The Americans returns for Season 4 with an infectious new mystery.
I have to know everything. Even if it’s hard.
There’s a point where writing about a TV show becomes very difficult as you struggle to keep from endlessly repeating yourself. As the fourth season of The Americans begins we find ourselves in the exact same position as the past few years. It remains one of the best shows on television, and, almost certainly, the best show that no one is watching. Despite the alluring covert affairs premise, the heart of the show remains the emotional storylines about how secrets, lies, and stress effect relationships. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are giving two of the best performances anywhere in a series that revels in slow, simmering storytelling.
So forgive me if I repeat myself, but The Americans is one of the best shows on television and you should be watching it! (Of course, if you’re reading this, you are in that happy minority.)
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have largely succeeded in keeping their home lives and spy lives separate. Sure, it strains their marriage at times, but that’s a private issue between husband and wife that’s consigned to hushed whispers in their bedroom. But now that Paige knows her parents’ true identities, we’re prepped for a season of expanded consequences as the secret has now escaped from Elizabeth and Philip’s sole control — and now that Paige has blabbed to Pastor Tim, the secret isn’t even confined to the Jennings household. Pastor Tim wonders if Paige could convince her parents to come into church for a joint discussion/counseling session, but Paige, appalled, brushes off his stupid idea. Pastor Tim, these are KGB spies who would probably be executed if their cover was blown. I’m sure they don’t want to discuss it over tea and biscuits. If I were him I’d be remembering that a man I now know to be a KGB spy once broke into my church and threatened me with physical violence.
Elsewhere, Martha is also grappling with the discovery that her husband, “Clark,” is actually a spy. If that weren’t burden enough, he also killed one of her coworkers to cover the tracks of her own document thefts. It’s “poor Martha” all over again. She, more than anyone else on The Americans, is playing a dangerous game with no safety valve. Her marriage is a lie, and she’s committing treason. There’s no guiding group like the KGB watching her and offering an extraction if she can’t handle the pressure, and it’s all happening in the FBI office with agents and directors watching her every move. Is there any safe way out for Poor Martha? She’s facing trouble in every direction, but could she lessen it if she turned herself in to her bosses? It’s yet another example of the secret moving beyond Philip and Elizabeth’s immediate control. I wouldn’t be the first person to liken the secrets in The Americans to a truth bomb. Burdening someone with the Jennings’ true identities is like wrapping their hands around a grenade and pulling the pin, wishing them good luck, walking away, and hoping that they’ve got the wherewithal to manage the situation. The carnage from failure wouldn’t be any less extreme.
Meanwhile, Gabriel is adding still more pressure to Philip and Elizabeth’s work. He explains that the KGB assumes that the American government is developing biological weapons despite their treaties against it; thus, the Soviet Union has a biological weapons program of their own (this, coincidently, is also the secret project that Tatiana has been hiding from Arkady over at the Rezidentura). He vaccinates them both against meningitis and sends them to covertly meet with William (Dylan Baker), a biological warfare scientist secretly working for the KGB. He provides them with a vial of weaponized brown fluid that he refers to as “to meningitis what the bubonic plague is to a runny nose.” This is the titular Glanders, typically found in horses but is capable of crossing the disease spectrum to humans with a little help from scientists. Those that survive its high mortality rate become disease carriers, and its use as a biological weapon even has a real world precedent.
That’s just one more burden piling up on Philip Jennings, always the questioning, emotional spy to Elizabeth’s steely true believer. He continues attending EST seminars to help with the conflict he feels over his horrible acts, with particular internal emphasis on his first killings, the murder of two boys when he was a child. Of course, he frames it as only a bad beating to the EST group, but his feelings remain the same. Was it necessary to go that far? Do the ends justify the means? Those are the questions that continue to haunt his covert work to the current day.
Even EST itself is a secret for Philip. He hasn’t told Elizabeth what he’s doing with this evenings; the person he does confide with is, ironically, fellow EST attendee Sandra Beeman. EST allows them a private connection, and when they’re spotted chatting intimately over coffee after a meeting, it leads to a misled Stan confronting Philip over his and Sandra’s “affair.” This harkens back to the original pilot episode, where Stan briefly searched the Jennings’ garage for evidence of espionage before moving on to other things while Philip watched silently from the shadows, clutching a knife. Same nighttime confrontation, same setting, the same two men, and even the same presence of a deadly weapon as Stan gruffly pinning Philip against the wall nearly shatters the vial of Glanders toxin in his pocket. The irony is in Stan confronting Philip, but not knowing what he should be searching for.
The stage is set for another fantastic season of fantastic television. I’ve always thought that The Americans ultimately has to break out of its long game. The slow burn has been amazing, but doesn’t the show eventually have to turn on the high heat? I’m not so sure anymore. The premise would allow for explosions or kicked-in doors at any moment, but that’s simply never happened. Yes, the potential for Stan discovering Elizabeth and Philip’s secret is too rich to go forever unexplored, but I expect that, once we finally get there, the show will still take its time with revelations exactly because the emotional impact of those revelations is too rich to speed past. Thus, a truth bomb is probably the wrong metaphor for the secret burdening the Jennings family. That’s too fast, violent, and simple. It’s more correct to say that the secret is a germ, and that germ is beginning to infect.
The Dead Drop:
- It’s unlikely that I’ll be posting weekly episodic recaps this season, but I will definitely be watching. FX’s screwy Comcast/Mountain time zone schedule makes it all but impossible to write up consistently. Maybe I’ll do a recap every few weeks? Maybe a premiere/mid-season/finale format? Maybe I’ll jump in when major events happen? It’s too early to know for sure, but we’ll continue to keep up SOME form of coverage. The show deserves it.
- Nina is still around, and she’s still working in that forced science complex in Russia, but at the moment it feels too incredibly divorced from the plot of the show to explore. Evidently she’s been married this whole time, and her husband may be about to join the narrative.
- Obviously, it seems like Pastor Tim’s days are numbered, but I’ve been anticipating Martha’s death since Season One. The implications for Paige are way too complex for someone to just bust down his door and shoot him in the head, so I’m sure we’ll have Pastor Tim for a while yet.
- More bafflingly, I don’t believe that Pastor Tim is sworn to a vow of silence. It’s purely a TV machination that he doesn’t immediately go to the cops, and I understand that, but have no doubts that if I were in the same situation I would turn all of you in to the FBI immediately.
- “Glanders” was directed, with the usual expertise, by Thomas Schlamme.
- I’ve come to terms with the idea that it’s way too late for people to get on board with the show at this point. Asking someone to join in on Season 4 of The Americans is asking them to watch 30 episodes to get caught up. No one is going to do that. The comfort here is that people should be discovering and binging the show on streaming services for years.
- We need more Arkady! Personal opinion, but Arkady is just the best. Bring some Oleg too.
Until next time!