Many of the most acclaimed television shows today derive their power from not seeming to be television—The Wire’s unapologetically cerebral approach to urban decay, Mad Men’s resistance toward anything remotely resembling a plot, the embrace of an indie aesthetic by HBO dramedies. The Americans, however, is unabashedly a television show. Its stories are a combination of two quintessential television settings: work and family, with a healthy sprinkling of period piece and spy drama. Tonight, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ '80s spy drama returns for its third season on FX.
In its second season, through focused examination of the marriage between illegal KGB agents Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), The Americans managed to paint one of the most unrealistic families on television as one of the most affecting and relatable. It also plotted out a tragic romance between FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and KGB informant Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru) and dug into the lives of the office-bound operatives of the Soviet Rezidentura.
The introduction of a new agent in Season 3, Tatiana Evgenyevna (Vera Cherny), destabilizes the setting, and Arkady (Lev Gorn) and Oleg’s (Costa Ronin) response is legitimately gripping. Tatiana asks if she can do an asset review to determine a renewed approach to hunting down the CIA’s group working in Afghanistan. In that vein, ahead of the third season, we reviewed The Americans’ considerable assets.
Mastery of Tension
The Season 3 premiere hints at possible rifts between allies and hidden plots, all communicated by slight camera movements or minute shifts in the actors’ performances. All of these orbit around the season’s central conflict over Jennings’ daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who the KGB is attempting to recruit as a sleeper.
The directors (including Breaking Bad’s Thomas Schlamme) have a deep command of the series’ dark visual aesthetic. The first four episodes contain several absolutely dazzling sequences set to the series’ excellent '80s music picks. Even something as simple as the sound design on a bone snapping can communicate the characters’ internal states.
Playing the Long Game
Though a lot could happen on The Americans, it often doesn’t. Each moment that suggests a new direction isn’t just a lost opportunity; it also demonstrates a level of restraint with material that could easily run off the rails. The big action sequences in this season feel more exaggerated than they have in the past, but that doesn’t mean there are open-fire fights in every episode. It’s just as likely that the show will wring tension from a malfunctioning radio.
With two seasons under the show’s belt, it’s also been able to use tiny shifts to develop characters and leave several pots to simmer at once. For example, Gillian Alexy’s Annelise, one of Philip’s informants, is one of the best parts of the new season after having only appeared in two episodes. In addition, Philip’s tragic second wife Martha (Alison Wright) has grown so much as a character that she has her own storylines without him, exploring her marginalization at the FBI and desire for a traditional family.
There are 11 people listed in the starring cast for The Americans, and they all earn their places in the opening credits. (With the exception of Keidrich Sellati, whose Henry Jennings just gets nothing to do.) Though Philip and Elizabeth are clearly the stars of the show (with Stan a distant third), pretty much anyone else could take the spotlight at any time. Nina’s prison story struggles to stay afloat for the first few episodes, but Mahendru is so talented that it doesn’t matter. Even Susan Misner’s performance as Stan’s estranged wife Sandra has evolved to the point where their marital discontent can carry an episode just as well as a dead drop.
This season introduces a few promising new faces, particularly a teenaged girl (Julia Turner) who makes a strong play as one of the most memorable guest stars of the series and the Jennings’ new KGB handler. This season, Weisberg and Fields found the only person who could have matched Martindale for sheer gravitas—Frank Langella. His intense and almost terrifying Gabriel never leaves his house, yet somehow looms as a substantial threat—the personification of the full reach of the Kremlin.
Nothing Is Black and White
No one on The Americans is entirely villainous, and no one is entirely virtuous. Half the characters are KGB agents, looking to bring down the American government. But their personal lives and relationships continue to be far more compelling than their FBI counterparts, who are ensnared by a dedication to the job that prevents them from being true heroes. Most TV shows suggest some central conflict between one or more characters, and an idea of which “side” might “win.” On The Americans, however, pretty much everyone is always in conflict with everyone else in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Instead, it feels realistic.
In the same way that we can't fully reject or sympathize with each of the characters, the show itself uses a wide variety of genre tropes to cycle through the ways the spies and the people who love them feel about their ideologies, families, and responsibilities. Beyond the car chases, there’s an engaging drama about parenthood (in the Jennings’ rejection of Paige’s religious zeal), a disintegrating marriage strained by work, and an emerging story about a younger woman getting seduced by an older man. Everyone on The Americans is always performing in the service of a likely unattainable goal, knowing their roles are subject to change at practically any moment, and that tension permeates the series.