By Jeff Jensen
March 16, 2016 at 01:03 PM EDT
Jessica Miglio/FX
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The poison comes in a small Red Creek tobacco tin. “Highest Quality,” the packaging promises. “Extremely Mellow.” The advertising lies, even more so now that the rusted box contains something deadlier than the Kentucky-grown snuff it was built to hold. It hides a vial of cloudy, piss-yellow liquid — a virulent, sick-making pathogen. The highly volatile substance produces only extreme stress for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), married Soviet spooks undercover in Ronald Reagan’s America already tweaking from immoral dirty work and wiggy pathology in their risky, rotting lives. Harboring a biological agent inside their All-American home? That irony ain’t funny for these lethal secret agents. Like their degrading work and secrets, the toxic contraband threatens to corrupt everyone and everything they touch. They can’t keep it, obviously, but they can’t seem to get rid of it, either. They can gird their immune systems with inoculations or just plain quit, but those solutions are such that they might kill them, too. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Should they stay? Should they go? “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?” asks Elizabeth, sitting with Philip in a parked car, itchy to flee but nowhere to turn. They draw close, their fraught marriage the only safe space they have.   

This isn’t me being all floridly metaphorical and stuff. This is plot summary! The fourth season of The Americans begins with a storyline in which eighties era subversives get stuck with a tube of plague, pilfered by a mole (a delightfully acerbic Dylan Baker) inside the U.S. military’s hush-hush bio-weapons program. Their struggle to get it to Mother Russia so their military can keep pace produces scenes of tense, chilling cloak and dagger, like when a Russian pilot proves to be a reluctant mule for the contagious contraband. Episode 4 is a dark-night-of-the-soul existential thriller in which Philip, Elizabeth and their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) must confront their mortality. There are fewer missions to track this year than last, at least to start — a relief, perhaps, to fans who found season 3 to be too busy for its own good — but this risky business is plenty engrossing. 

But sure, it’s a metaphor, too, and a versatile, resonant one, a toxic culture to represent the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union, and toxic strains in American culture, too. The year is 1983. The HIV/AIDS crisis is in full effect — and the Reagan administration is actively ignoring it and laughing at it. The subtext is there to be seen, but in the sly, casual, take-it-or-leave-it way The Americans wears most of its symbols for this compromised American life. Season 4 is a plague season of sickening psychic and spiritual burdens. “Tainted Love” — for family, friends, God, country — is a recurring theme, and in one sensational sequence, an ironic soundtrack choice. Everyone’s up a (red) creek, looking for paddles to help them navigate. Some characters are more successful than others; each struggle affects and complicates the struggle of the other. A memory of a murder from long ago needles at Philip, driving him deeper into EST (Erhard Seminars Training) to help him process his feelings. (He does so without his good neighbor, EST buddy and unwitting nemesis, FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman, played by Noah Emmerich; the two are on the outs.) That yellow poison in Philip’s possession represents the character he’s desperate to purge and his cowardice about changing. There’s a great image in the premiere when he holds the tube up to the light in his garage – the bulb suddenly goes out. “Photophobia” is a weird and loaded word that gets dropped by episode 4. To borrow from Poltergeist: Run to the light, Philip! Run to the light!

Philip remains alienated from homeland and cause; he’s a walking quagmire of paradox and pain. His loyalty is to the people he loves — a trait that has long troubled the comrade he loves most. That might be changing. Elizabeth has always managed to remain more faithfully committed to the Motherland and to Communist ideology than her husband. But as old attachments fade (namely, her ailing mom in Moscow) and as younger attachments strengthen (namely, her children), grace blooms. She’s slightly jealous of Philip’s EST-assisted self-reflection and self-care, but she’s curious about it, too. Tensions that might have once provoked rifts between them now provide opportunities for them to grow closer. Killing and sanctioned philandering aside, The Americans’ depiction of marriage is as profound as ever. 

