A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I beg my coffee to wake me up…
“I can't be here with you like this.” -Martha
As a rule, I tend to be biased against secrecy in the shows I watch. Too much conflict on television – both dramas and comedies – is driven by people keeping things to themselves for reasons that don't make sense outside the context of writers who need to prolong tension. Rare is the show that's more interesting when secrets are being kept than when they're out in the open.
“The Americans” is a different story, of course. The premise makes layer upon layer of secrecy job requirement number one for Philip and Elizabeth. On your average show where someone is withholding the truth, the stakes tend to be embarrassment, or relationship trouble. If Mr. and Mrs. Jennings are found out, the consequences would endanger not only their own lives and their family, but the very fragile balance of global power between the United States and the Soviets. They wear wigs and disguises and tell lies for a very fundamental reason, and the show wouldn't make sense any other way.
That said, look at how much power the series has generated over the last few weeks from letting both Paige and Martha in on varying degrees of the truth. Neither woman knows everything, but they know enough to be shaken to their respective cores, and to feel boxed in by this secret they never asked to keep in the first place. “The Americans” had to take several seasons to build to these developments, but the rewards have certainly been worth that patience.
How amazing was that last scene? The show has taken the wigs from an inadvertent running joke in the first season, to a source of danger in the second (with the murder of the busboy), to something remarkably raw here. Unlike the similar scene on “How to Get Away with Murder” back in the fall, we know exactly what Philip looks like under the wig. Martha, however, does not, and watching her reaction as her husband's entire physical being seems to shift, even before he takes off the glasses and slowly removes the toupee, brilliantly put the audience inside her head for this life-altering moment. Because Philip is one of our point of view characters, we accept his metamorphosis into Clark as the parlor trick that it is. For Martha, though? This is seeing her husband's true face for the first time, in a circumstance where she feels the entire world closing in on her, with the possibility of arrest, or worse, coming soon. What a performance by Alison Wright, and what direction from Christopher Misiano.
It's entirely possible that “worse” is exactly what Philip has in mind here: that he's doing Martha the courtesy of showing her who she was really married to before she gets the Annelise treatment. After all, we saw with poor old Betty a few weeks ago what happens when civilians see our protagonists in action without their disguises. But I don't think that's what this is. Philip doesn't see Martha as his wife, but he does care for her, and he feels protective of her, and after all they've been through – particularly in light of what happened to Annelise – I suspect he intends to do everything in his power to keep her alive. And if that means going to the extreme step of de-wigging in order to get her to trust him, then that's what he'll do.
Perhaps he's drawing inspiration from what's happening on the homefront with Paige, who's understandably fixated on learning which pieces of her life are real and which were invented by the KGB. Like Martha, she feels a prisoner of circumstance, and ugly scenes like Philip and Elizabeth closing the garage door like the bars on a jail cell, or Elizabeth's attempt to clamp her hand over her daughter's mouth are not helping her view it as anything else. But when Philip shares photos of genuine moments in their lives, he finally starts getting through to her, which at least leaves her open to the possibility of traveling to Russia with Elizabeth to meet her grandmother. She asked for none of this situation, but now that she's stuck in the middle of it, she at least wants as much truth as she can get, and both her parents are playing into that.
The Paige rebellion scenes throughout the episode illustrate how effectively the series uses the spy material to enhance the family material (which has always felt like the show's true subject matter). On another show, the teenage daughter acting out because she feels betrayed by her parents would run the risk of making them feel like the sympathetic party, or simply elicit eye-rolling. Here, our sympathies are entirely with Paige – even Philip's and Elizabeth's are, to a degree, though they're annoyed with how she's choosing to act out – and the stakes of her rebellion are so much higher.
The return of Claudia gives us another perspective on those stakes, and this entire mission, and on what both Claudia and Gabriel are like when they're away from their charges. (And that includes real friendship, and possibly more, between the two old handlers.) It's rare for the show to offer us this much of a peek behind the Iron Curtain, because even when we're at the rezidentura, those scenes involve characters who have no direct communication with or control over Philip and Elizabeth. At the diner, Claudia runs Gabriel through a whole lot of Centre backstory, including the understandable fallout from Jared murdering his family. The info isn't crucial – the show often benefits from showing us things through Philip and Elizabeth's eyes – but it was still a real pleasure to have Margo Martindale back, even if for just one scene, especially since that scene also involved Frank Langella.
My reservations from last week about the sheer number of different plots stands, however. As powerful as the personal storylines have been, Philip and Elizabeth have too many operations going on at once – here inciting Abassin Zadran into murdering his fellow mujahideen leaders in hopes of halting the U.S. plan to arm the Afghan rebels with portable rocket launchers – for them all to have the effectiveness they should. We haven't seen Kimmy in weeks, and the business with Lisa and Marcus would feel more powerful if they hadn't been put on hold at the season's midpoint. I can remember who everyone is and what their role in the larger plan may be, but the number of schemes and assets is weighing the whole thing down.
It may just be that Fields and Weisberg plan to carry a lot of the current arcs into next season (they said going into this season that they were planning a long game, well before FX ordered that fourth year). But even so, I don't feel the sense of narrative momentum that I did at comparable points in the previous two seasons. I expect the emotions of the finale to be as fraught as they've been all year, and that's ultimately what matters most. But I'd like to see a bit more balance between plot and character going forward, if that's possible.
Some other thoughts:
* This week in “The Americans” and '80s pop culture: Stan notices that Martha is reading “Shogun,” the James Clavell-written doorstop about a British sailor who gets a crash course in Japanese culture after a trading mission goes awry; and Paige is listening to “Vienna” by Ultravox when Elizabeth invites her to Russia (the song continues into the final scene with Martha and Clark).
* Despite Philip's obvious feelings for Martha, it's interesting that he would be so surprised by Elizabeth's suggestion that Stan could have gone to Martha's apartment to hit on her. I suppose he knows Stan well enough to know his type, but the suddenness and sharpness of the reaction seemed to be him rejecting the idea that anyone but him might find Martha attractive.
* Does Tatiana have some hidden agenda for pushing to keep Zephyr alive, or is she genuinely looking out for Arkady? The bit of business involving the movie that she and Oleg recite seems to be nothing, but I suspect that if the project stays open, one of them is going to figure out that the beeps are related to FBI building security.
* Operation Kimmy is on the backburner, but Marcus is flaring up as a potentially big problem for Elizabeth, given his belief that he can get one over on her.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org