Two episodes of the third season of “The Americans” were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
There’s a scene in episode two of The Americans’ third season, premiering this Wednesday, that’s a nice road marker for where the show has come from, what it is now, and where it feels like this is all heading. What impresses is how the scene – featuring nothing more than two spies, a low-lit backalley, and a gun – can look like a throwback, yet feel like something bracingly immediate. The secret is in the details: the gunman holds the pistol close to his waist, ready to thread some lead through his target’s trench coat. A few words are exchanged, and in a flash, the would-be shooter’s stance changes from a pose worthy of Raymond Chandler to something out of a 21st century action movie. In one motion, The Americans closes the gap between past and present, meeting in a middle that is Washington, D.C., 1982.
It’s little moments like these that made The Americans my favorite program of 2014, and one I’m loath to actually write about. The show’s greater merits have developed such granular texture by now that one can fail to appreciate the Deep Blue whole as much as the microprocessor-sized bits of genius making it hum. Through the first two hours of Season 3, my go-to, broad strokes superlatives for the show apply as strongly as ever: The Americans is first-class television that’s as emotionally dense as it is rewarding. It’s also sexy, action-packed, darkly funny, and challenging the whole way through.
It can get a little exhausting just shouting the same praise over and over again for three seasons, as The Americans never needed the sort of creative leap forward that other FX dramas often take to elevate TV that’s entertaining into something vital. Three years in, creator Joe Weisberg and co-showrunner Joel Fields have developed an unparalleled knack for converting more plot machinery than Kurt Sutter could shake a stick at into storytelling that’s prizefighter lean. The effect ends up adding another layer of generational conflict to a drama already thick with it: The Americans isn’t so much evolving as it is updating, with each iteration of the show delivering the same functionality in a package that’s sleeker, smarter, and more powerful than the one that came before it.
The character foundation that The Americans built up over the last two seasons has put it in a position to minimize micro and macro procedural elements. The third season is less concerned with the day-to-day operations of undercover KGB agents Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), and instead watches them navigate the inertial blowback from Season 2’s final bombshell. Last year had a murder mystery in need of solving, and stealth technology in need of stealing, but the show’s use of the political to reflect the personal, and vice versa, has become the story’s main thruster by this point. The premiere features the deaths of two significant players, one fictional, one real: the former propels the plot forward (and provides one of Season 2’s weaker threads a retroactive pay-off), but the latter sets the tone for a seasonal conflict that’s all about national and domestic superpowers being forced to look inward.