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The Americans Is the Best It’s Ever Been in Season 4

L-R: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’s spy drama The Americans is the best it’s ever been in season four. I’d rank the last two episodes, “Travel Agents” and “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (what a title!), among the best hours the show has produced — up there with season three’s “Stingers,” season one’s “Gregory,” and its spiritual sequel, “Only You.”

Every image, line, cut, and performance is so well-judged that on first viewing, you don’t think of them as having been calibrated. The story just seems to be unfolding, as if in a dream. The situations themselves have a dream-logic quality, thanks to the multiple roles being played simultaneously by different characters, and the way their various, parallel incarnations make them seem less like individuals playing parts than distinct souls existing on multiple timelines that sometimes intersect.

It took me a moment to realize, during that wrenching opening scene on the runway in Wednesday night’s installment, that Martha still has no idea Philip is married to somebody else — specifically the woman pretending to be Clark’s sister. “Don’t be alone, Clark,” she tells him, still thinking about his happiness even after he betrayed her. At this moment, Philip is Philip. And yet in a sense, he is also still Clark — arguably he’s more Clark now that Martha is gone than he was when he was actively deceiving and manipulating her, as evidenced by the way he bristles when Elizabeth describes her as simple: “She was actually very complicated. People underestimated her.” He could be talking about the show. It’s complicated, and no matter how much praise I give it, I still always somehow underestimate it. That wide shot of the plane taking off, for instance, is one of the most devastating images of the season to date, and a great example of how the show speaks in metaphors without seeming as if it’s straining to do that: A light has gone out, the world has darkened. It’s an image of extinguishment. Nearly as good, though more mordantly funny than heartbreaking, is Philip glancing at that dead rat in Gabriel’s refrigerator: That’s what Martha, Clark’s secret mole, might become if things don’t go according to plan.

I’m writing about two consecutive episodes in this article because, even though they were written and directed by different teams — respectively Tanya Barfield/Daniel Attias and Stephen Schiff/Matthew Rhys — they feel like halves of a two-parter. Rhyming lines and images seem to encourage that reading, in particular, the closing sequence of “Travel Agents” (the close-up of Elizabeth in bed dissolving into a close-up of Martha in bed with Philip/Clark/Mischa, driving home that Philip is essentially married to two people) and the opening sequence of “The Magic … ” (which starts with a close-up of Martha in bed beside Philip/Clark/Mischa). The final sequence of “Travel Agents” begins with Elizabeth preparing for bed alone and regarding herself in a mirror; right after Martha gets up at the start of “The Magic … ”, she looks at herself in a bathroom mirror. The whole show is a hall of mirrors. It often scrutinizes itself — not in a coy or ostentatious way, but matter-of-factly, as we might glance at our own reflections in passing.

TV showrunners love to say they’re not making TV but a ten- or 12- or however-many-hours-long movie. Most of the time when they say such things, they’re not only inadvertently devaluing scripted TV as a distinct art form, with its own properties and requirements, they’re disregarding the invariably fragmented nature of the very show they’re so proud of. Very few shows, The Americans included, hang together as a story from week to week as seamlessly as this season does.

A big part of this seamless quality comes from the writers’ willingness to lean into the nature of the story they are telling and let the whole run of episodes deal, to some extent, with fallout from decisions and events in season three — in particular, Philip and Elizabeth coming out as spies to their daughter, Paige. In retrospect, this seismic emotional event feels like an inadvertent trigger for other key twists, such as Paige telling Pastor Tim the truth about her parents and Philip telling Martha that he was not really Clark, but Mischa, and not a U.S. intelligence agent, but a Russian spy. Another confession, or “confession” — Martha telling Stan’s partner, Dennis, that she’s having an affair with a married man, which, quite unbeknownst to Martha, is true. Each confession/revelation has consequences, and those consequences lead to more consequences, and yet more consequences. Things keep getting worse and worse, the betrayals and disappointments more piercing, the failures (by individuals and their handlers/institutions) more devastating. No current series does a better job of capturing the dread of exposure and punishment. It’s as if Weisberg and Fields took that feeling you had as a child, when you knew it was only a matter of time before adults figured out you’d lied to them, and turned it into a show.

