The Americans is the best show most people aren’t watching. Given how uncompromising it is, and how many games it plays with our sympathies, that’s not a surprise. The whole show is so slippery that it’s hard to find anything in it to hold on to. No sooner has a scene or subplot become emotionally concrete, and sometimes hugely affecting, than it takes a surprising or alarming turn and flips your sympathies upside down. This Reagan-era time capsule about Russian spies posing as American travel agents is one of the better current examples of antihero TV. The entire point of that mode has been — or at least should’ve been — to let us approach familiar institutions and bits of received wisdom from strange moral and ethical angles so that you can see the things in mitochondrial form. It’s one thing to look at marriage, parenting, fidelity, and patriotism through the eyes of conventional middle-class bourgeois Americans, as the vast majority of TV shows do. It’s quite another to see them enacted, subverted, or mocked, in an alternately sincere and calculated way, by Soviet secret agents.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) snoop, thieve, screw, and kill on behalf of a nation that was, at that point in time, the USA’s ultimate enemy: the Red Menace, the rival superpower, the hive-mind that wanted to rot us from the inside or blast us to smithereens. When you watch these good-looking Caucasian Ruskies pose as typical whitebread suburbanites, shooting at U.S. law enforcement and hanging out with their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent and coldblooded killer, it sinks in that all behavior is learned and all identity is a subset of “performance.” These Soviets have lived so long in America that they seem as American as any actual American. In Elizabeth’s case, it’s a façade — she’s an atheist daughter of mother Russia who finds consumer capitalism disgusting and is appalled by her daughter’s sudden love affair with evangelical Christianity. But there are times when Philip seems so fully immersed in his own performance that you can see him catching himself and thinking, Wait a second, I’m not that person, I’m somebody else. At what point do we become the roles we play? Who’s playing whom?
Showrunners Joe Weisberg, Joel Fields, and their collaborators drive all this home deftly, via dialogue and situations that you can’t quite classify as either subtext or text, and through performances that are almost entirely devoid of the meta self-awareness that defines so many modern TV series. These aren’t TV characters existing within a continuum of other TV characters and continually positioning themselves as heirs or alternatives. They’re just characters who happen to be on TV, and they don’t spend a lot of time obsessing over why they do things, because there’s just too much to get done.
When Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, or Stan’s recently exiled lover, the Russian double-agent Nina (Annet Mahendru), act on behalf of the mother country or a boss or their own private agendas, things get very tangled very quickly. A good cop/bad cop routine is a performance, but the emotional or physical blows inflicted on prisoners cause bruises and draw blood. A seduction is a performance, too — not just because of Philip and Elizabeth’s astonishing wig collection — but the characters are having real sex, and really getting off (or so it seems); add strategically faked love to the equation, and things get even cloudier. Philip’s fake marriage to FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright) is a real marriage, according to state laws; but his real marriage to Elizabeth, which produced two children, is, legally speaking, theoretical; and there are times when Philip and Martha argue or make love and sound so much like a real married couple that you have to question how conscious Philip’s performance really is. (I love his sheepish look in season two when she tells him it’s no big deal that he wears a hairpiece.) Elizabeth’s seduction of a young sailor last season started out cold and calculating but became unexpectedly tender once she settled into the role; here, as in so many of the Jennings’ missions, you experience a bit of the same thrill that actors experience on the stage or in front of the camera, as they wrap themselves so tightly in false identities that they start to envision alternate realities, different lives.
Season two built to such a peak of distress and trauma that you might wonder how the show can top itself this year. I don’t think it can; more specifically, I think it knows better than to try to duplicate that particular feat a second time. Judging from the first three episodes sent out for review — which I’ll describe in more detail after you’ve all had a chance to experience their twist and turns — The Americans is pursuing the same winning strategy as before: attacking the same material and the same themes but with a different emphasis. Season one was about the Jennings’ sham marriage becoming a real one (emotionally speaking). Season two was about the moral and physical cost of their work on their teenaged kids. As their increasingly nocturnal activities turned Paige and Henry into latchkey kids, one child rebelled through religion, the other through petty criminality; meanwhile, their handlers plotted to recruit Paige as a next-generation sleeper agent. What’s season three about? Maybe the needs of the individual versus the requirements of the state: There’s much ado about the Russian recruitment effort and its effect on Philip’s loyalty, and at the same time, Stan at the FBI and Oleg (Costa Ronin) mourn the arrest and imprisonment of Nina, a woman they both loved and who was treated as a human chess piece by both nations. Frank Langella shows up as a Russian handler named Gabriel, whose velvety voice and twinkly eyes are pretty obviously cover for a ruthlessly expedient soul. The show’s unfussy yet unerring visual sense also returns with a vengeance: Like another current FX series, Justified, The Americans’s storytelling isn’t just lean, it’s sinewy. Every shot and cut seems timed for maximum impact; you get a little bit of beauty here and there, but for the most part it’s go, go, go, comrade, on to the next thing, and don’t look back.