpse of Martha, however brief, dealing with her new world order, and you probably need to put that in pretty early in the hour, especially while Philip's other wife is out of the country.
I'm sure we will be getting a lot of Martha's changed reality next season, and the finale was definitely structured in a way that suggested Fields and Weisberg's confidence in their future. But when a character or storyline's absence becomes a distraction in the short-term, that's an issue. And it speaks to the larger challenge the season faced with story overcrowding. It's not that it was ever difficult to keep track of Philip and Elizabeth's different operations, plot-wise, but that their comings and goings impinged on the larger emotional arcs for the characters this season. Having to see Kimmy every week for a very long time, for instance, was the thing that was weighing most heavily on his mind — both for its own sake and because of how it made him feel about Paige and her recruitment — and then she... wasn't important enough to show on screen.
If the choice is between too much great story and not enough, I'll take the former, but it's a balancing act.
Now, having said all that, that final sequence was agonizing in the best possible way. And so was so much of the episode leading up to it.
Paige has been a ticking time bomb since her parents told her the truth about their work, and the trip to meet her grandmother was designed in part to defuse her. Getting a moment with her dear old dying gran, it would seem, might help her feel more connected to and protective of her family, and perhaps more understanding of the enormous sacrifices her parents have taken in the service of what they feel is a just cause. But that's not what happens. The brief gathering of three generations of women from this family is enormously powerful — so much so that all we need is that image of them holding onto each other, rather than any flowery speeches translates from Russian into English, or vice versa — as is Elizabeth's reaction to discovering Paige praying for her grandmother. Paige's interest in Christianity was the tipping point for Elizabeth's desire to introduce her daughter to the ways of the motherland, but in this moment she sees it not as a sign that her daughter has been brainwashed by the decadent west, but simply a sign of her daughter's innate goodness, and something she can sit and observe peacefully, even if she understandably doesn't join in. Every bit of that sequence is lovely, and so well directed by Dan Sackheim.
But the trip has the opposite effect from what was intended. The enormity of her mother and grandmother's sacrifices doesn't give Paige newfound respect for the cause, but only deepens her dismay that Elizabeth works for people who would ask someone to do this. And witnessing Elizabeth in full counter-surveillance mode in the streets of Western Berlin clearly unsettles her, even though no one seemed to actually be tailing them. There's no telling how Paige would have reacted to actually seeing Russia itself, which was in a state by 1983 that wouldn't seem the least bit appealing to an American girl, even one as grounded and thoughtful as this one. But getting within spitting distance of the Iron Curtain, and seeing Elizabeth's pain over saying goodbye to her mother forever, finally drives her to place what I fear will be a very damaging phone call to Pastor Tim.
The decision to intercut Paige's turmoil in her bedroom with her parents watching President Reagan's "evil empire" speech in their own only added to the level of tension, and sorrow, that was palpable in every moment of the closing sequence. Elizabeth has viewed Reagan as the monster, and America as the evil empire, and to hear him say those words about the Soviet Union makes absolutely no sense to her — even as we've witnessed them commit so many heinous acts this season (murdering Betty and Gene, packing up Annelise, anything at all to do with Kimmy) that it's not hard to see where Reagan's coming from. Philip and Elizabeth believe in their cause (to different degrees), but that cause requires them to do things that really can't be described with any other adjective.
And if Elizabeth can't feel that yet, Philip sure as hell can. In his first scene after seeing his wife and daughter off to Germany, he meets up with Yousaf to discuss the successful foiling (for now) of the American plan to give rocket launchers to the Afghani freedom fighters. The scene doesn't serve a plot purpose — we could figure out from last week's massacre that they had scuttled the deal — but is there so Yousaf can remind us of Annelise's murder at the start of the season, and ask Philip a question that he has no good answer for: "Was it worth it?"
