THE AMERICANS: “March 8, 1983”

The Americans goes rogue in both plot and stylistic choices in the Season Three finale. Plus: Awards!

The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one. At root, it is a test of moral will and faith.

-President Ronald Reagan

Heads up everybody. We’re going rogue!

Everyone is going a little bit outside the lines this week. It’s a theme for our characters as well as a statement about the direction of the show. More on that second part later, but the Season 3 finale gave us plenty to talk about even if it didn’t get much resolved.

“March 8, 1983” opens at the airport as Elizabeth and Paige depart for a “business trip” to Europe. Henry complains about not getting to miss a week of school like Paige, not knowing that he’s the only member of the family not privy to the true purpose of the trip. Elizabeth and Paige are headed to Germany – specifically West Germany (Cold War, remember?) – with the goal of meeting Elizabeth’s cancer-stricken mother. For anyone who spent last week wondering how Elizabeth and Paige could sneak into Russia without being noticed, a simple border crossing into East Germany makes a lot more sense. Along the way Elizabeth gives Paige a crash course in evasive maneuvering in the German streets when she thinks they’re being followed. They aren’t, but it gives Paige some insight into how much of her mother’s life is spent being on the lookout.

When they do finally meet with Elizabeth’s mother, it’s not exactly what either of them expected. Despite Elizabeth’s constant explanation that her mother is “tough” and not like the cuddly American grandmothers that Paige knows, she isn’t the stern woman that Elizabeth remembers, either. Perhaps absence really does make the heart grow fonder, but Elizabeth’s mother is now a frail, sickly old woman thankful for a last chance to see her child. “All these years apart,” she says in a language that Elizabeth knows but that Paige cannot understand. Their encounter is brief, at least to the viewer, and soon the wheelchair-bound woman is loaded back into a car and again removed from Elizabeth’s life.

But this is a major event for Paige. Just imagine how much her world has shifted in a few short weeks: she’s gone from being a church-going normal American teen to learning that her parents are Russian spies, and being whisked across the globe to meet a Russian grandmother that she never knew existed. It’s a lot to take in, and Elizabeth soon finds her praying in the bathroom, lost and confused.

Back in the US, Gabriel dresses Philip down for Elizabeth’s trip, which Gabriel had forbidden. Despite Philip’s assurances that everything is fine, and that no one even questioned Elizabeth and Paige’s documents, the Center never approved this trip and Gabriel is rightly pissed. He tells Philip to stop acting like a child when he doesn’t get what he wants. “Grow up,” he spits.

It’s just the first hint at Philip’s dissatisfaction and confusion in “March 8.” He also sneaks into an apartment and kills Gene, a tech worker from Martha’s office at the FBI. Philip makes Gene’s death look like a suicide and plants recording devices in Gene’s apartment to make him look like the source of the bug in Director Gaad’s office. All the while, Philip seems completely unsure about the work. Gene is just a simple man, and he has an apartment full of classic toys – “the kind of stuff Henry plays with,” he later tells Elizabeth. Why should this man have to die? So that the KGB’s interests can be protected?

It’s telling that Philip finds himself returning to the EST conferences that he and Stan attended at the season’s outset. He even runs into Stan’s ex Sandra there, and the two discuss why he’s attending the seminars. Philip can’t quite explain it, but he finds himself engaging with the talk about following one’s gut and living completely open. The EST promotion of openness stands in stark contrast to his secret life as a spy, and I can’t wonder if Philip simply sees EST as a cultural taboo for him. Some married men have secret affairs, but that’s just part of the everyday spy job for Philip Jennings. The one thing that he’s never supposed to do is be open and vulnerable. Never the hardline dogmatist like Elizabeth, he again finds himself questioning the work they do. For all his scoffing at Paige’s religious leanings, Philip seemingly finds himself as a man with a corrupted soul.

———-

Over at FBI headquarters, Stan finally reveals Zinaida’s treachery to Gaad in a moment of triumph. With a smile on his face he explains how he went outside of his jurisdiction and has been working on turning Oleg Burov, who has now revealed that Zinaida is really a Russian spy. He tells Gaad that they can now arrest Zinaida and trade her for Nina.

But the response is not what Stan expected. Rather than being thrilled, Gaad is outraged and asks Stan how he could work so brazenly outside the bounds of his authority. “Do you even give a shit about the bureau?” he asks Stan incredulously. He then begins to wonder if Stan, already proven to not be trustworthy, is the one who planted the bug in his office. When Stan denies it and insists that they need to use this opportunity to rescue Nina, Gaad stops him cold. “Don’t give me a speech about how we’re supposed to treat our agents,” he tells Stan. There will be an investigation, and Stan will be fired. Yes, they’ll arrest Zinaida, but she won’t be traded for Nina. Did Stan really think that Nina was the most valuable thing to be gained from a hostage exchange? Suddenly, Stan’s moment of triumph has turned to ashes in his mouth.

He’s only saved when the Deputy Attorney General decides to ignore Gaad’s recommendation that Stan be fired and investigated. Instead, the Deputy AG remembers Stan bursting into his office during Season 2, and complaining that he couldn’t get any real work done with the mountain of bureaucratic red tape he had to deal with. By ignoring that red tape Stan has now twice gotten close to Soviet assets, and the Deputy AG wants to use that skill for his own benefit. “What matters now is the work you’re going to do with Burov,” he tells Stan, along with a promise that he will remove any obstacles that get in Stan’s way. Saved but by the grace of a results-hungry Deputy AG, Stan return to work to the shocked faces of his coworkers – especially Dennis Aderholt. Stan has kept his job, but will he ever really be a team member at the bureau again?

