Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
“We’re in trouble,” Elizabeth Jennings tells her husband early in the new season of FX’s The Americans, premiering next Wednesday. Considering what life has looked like for the Jennings family for three seasons now, she may as well be saying that vodka is wet. As a couple, as parents, and as undercover KGB operatives, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have lived perpetually in the soup – or borscht, rather. But steamy spy roleplay and boiling Cold War tensions have always been the show’s side dish, a means of assembling the real ingredients that make The Americans TV’s richest viewing experience, as it continues to be in season 4.
The show’s creators, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, have structured their series with the same shrewdness they afford to writing their characters. Hailed by critics while remaining a faint blip on Nielsen radars, The Americans used its first two seasons to tell relatively self-contained tales of Soviet skullduggery. In the process, the show developed a thick dossier of fascinating agents and assets orbiting the Jennings as they skulked about Regan-era Washington, D.C. Even with assassinations to carry out and military bases to break into, the biggest bombshell hanging over the heads of Elizabeth and Philip was whether their secret lives could be kept hidden from their two teenage, all-American children.
When Weisberg and Fields decided to deliver that payload last year, the results were devastating: daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) realized that her parents are, best-case scenario, pathological Russian liars, and the show has been dealing with the fallout of this revelation ever since. A Stalinist plan of five seasons has often been talked about for The Americans, so if the first third of season 4 is anything to go by, what we’re in for is the middle chapter of the show’s ultimate endgame. As both an incentive for FX to let the show tell its whole story, and as dramatic television, Weisberg and Fields’ gambit is paying off beautifully.
Season 4 picks up exactly where things left off last year, both in terms of plot and momentum. Maybe we should codename it “Season 3: Part II,” as the early episodes of this fourth outing continue to weave the show’s many, many plot threads around one another in ways that put characters into no-win situations. Sometimes this means we get to enjoy a daring heist, or wince at a violent murder. But it’s the quiet, gut-wrenching compromises the characters make every week, just so that they can face down the next one, that still cut the deepest. Who needs gory mayhem when your heart is already bleeding enough for all involved?
The Americans is a show where a well-timed and placed subtitle can hit like a howitzer, and intentions are so guarded that this season’s frequent dream sequences often prove to be more candid than dialogue. The end of the premiere, “Glanders,” is a prime display of the show’s versatility. Mislaid suspicions turn friend against friend. It’s a tragic scene, both for one party’s feelings of betrayal and for the other’s guilt over a selfish mistake different from the one of which he stands accused. But the scene is also gravely suspenseful and hilarious, seeing as while FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is about to come to blows with Philip, he doesn’t realize that the travel agent next door has a stolen vial of world-ending disease nestled precariously in his coat pocket.