Review: ‘The Americans’ finds the perfect devastating metaphor to start season 4

A review of The Americans season premiere coming up just as soon as my son buys his own cologne…

“There’s a limit to how much progress you can make if you’re not honest about what’s going on in your own life.” -Sandra

The Americans isn’t always big on metaphor — the characters endure so much literal jeopardy and pain and angst that there’s little need for embellishment — but “Glanders” ends on a doozy. Philip and Stan have just had a fight in the Jennings’ garage – not because Stan has finally figured out who and what his neighbor really is, but because Stan misunderstands the nature of Philip’s friendship with Sandra – and Philip has the very bad luck to get shoved right where he was keeping the sample of the eponymous virus. Stan leaves, Philip fishes out the tin containing the glanders sample, and carefully studies the vial to see if it broke open from the force of Stan’s shove – and, therefore, if Philip has now been exposed to a virus that “is to meningitis what the Plague is to a runny nose.”

Did the vial crack? It doesn’t look like it, but that’s something to be dealt with in ensuing episodes. But Philip holding that vial up to the flickering garage light, terrified of what he might see, is a pretty powerful and damning metaphor for the state of his career, family, and life in general as our story resumes. Philip and Elizabeth’s secret identity is the plague, being protected in a manner nearly as flimsy as that tin, on the verge of cracking open and unleashing destruction on everyone around it. And the longer they hold onto it, the greater the danger becomes of the thing being exposed.

Frankly, it’s amazing that we’ve reached this point in the story with the two of them alive and free, given everything they’ve done and said over the years. And “Glanders” drives this point home in both the present, where Paige’s confession to Pastor Tim hangs over everything Philip and Elizabeth are doing, and in the past, where we get flashbacks to the very first time Philip murdered an innocent.

Those memories are prompted not only by Philip’s continued visits to est, but by the murder of Gene, which may be one too many for our man. He tells Martha the truth about what happened — in a shattering, emotional scene where Martha seems to be disintegrating right in front of us at the realization of all that she’s complicit in — as much, it seems for the catharsis of it (remember how little Elizabeth seemed to care when he tried telling her about Gene’s toys?) as for the belief that she needs to hear it from him, rather than figuring it out on his own.

Once she’s over the initial shock, Martha comes to accept the monstrous bargain that she’s made, and suggests that decisions about her future spy activities should be made jointly by her and Philip. (Even though she still calls him Clark, he’s no longer bothering with that disguise.) But Martha’s a grown-up. She was swindled into this position, but she still has more free will about her situation than Paige, who remains terrified and trapped, so pure of intent and thought that she can’t even stand being in her homeroom for the Pledge of Allegiance, because she knows that those words escaping her lips would be a lie.

It’s a catastrophe, with seemingly no good ending. Pastor Tim is understandably not sitting well with this secret, and is so out of his depth that he believes a heart to heart with Paige’s parents might actually improve the situation. Elizabeth’s smart enough to recognize that the trip to Berlin didn’t magically convert Paige to the cause, and has bugged Pastor Tim’s office, which means she’ll soon learn that he knows, and then… what?

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