If only he knew that Nina doesn’t even need his help. While he and Oleg imagine her living in a cell or a Russian work camp, she’s busy aiding Anton Baklanov with his stealth project. Thanks to the newly obtained photos from Elizabeth, Anton’s work is progressing at a furious rate. He can’t even bring himself to sleep, telling Nina that the work is his own achievement. Yes, the Soviets may have his body imprisoned, but they don’t have his mind. His mind can do what it wants.

Nina should be thrilled at Anton’s progress, but she too is struggling with her role in the world. Her monitoring of Anton is going well, though both of them know why she is there. Her work isn’t secret to the scientist she’s monitoring —  yet they’ve actually managed to become close, as they both work on projects that they don’t want. But Nina is starting to show cracks. She tells Anton that she finds her role crushing. “I can’t keep doing this,” she tells him. “Buying back my life one piece at a time.”

———-

When Elizabeth and Paige return to Washington DC, Paige is nearly at a breaking point. She tells Elizabeth that she isn’t sure if she can go on with life knowing that she’ll have to lie day in and day out. Elizabeth tries to reassure her that everyone lies, but Paige isn’t so sure.

When Elizabeth gets home she finds an equally uncertain Philip, attempting to articulate the toll their work is taking on him. He’s trying to be open (EST!) with his wife, but she’s distracted by the television as President Reagan makes a speech about a proposed nuclear disarmament plan, where he uses some of the strongest language of his presidency — calling the USSR an “evil empire.” Elizabeth is horrified. Philip Remains lost.

Just down the hall, Paige is in tears and can’t take the stress anymore. She needs an outlet. So, struggling with the crushing weight of her knowledge, she calls her best friend: Pastor Tim. We’re only privy to one end of the phone call, but Paige’s words say everything. “I’ve tried praying about it. They’re not who they say they are. They’re not Americans … I’m not supposed to say it. You can’t tell anyone. They’re … Russians.”

In Philip and Elizabeth’s bedroom President Reagan asserts: “[the Russians] are the focus of evil in the modern world.”

Roll credits.

Yes, that’s it. But what about Martha? What about Kimmie? What about Maurice and Lisa at Northrup? Showrunner Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg have decided not to answer those questions. There’s been almost no closure in this episode, and it seems to buck most season finale tends.

I do wonder if they’ve gone too far. The final scene interweaving Philip and Elizabeth’s bedroom chat with Paige’s call to Pastor Tim and Reagan’s speech was fantastic, but we’re still lacking closure on almost all storylines. Surely the show can’t maintain its momentum through an eight month break between seasons. I understand that operating outside the boundaries of what’s expected was a major theme of the finale, but isn’t following the same path in production a little too cute? Why are the showrunners deliberately making it harder for their small fanbase to latch on to something familiar?

All in good time, I guess. Despite my uncertain feelings about this episode, Season 3 was a triumph. I’ll certainly still be watching when Season 4 rolls around.

Season Wrap-up

And then we came to the end. Season 3 of The Americans is now in the books, and we’ll have 40-some-odd weeks to wait for more. It’s no secret that this is one of my two favorite shows on television, and it’s a joy to know that it will be back for Season 4.

One of the things that’s so intriguing is that it just keeps getting better. Season One was often uneven, mixing excellent episodes (“The Clock”) with weaker ones. Season Two was a huge step forward as The Americans finally found sure footing and began delving into the moral complexity of spy work. I’m happy to report that Season 3 was the best yet.

The Americans is the perfect example of the maxim that TV has an ability to do things across multiple seasons that a film cannot do in three hours. We get to go deeper and wider on TV, delving through numerous layers of complexity. Despite always being labeled a “spy” show the truth is that The Americans has always been about family. How many scenes have we seen take place around the Jennings family table? Too many to count.

Though the details of the spycraft often get messy, we keep watching. It’s because what really matters is the relationships between Philip and Elizabeth, Elizabeth and Paige, Philip and Stan. Those are always in sharp focus, and they’re the moments that stay with you. There’s a reason that the best episodes of each season are the big emotional ones. That’s what the show is built on. How can the spycraft really matter when we all know the end result? The US is still going to win the Cold War. The USSR is still going to dissolve. But what happens to the Jennings family now that Paige has spilled the secret? That’s the answer we crave.

Best Keri Russell Performance: “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”

It isn’t even close. I often point to “Martial Eagle” as the best episode of “The Americans,” and it’s largely because of Matthew Rhys’s superb performance. “Do Mail Robots…” is every bit the equal for Russell. An absolutely powerhouse emotional performance. A masterclass.

Best Matthew Rhys Performance: Tie: “Born Again” and “Stingers”

In “Born Again” Philip struggles with the morality of needing to seduce a 16 year-old girl for the cause, and Rhys makes something beautiful out of what could have been one of TV’s biggest “ick” moments of the year. In “Stingers” he finally comes face to face with telling Paige the truth about he and Elizabeth’s past. What Elizabeth has long imagined as a triumphant moment for her and Philip unveils itself very differently in reality. Rhys’s almost mournful revelation is acting at its best.

Best Moment: Basement Dentistry

This season The Americans gave us the most intimate tooth pull in history when Philip is forced to remove Elizabeth’s tooth the old fashioned way. What other shows would have played for shock, director Thomas Schlamme used to show the trust and intimacy between our two protagonists.

Best Episode: Tie: “Do Mail Robots…” and “Stingers”

The former is an emotional powerhouse. The latter is the biggest plot change in the show’s history. I simply can’t choose.

Season Grade: A

Thanks for reading all season, and I hope to see you all next year. March 9, 1983 is just around the corner!

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