How ‘The Americans’ is TV’s best drama — even when it’s messy

“The Americans” just concluded its third season. I have an interview with producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, and my review of the finale is coming up just as soon as I put your toys back where I found them…

“They’re Russians!” -Paige

“March 8, 1983” demonstrated all the ways in which “The Americans” has grown into an emotional powerhouse that’s the best drama on television at the moment. And we will get to all of those shortly, because every single thing in the episode was extraordinary, to the point where I had to remind myself to breathe a time or three.

But the things that weren’t in it – one thing in particular – illustrated some of the misgivings I had about this year. That the show can be as great as it is in spite of that speaks to what an extraordinary job Fields, Weisberg and everyone else have done with the family and spy stories this year. The remarkable thing, though, is that there are still areas where “The Americans” can improve after all this time, and think about what a meat grinder that version of the show would be.

As to the flaws, I spent much too much of the hour waiting for Martha follow-up – and, after Philip murdered Gene the computer tech to serve as her patsy, thereby confirming her survival, waiting for her actual appearance – to at times fully engage with what was actually happening. That scene at the end of last week’s episode felt too big to not get some glimpse of Martha dealing with its aftermath, rather than just hearing Philip and Elizabeth discuss how she’s on board for now, but might not be once she learns of Gene’s death.

Weisberg said he was surprised that anyone thought Philip was showing Martha his true face as a prelude to killing her. But if that’s the case, I don’t know why the episode was structured this way, where things are left seemingly ambiguous until Gene’s murder two-thirds of the way through the hour. If you want to leave the audience guessing about Martha’s fate – and don’t mind that those guesses may overwhelm their thinking about what’s on the screen – then that’s how you put the episode together. And if you assume people will understand that he took off the wig and glasses as a way to calm her down and get her to trust him, I think you need some glimpse of Martha, however brief, dealing with her new world order, and you probably need to put that in pretty early in the hour, especially while Philip’s other wife is out of the country.

I’m sure we will be getting a lot of Martha’s changed reality next season, and the finale was definitely structured in a way that suggested Fields and Weisberg’s confidence in their future. But when a character or storyline’s absence becomes a distraction in the short-term, that’s an issue. And it speaks to the larger challenge the season faced with story overcrowding. It’s not that it was ever difficult to keep track of Philip and Elizabeth’s different operations, plot-wise, but that their comings and goings impinged on the larger emotional arcs for the characters this season. Having to see Kimmy every week for a very long time, for instance, was the thing that was weighing most heavily on his mind – both for its own sake and because of how it made him feel about Paige and her recruitment – and then she… wasn’t important enough to show on screen.

If the choice is between too much great story and not enough, I’ll take the former, but it’s a balancing act.