This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 12
“How can I believe in this, with all the damage it can cause?”
One of the many things that The Americans does better than any show on television is to create a sense of fatigue: both for its audience and its characters. I suspect that’s one of the reasons it hasn’t caught pop culture’s rabid attention like other shows have. Sure, if you follow the right people on Twitter, every Wednesday night can feel like a Game of Thrones season finale but outside of my own social media TV critic echo chamber, The Americans is pretty much a non-factor.*
But that sense of fatigue The Americans creates is important and beautiful because so few other TV-viewing experiences are able to match it. When William reaches the end of his rope and delivers the line “How can I believe in this, with all the damager it can cause?” it doesn’t feel like an actor delivering a deeply philosophical line. It feels like exhaustion…well-earned exhaustion.
In “A Roy Rogers in Franconia” William admits to Philip that he cannot go through with his final part of the plan. Two innocent stranger’s lives have been destroyed to get William the code to Level 4 (it’s 49263, btw) but he cannot bring himself to use it. “I can’t do this one, Philip,” he says. The pathogen is just too dangerous. He cannot risk being the man who accidentally unleashes it on the world, or as Tatiana later reassuringly puts it as long as I don’t kill half the people on the Eastern seaboard in the next week or so.” Philip asks William what he should tell Gabriel and William says the truth.
Later Philip and Gabriel sit down with William to discuss the situation. Gabriel is empathetic. He points out that William has spent his whole life in service of his country and it’s only natural he’d want it to be over soon. He tells William that he will allow him to return home, find a wife, have some children, and create an actual life if he just does this one last job. William agrees to do it. He agrees to do it because he wants all those pretty things and he wants to be a hero, but above all else he wants to be done. It’s all about the fatigue.
Gabriel acknowledges as much after William leaves. He can’t make it to the door and has to sit down on the stairs, exhausted. He talks about how he never wanted to have a partner when he was doing his work. It would only distract him from his mission, keep him down. But then he opines in the end “you go to shit anyway, and you’re still alone.”
This is No Country for Old Men where every country also happens to have a nuclear arsenal. The Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in The Americans has the same effect on the human beings involved that prolonged exposure to all the nuclear weapons those countries hoard do. The longer you stay in this spy game, the more your psyche corrodes. Season four remains to date the show’s best season because it acknowledges this fact more than any other. Its central characters even had to go on vacation at one point! And now we see the effects this supposedly “Cold” War is effecting each generation. Gabriel can’t make a full trip to a front door and William is going to smuggle out a dangerous virus that he knows can kill a lot of people just for an outside shot at going home.
So, how’s the younger generation faring in this Cold War? Not great, Bob. Oleg has never been The Americans strongest character and I suspect that the language gap has something to do with it. But season four has served him well. In “Roy Rogers” we get our most complete and sympathetic view at Oleg yet.
Tatiana as a reward for her hard work securing dangerous viruses is getting a promotion as the Rezident in Nairobi, Kenya and she invites Oleg along to be her deputy. Oleg has a hard time making his decision. He’s comfortable in America. More importantly, he has work to do in America. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the episode and Oleg’s time on the show is when Oleg calls his mom in Russia for a little chat. It’s brief and they mostly talk about seeing the specter of Oleg’s dead brother wherever they go. “How are you, mother?” he asks to which she just responds “I have you.” It’s melancholic, and yes the sign of fatigue. So Oleg makes a drastic decision.
After Stan told him they’d never see each other again, Oleg opts to let Stan know that the Russians have someone involved on the inside of a private biotech weapon facility and the FBI needs to do what they can to stop him. “We have the best scientists in the world but no money. It’s a dangerous combination.” Oleg isn’t a turncoat, he doesn’t become a double agent for the FBI. He’s just a guy who is concerned about the end of the world. The Day After strikes again.
As for an even younger generation? Also not great, Bob. The Jennings set the doomsday clock to Paige’s inevitable meltdown to 10 before midnight when she learned about what they really do for a living. Now it seems like the hour is only going to grow closer. Interestingly, however, “Roy Rogers” goes in a slightly different from expected direction from the end of last week’s episode.
Witnessing her mother kill a would-be assailant certainly traumatized Paige to the point where she couldn’t sleep and had to skip a day of school (SWEET!) but if you dig a little deeper through her trauma you’ll find a kernel of excitement. Part of Paige must have always suspected her parents’ careers were a little more violent than they let on and now that she’s witnessed a piece of that truth she wants, nay demands more of it. She wants to know about everything: her mother’s training, where she’s from, who is calling Philip at a late hour to go out, etc. And for the most part, she gets those answers because as she points out “you just killed a man in front of me, you might as well tell me everything.”
Sure, there is fear and discomfort there but there is also a new exciting world of possibility where every interaction with another human being is a game to wrestle away information. Her parents warn her to be careful with other people but little do they know how much she enjoys the little tidbits of knowledge that Matthew Beeman drops. Also: kissing him (SWEET!)
Paige gets to kiss Young Beeman because Old Beeman is hard at work at the FBI. Aderholt’s discovery of a death at the Mail Robot (New AP Style rule: Always capitalize “Mail Robot” as it is the most proper of all nouns) pays off huge. The FBI finds a recording device shoved away in our little mail-slinging buddy. “They should tear this building down and fire all of us,” Stan says of the discovery.
The FBI is able to capture the person paid by the Soviets to switch out the tapes in the robot and at roughly the same time work out the identity of William as the Russian’s man on the inside. It’s a sudden and staggering level of accomplishment for the FBI but it also feels earned. Stan and Aderholt never benefit from a deus ex machina, they always do the job by dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s. Or as Matthew tells Paige about his father’s career: it taught him how to truly be patient.
Moments of excitement that the FBI experience reveal just why all these players continue to play this War Game. When you’re winning, you really start to feel like you’re saving the world. Stan does at the end of “Roy Rogers,” William will once he gets home to see the faces of the people he fought for (if he makes it home) and Elizabeth did when she admired her countrymen’s spirit after World War II. One day soon Paige may want that feeling too. And then one day long after that she’ll ask herself “how could I have ever believed in this, with all the damage it caused?”
*Shout out to my boy FX Prez Johnny Landgraf for granting The Americans a final two seasons.