ENTERTAINMENT

7 Reasons 'The Americans' Was So Addictive This Year

04/22/2015 11:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015
FX

Do not read on unless you’ve seen “March 8, 1983,” the Season 3 finale of “The Americans.”

It’s too bad about that mysterious and fatal car accident Pastor Tim is going to have in Season 4, isn’t it?

Okay, maybe I’m jumping ahead and engaging in wild speculation, the kind that Gabriel would surely shoot down in an instant. One thing is for sure: We’ve come a long way since the laundry room.

Back at the end of the first season, young Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) hung out for a few moments in the family laundry room, a place that her parents spent a lot of time -- a suspicious amount of time, actually. She was curious about what her parents were doing in there, and she strongly suspected it had nothing to do with folding clothes.

Paige’s instincts about her parents weren’t wrong: This season she found out there was definitely something awry, and it wasn’t a covert addiction to fabric softener. All season long, since Season 2’s fabulous close, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have wrestled with the idea of letting Paige in on their enormous secret: the fact that they are high-level Soviet agents posing as average suburbanites.

From the start, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) was more in favor of bringing Paige into the fold and possibly making her part of the family spy business. Philip (Matthew Rhys), who deeply feared the damage that the secret knowledge could do, was wary of introducing their daughter into their clandestine world and the sometimes brutal choices that accompany it.

It was an excellent choice to have Paige demand honestly from her parents a few episodes ago -- to have her find out for herself, essentially. That move relieved each of her parents of the burden of being the one to tell her, and it tracked with the inquisitive, challenging spirit Paige has shown since the show began. Every teenager wants to know why his or her parents are so weird and frustrating, and most of us eventually realize it’s because they’re flawed human beings who are just trying their best and failing some of the time.

That’s true of Paige’s parents as well, but there’s more to it than that. It occurs to me that “The Americans” has a lot in common with Amazon's "Transparent”: They’re both about families with long-buried secrets, kids who attempt to parent themselves and adults who are so distracted by their own needs that they can’t quite see their children. (Also, both shows would not exist if the wig industry were not at the top of its game.)

On “The Americans,” the secret-keeping had reached toxic levels. Paige wanted the truth, but, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

It was a little surprising but not necessarily out of character that Paige’s trip to visit her dying grandmother didn’t deter her from calling Pastor Tim. “The Americans” continually avoids taking the easy path, which has made it beloved by its audience and not so much of a killer in the ratings department. But we look to this show to adhere to the emotional realities of the characters, and that has, time and again, made for memorable arcs and movingly bittersweet decisions.

The truth is, this knowledge would just be too much for any young person to handle on his or her own. Paige -- like her brother Henry -- has found alternative parents, people who have time to spend on her moral and emotional development, people who want to just hang out with her and who like her as a person.

It’s not that Elizabeth and Philip don’t love their kids -- they do, fiercely -- but they’re just not around, and when they are in the house, their minds are often on other tasks. At this point, their kids see them as random phantoms or erratic roommates, not pillars of stability. For a teen going through a lot of changes of her own, connecting with and respecting guarded and unreliable parents -- who are, as it turns out, huge liars -- presents an almost insurmountable challenge. It’s understandable that Paige turned to the people who had given her life some kind of moral structure and emotional scaffolding.

All in all, it was a satisfying finale, perhaps not as thrilling as the end of Season 2, but that's a high bar to clear. In any case, the ending built on an entire season’s worth of deep foreboding, and also gave the show a roadmap for the next set of episodes. I have to confess, I was a little confused by the way the show left the Martha storyline hanging: The last we saw of her, Philip had done his big reveal and removed his famous wig in a final attempt to keep her in the fold. We don’t know whether that got her to stick around, or whether there’s still a possibility she would leave town or turn him in (and yes, by killing the computer guy, Philip got her off the hook, but as Elizabeth noted, Martha still may present a risk to the couple).

Other than that, the closing of the season had the emotional density and palpable weight I expect from this fine show by this point. All the characters will have to wrestle with knotty personal and professional problems that will continue to make the Jennings’ home anything but a refuge from the outside world. A tired and demoralized Philip seems poised to leave the program entirely, while Elizabeth’s reaction to Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech makes it clear that she is nowhere near ready to abandon the motherland. There are excrutiating choices ahead for all of the characters, and, as is almost always the case on this show, things are only going to get more difficult from here on out.

And if I were Pastor Tim, I’d get the brakes on my car checked.

Now, here are a few memorable scenes that stayed with me during the third season of “The Americans” (which just won a Peabody Award, by the way).

