Season premiere review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘EST Men’: The deep end

Senior Television Writer
01.28.15 91 Comments

FX

“The Americans” is back for a third season. I had interviewed producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, as well as co-star Holly Taylor, and I have a review of the season premiere coming up just as soon as we go get a non-beer…

“So it's all been bullshit – everything you've said to me.” -Philip

On the one hand, “EST Men” is so superficially similar to the last year's premiere that one might wonder if Weisberg and Fields felt the only way to avoid disappointing people who loved season 2 was to duplicate it. Once again, we open with a brutal action sequence in which one of our two leads barely escapes arrest or worse (with Elizabeth making short work of Agent Gaad and another fed), and we close with the shocking murder of a KGB asset (Annalise, who makes the mistake of telling Yousaf too much in a place with no witnesses), and in between get a very graphic sex scene played at least slightly for laughs (Martha and Clark trying to pull off a Kama Sutra position, with Clark constantly checking the book).

On the other hand, “EST Men” deviates enough in substance, if not in structure, to never feel like a rehash of what happened a year ago, but like a deeper, more troubling descent into the double life of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.

Despite Philip's threat to Arkady in last season's finale, it's clear the Centre hasn't given up on its desire for the recruitment of Paige, and we learn – to Philip's shock and disgust – that Elizabeth has remained on board with the plan the whole time, going to church and bonding with her daughter as fundamental prep for what comes next. “The Americans” has always been a show as much about marriage as about spywork (if not more about the former), and this arc takes another fundamental marital issue – How do we want our child to be raised? – and gives it greater heft and stakes because of what Paige's parents really do for a living. This is a huge threat not only to Paige, but to Philip and Elizabeth's attempts to treat their relationship as a real marriage, which is an excellent, unsettling place to begin the season.

It also helps that Frank Langella fits into the show so seamlessly as Gabriel, our heroes' once and future handler (he's referenced early in season 1 when Claudia takes over their assignment). Langella often plays villains, and it's clear that Gabriel ultimately puts the Centre's desires above Philip's, but this is also a warmer and more ingratiating character than he's usually given. Gabriel is like a father figure to Philip and Elizabeth, which is exactly the kind of person the KGB needs to nudge them in the right direction, and his paternal nature nicely sets up the moment where he gives Elizabeth the audio cassette with news of her mother's ill health.

We've always known that Elizabeth had a harder childhood in the Soviet Union than Philip, and she's always been the tougher parent in America. (The opening flashback to Elizabeth throwing little girl Paige into the deep end of the pool is maybe too on the nose for what's coming, but it also serves as a reminder of which parent is going to push her to do this difficult, dangerous thing.) Learning that her mother is dying – and knowing that the importance of maintaining her identity will make it impossible for her to say goodbye – will no doubt prod her further into making the same sacrifice of her child that her own mother made years earlier.

The KGB doesn't want Paige to be a spy herself, but simply an asset who can one day get them access that even her parents can't. Much of “EST Men” is spent on Philip and Elizabeth recruiting or handling adult assets: first Elizabeth with the CIA agent who was passed over for promotion in favor of a less competent male colleague, then Elizabeth with young South African man Hans, and finally Philip with Annalise. We have yet to see where things will go with Hans, but the CIA agent has a change of heart at a crucial moment (and will likely go to prison after confessing to her superiors), and we all know how Annalise ended up. It's not a coincidence that we see these stories in the same episode where Paige's future is the central question; these are things that could easily befall Philip and Elizabeth's daughter if they take her down the path the Centre wants.

Elizabeth believes the cause is worth the risk; Philip only wants to protect Paige. Those are two positions without a lot of middle ground, and it should be fascinating watching the two of them push and pull over this in the coming weeks.

Some other thoughts:

* I asked Joel Fields whether Elizabeth and Gaad actually crossed paths in the season 1 episode where Stan threw a housewarming – and, therefore, whether the idea was that her disguise was enough to fool him given their brief, old encounter, or if he had simply never laid eyes on her before. Fields wrote, “While I don't believe we actually saw them in the same room at Stan's BBQ that day, in our heads they met in passing there, and — yes — the idea is that the disguise would be enough (more than enough) for a quick exchange like this at night on a dark street.  According to our resident disguise expert, Joe, such a disguise would hold for a quick interaction during the day, too.  This is why intelligence agencies use and trust disguise.  Strange thing is, even though we've been working with Keri and Matthew for three seasons now, and we know to expect the disguises having written them into the stories, we are still surprised when we sometimes walk right past them on set.  The damned things work!”

* An interesting choice to not provide subtitles for the recording from Elizabeth's mother, given that the show usually translates all Russian dialogue for us. I guess in this case, they figured Keri Russell's face told us everything we needed to know.

* I don't know how much overlap this show's audience has with people who watched “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” but as soon as we learned where Oleg's brother was stationed, I immediately thought, “YOUR LITTLE BROTHER IS STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN!”

* Also, the Rezidentura has a new female presence in Tatiana, played by Vera Cherny.

* Chekhov's Target Practice: If you show Martha learning how to shoot in the season premiere…

* Hey, that's Scott William Winters (“Oz” alum, brother of Dean, and recently popping up on “The Leftovers”) as the guy running the EST seminar that gives the episode its title.

* Here's the Hershey's Kisses commercial, featuring a young and non-bald Jason Alexander, that Henry was watching. Meanwhile, here's one of the many '80s ads for Frusen Glädjé, the ice cream Philip and Elizabeth enjoy with Gabriel.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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