It's telling that several scenes from the fourth season of The Americans begin with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) or Philip (Matthew Rhys), married Soviet spies, waking up from a nightmare. These dreams are pungent metaphors for the couple's growing desperation, as they agonize over how to protect their children from a life they feel increasingly trapped within.
The Americans's focus on people bent on taking down America's way of life makes it difficult for U.S. viewers to default to the mindless state of vicarious excitement that most spy shows inspire. As Philip and Elizabeth beat up or kill the people who get in their way and seduce potential marks, whether by cultivating their trust and friendship or by becoming exactly the kind of lover their target fantasizes about, it's not so easy to excuse what they're doing as a case of the ends justifying the means.
And yet, Russell and Rhys are such superbly articulate and specific performers that it’s hard not to empathize with their characters: Russell gives Elizabeth a watchful stillness that conveys her unflappable commitment to her cause and seeming ability to cope with anything she encounters, while Rhys’s darting, troubled eyes and mercurial temper convey the deep conflicts that plague Philip. He’s starting to feel more like the American family man he’s pretending to be than the vulnerable Russian orphan he was when the KGB conscripted him into a fake identity and marriage. As terrifying as it is to imagine the couple succeeding in smuggling a virulent biological weapon developed in a D.C. lab back to Russia, we worry as much about their safety as we do that of the country, afraid they might get caught while transporting the virus—or killed by it when they’re forced to stash it in their home.
That tension between Philip and Elizabeth’s work and home life has always been a primary theme of The Americans, especially as their marriage grew into a true romantic partnership and they were increasingly forced to weigh their love of the motherland against the welfare of their own children. That conflict becomes a full-blown crisis in season four, now that their eldest child, Paige (Holly Taylor), has learned her parents are Russian spies, and they know she told her pastor, Tim (Kelly AuCoin).
The psychological complexity of these characters and the pitiless rigidity of the world in which they live gives The Americans a sense of tragic inevitability that’s underscored by the show’s darkly lit sets, portentous soundtrack, and propulsive narrative pace. Like sharks, Elizabeth and Philip must keep moving or die, but the moves they’re forced to make seem certain to lead to their demise. Many of the mines the writers have planted in the storyline now seem destined to explode in the characters’ faces.
For one, Paige still doesn’t know the worst of what Elizabeth and Philip do, or that they might well kill her pastor, and she has no idea the KGB is pressuring her parents to recruit her into the profession. Martha (Alison Wright), the F.B.I. employee Philip went so far as to marry, masquerading as an internal affairs agent named Clark, in order to get her to smuggle the bureau’s files for him, will surely figure out at some point that her husband isn’t who he seems. And F.B.I. agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) is becoming a threat to next-door neighbors’ status quo, incorrectly suspecting Philip of having an affair with his ex-wife, Sandra (Susan Misner).
That misunderstanding is typical of the show’s brand of understated comic relief, most of which involves the contrast between Elizabeth and Philip’s milquetoast existence as middle-class American suburbanites and their secret lives as ass-kicking spies, like when they pass the time on a stakeout complaining about how their son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), is going way too heavy on the cologne. Their double life also often casts an unflattering light on middle-class American life. Philip begins to recall a suppressed memory of his first killing, a brutal beating he delivered when he was just a bullied boy, in an EST class he started attending to humor Stan. His voluntary attendance is a sign of how Philip, who never used to do anything that wasn’t in service of either the Soviet Union or his family, is becoming increasingly Americanized. At the same time, his EST teacher’s new age-ish platitudes about the boyhood experience Philip was necessarily cagey about illustrate the gulf between the ex-pat and his new country, sounding laughably glib and naïve in contrast to the hell that was Philip’s childhood.
The Soviet Union’s totalitarian face is revealed most dramatically in the story of Nina Krilova (Annet Mahendru), the beautiful triple agent who was betrayed by both sides and begins season four in a grim Russian prison, where her only chance of escape is betraying a kidnapped Soviet-Jewish scientist. The deeper The Americans drills into Elizabeth and Philip’s double lives, the crazier it seems—to the couple as well as their audience—that they’re risking their lives and the lives of their children for national politics. As a charming Korean-American woman, Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), puts it in a funny monologue about her Americanized children’s lust for Cabbage Patch Kids: “The TV commercial make my kids think they need them, so I buy them. And they like them—for five minutes—and then they forget all about them. And then they see the doll on television again, and they acting like, if I don’t buy more, they gonna die.” She’s right, of course: None of that stuff we’re constantly getting sold is worth dying for.
Written for Slant Magazine