How rough a season has it been for our favorite wig-wearing fake Washingtonians on The Americans? It’s fair to say that spy life has never been for the faint of heart; the first two seasons brought us gunshot wounds and torture sequences aplenty. Yet season three has seen an escalation of nightmare fodder, each episode sneaking in some sucker-punch of a scene that makes you want to watch with your hands over your eyes, glimpsing the gruesomeness onscreen through the cracks between your fingers. The suitcase, the off-grid dental work, the tire, not to mention all the emotional brutality. Join me as I bust out my power-ranking skills to determine: Which horrifying thing from this season of The Americans is the most horrifying of them all?
10. Paige’s ancillary discoveries related to finding out that her parents have been lying to her all her life.
Who were those cousins from the family vacation to Disney? Why did we take that impromptu road trip to a cabin that time? Are you guys even married? IS AUNT HELEN EVEN REAL?
9. Anton writing unsendable letters to his son.
Jacob, Anton’s son, has no idea if Anton is dead or alive or just gone or what. Nina has a way of destroying everyone she has to in order to save her own skin (see: No. 9), but her empathy here seems real, so who knows what will happen? Unless she’s a straight-up sociopath — I would watch that show! But I kind of doubt that’s the case here — there’s no way something icy inside her didn’t melt at the sight of these letters hidden away, letters Jacob will probably never read because Anton will probably never be able to send them.
8. Nina pretending to befriend her cellmate Evi, just to sell her out for a shorter sentence.
Just think about the sound of Evi howling, “Nina, what did you do?” right after we watched Nina scarf down a lavish meal and throw back wine like some kind of Cersei Lannister. Brutal.
7. “Clark” taking off his glasses and toupee in front of Martha …
… confirming Martha’s lingering belief that she really has no idea whom she married. Martha is a character who could have been this unintentionally comic person: a silly woman who can’t see through a disguise we know is ridiculous, all because she desperately wanted to believe she was loved. But Alison Wright has given her so much depth, steely resolve, and an awareness of her own vulnerability. Scenes like this — where we see the spy work that typically happens offscreen — get at the cost of what Philip and Elizabeth do even more than so many of the gory, violent sequences.
6. Elizabeth forcing Betty to slowly commit suicide with prescription meds.
Betty, one of the only people on Earth to ever know anything true about Elizabeth, barely gets to stay on this Earth long enough to do anything about it. She gets in this last blow, though: “Do you think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” she asks. “I’m sorry, but it will,” says Elizabeth. But Betty knows better: “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.”
5. Philip’s sort-of-seduction of Kimmy, who is approximately the same age as Paige.
Philip’s portrayal of “creepy older dude who hits on high-school girls” is so on-point that if it weren’t obvious how much he wasn’t enjoying it, I would have a very hard time feeling even okay about this guy. Choice repulsive moment: When Philip learns about Yaz from Kimmie and then brings Yaz music home to Paige so Paige will think he’s a cool dad. Shudder.
Eugene Venter, the high-ranking South African intelligence officer whose mission was maintaining apartheid in his home country, didn’t seem like a great guy or anything. His job in the States was to set off a bomb at George Washington University that would have resulted in multiple casualties. And yet: His execution, via a nifty little technique the kids call “necklacking,” wherein a rubber tire is fitted around a victim’s neck before a victim is doused in gasoline and lit on fire, was easily one of the most appalling things we’ve witnessed on The Americans. Elizabeth just wanted to shoot the guy, but noooo, Reuben Ncgobo had other plans. Plans that kept Venter screaming — good God, those screams — for minutes that dragged on for an eternity and a half.
3. Philip extracting Elizabeth’s infected tooth without anesthesia.
That deep-undercover spy life seems glamorous. The honey traps! The adventure! The wigs! But sometimes being a Russian spy in Reagan’s America means having your fake-but-maybe-real-now husband use a pair of pliers, some booze, and a grimace to pry your rotting, aching tooth out of your jaw. Don’t scream, it’s over now! Oh, wait, sorry; he only got half of it the first time.
2. Breaking dead, naked Annelise’s bones so she fit inside a suitcase.
As if poor, sweet Annelise hadn’t been injured enough (to be strangled in bed by the asset she loved), she had to suffer this indignity to her corpse. The effect was achieved on set using the actress (Gillian Alexy), a contortionist, and a dummy. Bonus points to whichever sicko was responsible for the snapping sound effects: Were they Popsicle sticks? Cracked knuckles? Kit-Kat bars? Leave your guesses in the comments!
1. Paige finding out her parents have been lying to her for her entire life.
There will be other far bloodier entries later on this list. Placing this particular incident — in which, technically, the body count was zero —at the top of the list is not intended to downplay the savagery involved in the many, many murders of the season. But this conversation between Paige and her parents is a wrecking ball to the solar plexus, from her exasperated laundry list of things she guesses could be the secret to Philip and Elizabeth’s inexplicable behavior — “Are you Martians?” — to the disbelieving, stunned way she finally asks, “You’re … spies?”