The mark of a good actor is being able to communicate without speaking. The mark of a good show is one that can find these actors and give them space to do just that. What Matthew Rhys and The Americans are able to accomplish with nothing more than Philip Jenning’s pained face is phenomenal.
By the end of “March 8, 1983” Philip seems ready to tell Elizabeth that he’s done with this life of theirs, before TV Ronald Reagan interrupts him. The viewer doesn’t need to hear him say this, however, as we’ve just watched a full episode of his expressionless face with pure agony etched into every nook and wrinkle. That blank look is there during his final(?) meeting with Yousaf*. It’s there at the est meeting where he listens to people talking about their orgasms. It’s there when he sits, bored, in an FBI employee’s house waiting to murder another human being.
*”Yousaf, I feel like shit all the time.
Philip is nearing the end of his war. Unfortunately, the Cold War is just about to really start. “March 8, 1983” is named thusly as it’s the date of Ronald Reagan’s so-called “evil empire” speech where he pitched the nuclear proliferation between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. as part of the “age old struggle between good and evil.” What began as a geo-political rivalry will now resemble a true war more than ever after Reagan’s speech. And the Jennings play an important role in that war whether they want to or not.
“March 8, 1983” doesn’t have the now-standard shocking moments (though Paige tattling to Pastor Tim certainly comes close) or cliffhangers of a more traditional season finale. What makes it feel like a finale is the true sense of exhaustion from its chief characters. Elizabeth and particularly Philip wear the scars from the preceding 13 episodes as though they were rounds of the upcoming Mayweather/Pacquiao fight. Philip and Elizabeth have had a busy year, what with all the human-suitcasing, amateur dentistry, and old lady mercy killings. Then, right when they think they’ve reached the peak of what they can handle, a former actor-turned-President escalates the war they’re in. That’s not just good drama, that’s an accurate representation of the human experience. Sometimes when you’ve reached your limit, circumstances dictate you push on anyway. This happens a lot more frequently to Philip and Elizabeth than other people, granted.
This finale, in particular, is not only filled with characters being handed more than they can handle (*cough* Paige *cough*) but the institutions they work for ignoring their own humanity. In wars, humanity is often the first thing discarded. Not just physically as in the dead bodies it produces, or emotionally, as tin he psychic toll violence takes but also just bureaucratically. Wars necessitate that everyone follows their orders to a T and live up to the expectations set for them but as anyone who has ever interacted with a human being has ever known, this is not always possible.
Witness Gabriel at his wit’s end with Philip. The only thing he can think to call Philip is a child, as Philip throws a tantrum to get Elizabeth and Paige the chance to meet Elizabeth’s mother. He’s not wrong, Philip is behaving like a child but all human beings were once children after all. Philip used to be a child and is now a child who grew up participating in state mandated murders. Gabriel knows that he is losing Philip and may be losing Elizabeth soon too. What’s shocking is that the K.G.B. seems to have no contingency in place for when all the violence their agents experience begin to affect them. It’s a bureaucratic misstep.
Similarly, Stan put far too much trust in the bureaucracy he works for. All season, he was working with Oleg to prove Zinaida is a spy so that they could arrange a prisoner swap of Nina for Zinaida straight up, no need to include any Cal Ripken rookie cards or holographic Venusaurs. He pulls off this mission flawlessly. He gets Oleg to prove that Zinaida is a spy and captures it on a tape recorder. But he forgot that the FBI doesn’t think like he does. To them, Nina isn’t an asset. So Stan gets chided by Agent Gaad, praised by another FBI bigwig and Zinaida is captured to be traded for another, more important C.I.A. agent the Soviets have in their possession. Nina, for her part seems finally resigned to the fact that nobody has her back. “I can’t keep doing this. Buying back my life,” she tells Anton. As much as est wants to tell its members that “My body belongs to me” it truly does not to the people who have chosen this life.
It’s not just the institutions forgetting the basic humanity of, well humans. Philip and Elizabeth were backed into a corner when they decided to tell Paige the truth about her life. They didn’t have time to fully game out how she might react but as time passes they still underplay the inherent unpredictably of a teenager finding out her life has been a lie. Philip thinks the solution is letting Paige meet her maternal grandmother for the first time.
As Paige and Elizabeth have that meeting in a West Germany hotel room, it seems like Philip had the right idea. It’s a tender moment and Paige’s grandmother is far removed from the rough old woman Elizabeth tried to prepare her for. But after it’s over Paige can only, rightfully think: how did this woman let her daughter out of her life forever?
You live your life one way for long enough and you start to think of it as normal, even if it isn’t. Paige was born into this life of espionage but was never aware of it. And none of this is normal to her, nor probably should it be. So she tattles, as teenaged girls are known to do… or as all human beings are known to do.
The Americans season three has been a terrific television-watching experience. It’s also been a meditation on the folly of expecting people to behave in predictable ways in an unpredictable time. March 8, 1983 may be a convenient date to mark the beginning of the Cold War in earnest, but the true Cold War, us trying to make sense of the senseless, never really begins or ends.