At the same time, somehow, The Americans is funnier than it’s ever been, finding parched humor in the absurd situations that its characters keep sneaking or stumbling into. All it would take is a nudge to push The Americans out of suspense-psychological-drama mode and into farce. It seems to get closer by the week, especially in scenes with Stan and Dennis’s boss, Frank Gaad, contemplating the inevitable end of his career. I never would have figured Richard Thomas for an Albert Brooks fan, but some of Gaad’s line readings have the soul-sick incredulity of Brooks’s characters in Modern Romance and Lost in America. “They seduced … and married … my secretary,” he says, separating each phrase with a pause so long you could stage a retirement party inside it. (And you gotta love that “they” instead of “he” — as if the entire USSR were in bed with Martha.)

Most dramas with material this darkly comic and emotionally loaded would lean extra-hard on the “cry” button, but the show has gotten less affected, more economical, and altogether leaner — which means that when viewer tears flow, they catch you by surprise (at least they do for me — mainly because The Americans almost never comes on like a “turn on the waterworks” series, so I rarely see the gut punches coming). For the most part, season four’s big scenes are longer and quieter (literally; check out the wind that scores the opening sequence of “The Magic … ”) than in prior seasons. There are fewer characters and fewer incidents in each episode, and the contained nature of the staging seems to invite you to feel as if you’re watching a cinematic adaptation of a play — Chekov, probably. The conversation between Martha and Philip/Clark/Mischa played out mostly in a static two-shot, which made me feel as if I were watching a production of Vanya on 42nd Street from a front-row seat in a black-box theater. (Nathan Barr’s music for that scene, by the way, is the best work he’s done. The string arrangements suggest both characters’ inner turmoil as they try to maintain stiff upper lips; the score itself seems to be in denial.)

It’s hard to imagine a better ensemble cast for this story: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, Noah Emmerich, Richard Thomas, Frank Langella, Margo Martindale (more scenes with her and Langella, please), Susan Misner, Costa Ronin, Lev Gorn, and the amazing Alison Wright and Annet Mahendru (farewell, Martha; rest in peace, Nina): Not a one of them has made a false move under The Americans’ gaze. Russell and Rhys, in particular, have burrowed so deep into their characters over the past four seasons that I’ve given up wondering if the show will exhaust their ingenuity. It’s not easy for an actor to convey multiple, conflicting feelings simultaneously over the course of scene after scene, episode after episode, but they do it, always with intelligence and taste. Every tremor of feeling is at once measured and authentic.

The show consistently seems secure in its understanding of what every moment seems to be about, and actually is about. This lets the writers, filmmakers, and actors underplay big moments that other shows would announce with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and fireworks, while still leaving you feeling elated. The elation is a matter of craft and discernment rather than bludgeoning or showboating. And the empathy we feel for the characters is more a matter of appreciation for the characters’ eloquently observed predicaments than moral rubber-stamping of their often-repulsive actions. The show cares very much about its fictional creations but will never let itself be seduced by them. The guiding sensibility is close to that of Frank Gaad: steely-eyed, realistic. The Americans may be willing to feel its way into the headspace of Elizabeth, Philip, Stan, and company, but it will never let itself be turned. It knows what its mission is and has a sense of itself that its characters may always lack. “Every one of you here has the opportunity to live an authentic life, but so far, it ain’t happening,” says the EST teacher, speaking to a room that contains Elizabeth, but that might as well be a group cast photo.

The show’s evident self-knowledge is demonstrated in the Hal Ashby–worthy music montage that closed out “The Magic … ”, set to Roxy Music’s “End of the Line” (another great, great, great musical choice by this show). Cross-cutting between Philip, Elizabeth, and their kids on a Gabriel-mandated vacation, and Stan visiting his old boss, Gaad, in FBI-imposed exile, merged every emotional, psychological, and thematic strand that has preoccupied The Americans from the start. It showed how the characters are themselves even when performing, and perform even when playing themselves, and how they tell the truth when lying and lie while telling the truth, and how hard it is to keep it all straight in their minds. “If you ever miss me/If I should cross your mind,” the song says, evoking Nina and Martha, Chris Amador and Gregory, and some of the show’s living lost souls as well: Gaad and Stan in Gaad’s living room strategizing a new operation from the ashes of disaster; Paige very possibly lying to her parents about, well, who knows exactly what; and Elizabeth and Philip wondering just what their daughter inherited. And right when the music and images are about to make us well up in fellow-feeling, in comes Gaad, cautioning Stan with a line that doubles as a warning to viewers who have grown to love these characters: “Whatever comes up — feelings, sympathy, friendship, whatever — you can’t lose sight of who these people are.”

The Americans Is the Best It’s Ever Been in S4