The Americans is the ultimate fantasy for liberal Americans who grew up hating the Reagan administration. By aligning viewers with two Soviet spies—Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings, who are embedded with their children in the suburbs of D.C.—the drama offers a smart critique of American politics from a dissident’s perspective that still feels relevant today. Watching the Jenningses fight to make the world a better place for their kids allows us to see them as something more than The Enemy, though the realization that they’re just as enslaved to ideology as their American neighbors prevents us from fully rooting for them. The real fantasy here isn’t about politics anyway. It’s about how cool it is to be part of the counterculture. With its spy-vs.-spy intrigue, vintage fashions, and cult-band soundtrack (Fad Gadget! Echo & the Bunnymen!), the show lets us revel in radical chic.
So it’s a nice twist that season 3 finds Elizabeth and Philip fighting a rebel force of their own: their teenage daughter. After the death of Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet war in Afghanistan is escalating, and the KGB is focused on infiltrating the CIA’s Afghan group. The Jenningses’ old handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella), has returned to the U.S. to persuade them to groom Paige (Holly Taylor) as a spy. Elizabeth supports this, but Philip argues that they can’t force Paige into the family business. Like a typical teenager, she loves the things her parents hate, which might be why she’s still obsessed with church. Besides, how do you raise a rebel when she’s busy rebelling against you?
The Americans has always made a strong case against blindly following any sort of dogma. But the new season also poses an interesting question: Is it okay to instill your beliefs in your own kids? This debate gets even trickier as Elizabeth trains a new recruit who’s young enough to be her son, and Philip flirts with a woman who’s not much older than Paige in exchange for intel. When Philip sees an ad for Love’s Baby Soft on TV (”So innocent, it could well be the sexiest baby around!”), you can see his resolve to exploit this young mark—or Paige herself—for the cause start to weaken. Manipulating adults might be fine, but kids are a different thing.
The pacing is a little slow early on, as the show takes the time to introduce new characters and story lines, such as Agent Beeman’s (Noah Emmerich) sudden interest in attending EST (Erhard Seminars Training) meetings. But by the third episode, which climaxes with a crazy scene where Philip and Elizabeth work through their sexual tension with a gruesome act, the suspense is back. ”Sex is the one thing we have—almost getting killed is another—that can jolt us into being alive,” an EST leader tells Beeman. And it’s true. This might be a philosophical season of The Americans, but like any good countercultural force, it still gets its thrills from sex and violence. Anything else would be un-American. B+
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