Fans of The Americans were right to be pleasantly surprised by reports that the critically acclaimed but low-rated drama had been renewed for a fourth season, and that FX’s president liked it so much he wanted it to run for five. The series is a tragedy through and through — a doom spiral that keeps pulling its characters deeper into a moral abyss — and as such, it seems constitutionally incapable of popularity. It inspires empathy but little warmth. Even when you praise it, you wince a little, because even in its lighter moments, it is aware of the compromises its characters make and the atrocities they commit in the name of belief.
Last night’s third-season finale plunged the audience even deeper into the darkness, showing the many ways in which its main nuclear families were irrevocably broken and extending the definition of family to include the institutions that the parents work for, as well as the nations that fund those institutions.
The episode is titled “March 8, 1983.” Written by creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields and directed by co-executive producer Daniel Sackheim, it took its title from the date of then-president Ronald Reagan’s cage-rattling speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, in which he defended the U.S.-Soviet arms race as a “struggle between right and wrong and good and evil,” warned against describing the two countries as two sides of the same coin, and called supporters of Soviet expansion “the focus of evil in the modern world.” The speech plays out after the episode’s final scene, which cross-cuts between Philip haltingly confessing his moral revulsion over his and Elizabeth’s darker actions; and their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), a devout Christian, telling her pastor that her parents are Soviet spies (“they’re liars, and they’re trying to turn me into one”). Reagan’s declaration interrupts Philip just when he seems like he’s about to tell Elizabeth — always the more staunch and focused one of the couple — that he can’t take the killing and lying anymore, that no cause is worth doing so many horrible things.
Reagan’s talk of “evil” at first plays like a straightforward political condemnation, endorsing the president’s absolutist views on the necessity of anticommunist military operations and the nuclear arms race (most of which would end six years later with the Soviet Union’s breakup — a fact that is never far from the viewer’s mind). And of course, in that particular household, it serves as a reminder of why Philip, Elizabeth, and all the other Soviet agents in the U.S. do all the grim things they do — a “why we fight” speech that’s equally rousing for its intended audience and the targets it attacks.
But there’s another dimension to it, and in time-honored Americans fashion, it doesn’t sink in immediately: The East-West conflict stands in for every belief system that compels individuals to act against their own innate moral compasses (if they have one). That includes not just political and religious ideology, but the emotional force that parents exert over children to make them believe certain things and behave in certain ways, if not for rationally credible reasons, then for “the good of the family,” a motivation that kids are often asked to accept without question, as a matter of faith.
The use of the word faith is intentional. The whole season has drawn parallels between different religious and religious-seeming organizations, led by true believers struggling to keep doubters in line by any means necessary: tenderness, flattery, intimidation. The est group that FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his ex-wife Sandra (Susan Misner) attend serves much the same function as Paige’s church, and the dialogue in both these organizations echoes some of the conversations we hear in the Soviet Rezidentura and in the FBI office where Stan, Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas), and the other agents work. Even as the show presents est and Christianity as warm alternatives to communist or anticommunist fervor, urging members to look within themselves and define their personalities or souls, we are always aware of a parent-child dynamic at play, with a father or mother figure looming over assorted children, offering guidance and reprimands, and encouraging the kids to go forth into the world and strengthen and enlarge the tribe, the flock, the organization.
On The Americans, as on so many TV series, pretty much everything comes back to family, anyway: Every institution, as well as every individual character, is at some point defined as a parent or a child, a characteristic that becomes even more clear in this episode, which is filled with scenes of parent-child interaction, both biological (Philip and Elizabeth with Paige; Elizabeth and Paige with Elizabeth’s dying mother), emotional (Stan playing board games with the Jenningses’ continually neglected son, Henry, while Philip is off killing a man), and metaphorical (both FBI and KGB agents are reprimanded for carrying out operations without the approval of higher-ups).
The scenes of Stan confessing his off-the-books operation to Agent Gaad have a father-son feeling. You feel like you’re watching a mercurial, undisciplined son being called on the carpet by his dad and tongue-lashed for repeatedly breaking the rules of the house and disappointing his old man and everything he stands for. “It’s a day of big disappointments for all of us,” Gaad deadpans, after telling Stan that all his efforts were for nothing because the government would rather trade the non-defector for an imprisoned CIA agent and leave Nina to rot.
These scenes are mirrored by the one where Philip defends his wife and daughter’s impulsive trip abroad to his handler Gabriel (Frank Langella). “You’re acting like a child,” Gabriel tells Philip, adding, “I’ve done nothing but try to take care of you, and because you’re not getting what you want, you think I’m the enemy.” Then he pulls a classic dysfunctional-dad move, trying to paint him as a bad son and Elizabeth as the loyal daughter. “And when Elizabeth doesn’t see everything exactly the way you see it, you think there’s something wrong with her. You know who there’s something wrong with? Grow up.”
The entire season has been filled with dark, warped reflections of parent-child configurations, and scenes of rebellion against actual or figurative parental authority. These include Philip’s tactical dalliance with Kimmy (Julia Garner), a target’s daughter who’s about the same age as Paige; Henry’s petty criminality, a cry for attention brought on by his parents’ neglect; and Nina’s torment in prison, which finally led to the moment last night where she admits to her erstwhile seduction target and fellow inmate Anton (Michael Aronov), “I can’t keep doing this — buying back my life.” (Her life has had two owners, or two competing sets of bad parents: the Soviet Union and the FBI.) Everybody has an evil empire that they fear and resent, one that’s carried around inside the mind and heart but that was planted and nourished from without, by authority figures of one kind or another. You have to rebel at some point or decide to give in, and either route brings pain. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” Philip Larkin wrote in his 1971 poem, “This Be the Verse.” “They know not what they do. They fill you with the thoughts they had, and add some extra just for you.”