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?

When Gabriel informs Philip and Elizabeth about KGB asset William (played by new cast regular Dylan Baker), he explains that William also had a partner when he first came to America, but that it didn’t work out.

“Not everyone’s as lucky as you two,” he suggests.

The series has made clear that Philip and Elizabeth are an anomaly even among Directorate S’s deep cover operatives, in that their fake marriage has turned into something resembling the real thing. (Even Emmett and Leanne, in our brief glimpse of them at the start of season 2, came across more like friendly long-time co-workers.) So by that measure, no one has been as “lucky” as they have. At the same time, there are benefits to having to do this work alone, unencumbered by feelings for a spouse, or, worse, oblivious children. A Philip Jennings who has been working solo in America for two decades might still feel qualms over killing someone like Gene, or the truck driver from “Martial Eagle.” Or maybe, without having to play at being the all-American dad, and worrying about teaching his kids good morals and keeping them safe, Philip would be better able to compartmentalize, and wouldn’t need to be opening up his psyche in front of a roomful of strangers and the ex-wife of the FBI counter-intelligence agent living across the street.

Some other thoughts:

* I interviewed Alison Wright back at winter TCA. The first part is more general Martha talk, including how and when she found out the role would be more permanent than she initially assumed. The second part, which I just published, delves a little into that incredible Martha/Philip scene from tonight.

* While the episode is mostly dealing with events on the home front, we get a chance to catch up with Nina and Anton Baklanov, who have found comfort in their friendship with each other, but are still consumed with thoughts of all they’ve lost en route to this place. The usual excellent work from Annet Mahendru and Michael Aronov.

* Tatiana, who more or less assumed Nina’s role at the Rezidentura early last season, finally outs herself to Arkady as being a representative of Department 12, which handled biological warfare for the KGB.

* Three-plus seasons in, you’d think the Jenningses and/or The Americans‘ hair and makeup team would have run out of new disguises, but Phil busts out an entirely new look, with the blonde hair and thick blonde beard. Most of the disguises have nicknames (the rat-tail and droopy mustache, for instance, is “Fernando”), and I’m told that Matthew Rhys goes back and forth between calling this look “Young Kenny Rogers” and “Benny from Abba.”

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at