  1. Sexy home dentristry. Any right-thinking human understands that the preceding three words do not belong together. Home dentistry, sexy or otherwise, should absolutely not be a thing. And yet on this show, where spies and targets regularly shed their clothes and get down, the scene in which Philip pulls out Elizabeth’s broken tooth ended up being one of the most electric moments of intimacy I've ever seen on TV. Elizabeth hides her vulnerabilities behind a series of emotional walls at home and under a procession of wigs out in the world. Her husband is the only person she lets in, and given how much he loves her and hates hurting other people, the whole operation was suffused with his compassion and her frightened, wary vulnerability. In that hushed moment, director Thomas Schlamme wisely focused on the characters’ eyes, which connected in a profound way in that scene. Like so many fine moments on “The Americans,” it was an almost wordless meditation on fear and trust, delivered with perfect restraint and believable emotion by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.
  2. The suitcase scene. Will any of us ever get those crunching noises out of our heads? And yet nothing about this scene was exploitative in the least. On the contrary, it was pervaded with a sense of respect for the dead and the grim dedication to duty that is the Jennings' hallmark quality. As The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum wrote recently, “The Americans” refuses to be an escapist fantasy in which cool people get to choose fun, flashy espionagemissions; the show does not “offer a narcotic, adventurous fantasy in which we get to imagine being the smartest person in the room, the only one free to break the rules.” The idea of a spy having agency is literally built into the name (Central Intelligence Agency, “secret agent,” etc.). What “The Americans” reinforces, time and again, is that most of these people are merely pawns in a much bigger game, and unlike the bigger players, they can’t afford to look away. They have to do the front-line killing, kidnapping and maiming, and as we see in Thomas Cromwell’s journey in the great PBS drama “Wolf Hall,” having to do the dirty work takes an unquantifiable but serious toll. We could see the toll on Philip’s face in that gruesome suitcase scene, and in many scenes like it (not least the scene in which an ANC operative set a guy on fire). Philip doesn’t get to choose what he does, but he has one freedom left: He can hate having to do it.
  3. Frusen Glädjé and Scrabble with Gabriel. “The Americans” can be a grim show, there’s no doubt about that, but it does supply pleasures, not just in the performances and in the rock-solid and yet pleasingly devious deployment of its storytelling. There are also little (or not so little) things that end up being very good and even fun. Among them: Philips’ eyeliner-intensive rock-dude look in “Divestment,” Agent Gaad’s blowup at the mail robot, time spent eating period-appropriate ice cream with Gabriel in his drafty apartment, a welcome meeting between Gabriel (the wily Frank Langella) and Claudia (the always great Margo Martindale), the use of Ultravox’s “Vienna,” Lois Smith as an unfortunate bookkeeper, and the sly use of “Tootsie,” a movie all about wigs, costumes and the truth of secret identities.
  4. Philip, Kimmie and Yaz. Since it began, “The Americans” has done a fantastic job of integrating pop music into its soundtrack, and Season 3 is no exception in that regard. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away)” were memorable music cues this season, but my favorite was the use of Yaz’s “Only You.” The song told of deep yearning and wayward romantic love, but Philip’s face reflected a host of other emotions: concern for Kimmie, his teenage target, as a human being, and disgust at the fact that he was tasked with emotionally and physically seducing her. The show’s perennial theme about parents and children who are unable to truly connect was very prominent this season, and never more so than in this subtle, complicated scene. Kimmie danced for Philip’s approval, but she wasn't just a prop. As we got to know her, we learned she was a lonely young girl who needed a real friend. Philip knew he was anything but that and that he was merely using her, and the song’s mournful quality reflected that unforgiving truth.
  5. Paige’s silence. Crunching bones made an unforgettable noise and pop songs have provided a memorable soundtrack, but “The Americans” is also notable for its silences. Nathan Barr’s soundtrack is always a perfect mood-setter when it does turn up -- his use of cello is especially wonderful -- but “The Americans” is the rare drama that does not overdo music, dialogue or noise when silence works best. After Paige found out about her parents, there were several shots of her in her room, pondering and thinking and re-thinking her entire life. Many other shows would have mucked those moments up with wordiness or an overbearing soundtrack, but those moments of contemplation were wonderful because they were so spare. This is a show about people struggling with moral and psychological conundrums, and aesthetically and musically, "The Americans" gives them the space to do that.
  6. Elizabeth’s reunion with her mother. Of all the parent-child stories of the season, Elizabeth’s final meeting with her mother may have been the most heartbreaking, and that’s some feat, given that we’d never met this person before and we've already seen a lot of painful moments on this drama. In the way that Elizabeth grasped her mother’s hands, we saw decades of pain and homesickness come to life, and once again, the show’s compassionate restraint was laudatory. I could have spent more time with Elizabeth and her mother, but “The Americans” didn’t oversell the emotion, let alone go to a manipulative place, and that may be the show's greatest accomplishment -- holding itself back from doing the obvious to give us fantastically complex moments that speak volumes, even as the characters say little or nothing.
  7. By not pushing me too hard to care, it gets me to care deeply. The show is, as Sonia Saraiya said in a recent review, a show that is essentially about miserable people, but I appreciate the fact that it never tries to force us in unfair or pushy ways to care about the Jennings' plights. And yet I do, because, like their own daughter, Philip and Elizabeth got what they wanted, but they didn’t know how hard it would survive once they gained entry into the morally dubioius world they'd chosen to learn about. Saraiya noted that the characters in “The Americans” chose their profession, and that’s true, but Elizabeth and Philip weren’t much older than Paige when they were picked for elite spy training. I can picture how idealistic and excited they were when they entered the spy academy, but those optimistic kids had no way of knowing the quandaries and dilemmas they’d encounter when they were older. Paige and Henry are so full of potential, and it may just take Philip and Elizabeth repudiating all that training and their political beliefs to ensure their kids fulfill even part of it. I love the show because I believe so deeply in the couple's personal causes, even if there's a good chance they're hopeless.

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