This is a spoiler-free review
If there is a recurring theme on American television this past year, it’s about trying to pinpoint exactly when and were this little American experiment of ours all went to shit.
On season two of FX’s Fargo, young buck Lou Solverson sidles up to Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan at a urinal and asks how are we going to get out of this post-Carter, post-Vietnam-punch-in-the-face funk. To which Cowboy Ronnie smiles and pats Lou on the shoulder. On the truly brilliant The People Vs. O.J. Simpson (also from FX), Ryan Murphy offers an example of an American downfall so perfect it can only be believed as non-fiction. A post-‘80s-boom country where an expanding entertainment media and a stark racial divide conspire to let a guilty man walk free (SPOILER ALERT FOR A 21-YEAR-OLD TRIAL OF THE CENTURY).
But in the fourth season of The Americans, FX’s other brilliant drama, still as worthy a contender for best drama on TV as ever, the American dream of the early ‘80s remains strong. In a touching moment in the season’s fourth episode, undercover Soviet spy Elizabeth Jennings tells her husband and fellow spy Philip that if anything should go awry on their current mission for her he should move the kids out of state, away from the prying eyes of the KGB. “Then you can raise them here. Be Americans. It’s what you’ve always wanted.”
The Americans is one of the best shows on TV because it understands the rhetorical impact of the phrase “Be Americans.” The Americans’ foggy D.C. sky view of the early ‘80s is unflattering and realistic. Sometimes the weather sucks, sometimes your kids disappoint you and sometimes vacations to Epcot Center fall through. The American dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But damn it all if we ever try to wake up from it. Good times are surely around the corner.
Season 4 begins where season three left off. Paige has told her parents secret lives to her Pastor, Tim and all the Jennings must soon grapple with the implications of it. Philip wanders around in a morose daze, attending EST meetings and obsessing over a violent incident in his past, while Elizabeth tries her best to support him.
Like every season, an overarching mission revolving around a secret American weapon crops up and Philip and Elizabeth must risk their family’s life to investigate it. Wonderful character actor Dylan Baker (who I best know as the original Dr. Kurt Conners in Spider-Man) pops up here as undercover Soviet spy who has been on his own for far too long, William. Nina continues her forced work trying to influence Jewish scientist Anton in a Soviet labor camp in an attempt to commute her sentence for treason.
Season 4 is similar to the seasons that precede it in that the plot usually begins to slow down once Nina or any other non-undercover Russian enters the scene. It’s a testament to the show’s bold storytelling that it’s willing and able to allow whole scenes play out in subtitles as its characters speak in Russian. But it’s also hard not to be a little disappointed whenever the Jennings, FBI agent Stan Beeman or Philip’s “second wife” Martha is onscreen. The actors who play Rezidentura director Arkady (Lev Gorn), Nina (Annet Mahendru) and Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) are all more than capable and oftentimes enrich the proceedings. Still, it’s hard to go from the dynamic, recognizable moments of the Jennings brushing up against American life to Arkady pacing around the Rezidentura like its a metaphorical prison or Nina trying to survive in her actual prison. It seems like contrasting the Jennings new life in the U.S. with the limited possibilities of their old one in the U.S.S.R. would be effective but in reality I think a show that only presents the American side of the spectrum has the potential to be slightly more dramatically coherent and interesting
Regardless, everything else on The Americans just absolutely kills. It remains a truly fantastic, thought-provoking and at times discomfiting experience.
It’s barely a step above base critical hackery at this point to continue to praise Philip and Elizabeth Jennings marriage as the best example of The Americans’ superiority but I can’t help it. The relationship is just that good. Rarely have two characters in any medium felt more lived-in or authentic. You begin to live for the scenes of the two simply unwinding at the end of the day, Philip undoing his belt and Elizabeth rearranging the bed’s throw pillows as they discuss both the sources they’re working and the biology exam their son Henry likely flunked.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are spectacular in their roles, giving the show everything they’ve got. The Americans is one of the best shows on TV because Philip and Elizabeth are among the best everything on TV: partners, spouses, parents, spies, bowling partners, Americans. And to highlight Rhys in particular, his “I’m-so-bummed-I-just-had-to-kill-another-innocent-person” face is so heartbreaking and visceral that I’m not convinced the Welsh actor doesn’t have a dozen or so actual murders under his belt.
That lived-in, authentic feel to the Jennings marriage is really the whole point, low-hanging critical fruit be damned. The show is about timeless themes of family, duty and suffering but also about a very specific point in American life. America, when depicted correctly or at least interestingly, is the story of a nation of immigrants who brought a vast array of different cultures to one geographic area and then more or less decided to all be the same. Cultural identity is great but dem Twinkies and cable television tho.
Philip and Elizabeth may be undercover and this average American family may be an act but there can be nothing artificial about a family – about clocking in 9-to-5, taking the trash to the end of the driveway and taking the kids to school. Philip and Elizabeth don’t have to run away with the kids somewhere to be American. They already are.