Philip's in disguise as "Scott," and he has all his talking points memorized for just such a moment, but there's no real difference at the moment between his many alter egos and the man himself. He's in full breakdown — as Gabriel astutely, if cruelly, points out later in the episode, "You can't see ten feet in front of you" — and so he rambles at Yousaf for a few moments before admitting, "Yousaf, I feel like shit all the time."
It feels odd at first that he would go back to est without Stan in tow, but Sandra Beeman(*) can tell he's looking for something, even if she doesn't know half the things — like his extensive gigolo training — that might have driven him to take the graduate sex seminar. He needs help sorting out that terrible part of his life, but he also needs someone he can confide in. Elizabeth has mostly been that person, but they're at odds over Paige, which causes friction. Gabriel is no longer a kindly father figure but an impatient and unyielding one, and that's all he's got. Sandra's proposal to be completely honest with each other can't work in the way she wants it to, or in the way he needs it to, but you can see on his face how good the idea sounds.
(*) Who (other than Henry) would have expected Sandra to become the emotional fulcrum of the season finale? And who would have expected that to work nearly as well as it did? The show hasn't given Susan Misner a ton to do over the years, but her presence paid off in a big way here.
Matthew Rhys's face is a wonder throughout this one. You can see his reaction, for instance, to the man who realized in his gut, "My body belongs to me." Philip's body hasn't belonged to him since he was a teenager, and he's only now — as his daughter nears the age where he was made into a puppet — coming to grips with that. And he's not the only one. Over in Russia, Anton tries telling Nina that his jailers only have his body, but not his mind, so that they can force him to stay here, and even to work on their Stealth problems, while his thoughts remain with his son back in America. And later, Nina tells him, "I can't keep doing this. Buying back my life. It's not... I don't know if it's worth it."
We can never be sure how sincere Nina is with Anton, just as her loyalties to Stan and/or Oleg last year were in question for so long, because she's never in a position where there's someone she can confide in without any consequences. (Philip and Elizabeth at least have each other some of the time.) Stan has been the same way this year. There was certainly the possibility that he was baiting the hook for Oleg this whole time, to repay what Oleg tried to do to him last year, but with no partner to talk to (and Aderholt certainly doesn't qualify, as far as Stan's concerned), we could never know for sure. The idea that Stan and Oleg were somehow bonding over their shared desire to rescue Nina seemed fun, but also didn't seem true to the spirit of who Stan is. After all, if he really cared more about saving Nina than serving his country, he'd have turned traitor at the end of last season. That payoff was excellent, particularly in seeing Gaad — whose career has nearly been ruined a few times by Stan — getting so outraged by this latest development. In the end, intervention from a higher authority saves Stan's career, and gives him a chance to turn Oleg, but Nina's going to have to save herself, assuming she still wants to.
This was an incredibly confident finale, and not just because it takes some guts to leave so many things hanging on a show with ratings this modest, even when the head of the network swears he wants at least five seasons. Beyond that, there was a thematic and emotional unity to everything that was happening, and the ways in which characters spread as far apart as Washington, Berlin and Moscow are all struggling with the way that control of their lives, their bodies and even their minds keeps slipping away from them. In the end, Paige makes the decision to seize control and call Pastor Tim. In the long run, I fear that's going to hurt him a lot more than it's helping her right now, but that's a feeling of dread I'm going to have to live with until next January.
That's how high a level "The Americans" is operating on right now: watching each episode can be agony, yet the wait for the next one feels even worse.
See you in 2016, comrades.
Some other thoughts:
* I always lose track of what position is held by the guy (played by Cotter Smith) who tells Stan that he won't be investigated for the Oleg investigation. Turns out he's Deputy Attorney General, which would absolutely outrank Gaad (and Aderholt, who sure looked uncomfortable about Stan's newfound fortune).
* At first, I wondered why Elizabeth and Paige weren't flying to Canada or some other innocuous country before switching to fake passports provided by the Centre. But once it was made clear that Philip had called this play entirely on its own, it made sense. They had to get Elizabeth that close to the Berlin Wall in order to force the Centre's hand.
* Here's the full text of Reagan's speech from that day, which was delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org