Other developments augur more potential shift. But which way? Elizabeth gets a new mission — and the show, another wonderful new character — in the form of Young-Hee (Ruthie-Ann Miles), a sarcastically funny and beautifully grounded Korean-American woman, wife, and mother, who balances competing identities with a grace that has always eluded Elizabeth. They meet at a Mary Kay meeting. Genius. They bond going door-to-door, evangelizing the brand. It’s very funny but not mean — and surprisingly fun for Elizabeth. Young-Hee would seem to be the friend Elizabeth has been hungering for and might assist her inner make-over — if Elizabeth’s doesn’t destroy her first with whatever scheme she’s working. Wait for the delightful scene when she dines with Young-Hee’s family — and get ready to learn the hot pepper dance. The thaw is on for Elizabeth. Maybe.

Those now infected with the truth about Philip and Elizabeth find themselves afflicted. Paige (Holly Taylor) — whose socially conscious Christianity has put her at rebellious odds with her godless, secular, materialistic yuppie parents (she was more right and wrong than she knew) — gave season 3 its cliffhanger when she broke and spilled to her mentor and surrogate father, Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin). Paige continues to hold her parents’ secrets like a jittery drug mule this season, but like religious revelation — or like exposure to virulent pathogen — those secrets be changing her character, too. She joins her parents in trying to keep her leak from spreading, a labor that effectively puts her in the family business. In a nifty character moment, Paige lingers outside her classroom as the students pledge allegiance to the flag. Because it would feel hypocritical as long as she remains so very confused? Or does her loyalty now belong to her parents? Philip and Elizabeth certainly try hard to get it. The scenes of them manipulating Paige and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) the way they game their assets are deliciously slimy but also play to the layered meanings of the show. The cunning art of bending kids to your interests and will? That’s called parenting. 

We never learned what happened after Philip ripped away his brilliant disguise for his other work wife and longtime FBI informant, Martha (Alison Wright). Some wondered if he might have murdered her after unpinning the wig on his Clark persona. Nyet! The new season hits the aftermath hard, with Martha trying hard to continue in a bad marriage she can’t or won’t escape, resorting to sad rationalizations so she can roll with her husband’s adulterous, down-low life. Their new understanding deepens a rapport that Philip values — he wants to protect her (from himself!) as much as he needs to continue using her — but also degrades her on multiple levels, wrecking her heart and making her complicit in Philip’s crimes. Stepping out on “Clark” with an FBI colleague (another secret agent mixing business with pleasure; she’s got a type!), she discloses that she’s involved with a married man, painting herself out to be some post-traditional, in-control sophisticate. “It’s probably the most honest relationship I’ve ever had,” she says. Her denial is clear and sad — but she’s not wrong, either.

Somewhere behind the Iron Curtain, there is Nina (Annet Mahendru), who remains exiled on a lonely island of story. The shift in tone, hue, locale, and language always throws me whenever The Americans cuts to those cold and bluesy subterranean bunkers — a KGB underworld that doubles for a manifestation of the show’s own psycho-spiritual underworld — where Nina, a prisoner to her spymasters and her own conscience, is made to vet a Jewish engineer working on stealth plane technology while also trying to maintain her integrity. Her arc is a slow burn, and I have to admit, I was frequently tempted to check out. You should not: her gritty hustle, done for the sake of human decency and reconciliation, is increasingly poignant, and the payoff is shattering. In fact, I dare say that Stick With It-ness — organized around righteous character in service to redemptive purpose, no matter the cost — is the entire point of these four episodes. As I watch these episodes again with you, I’ll be watching for her.

I love the way The Americans uses pop songs, books, and historical references to embellish themes and meanings, and how these references relate and build on each other. At the risk of going far afield and reading things wrong, let me offer an example. In an early episode, Philip searches Pastor Tim’s office. The camera glides past a Bible open to the Book of Nehemiah, a chronicle of tenacious, activist cultural reconstruction. Nehemiah, cup-bearer to the Persian king, takes a leave of absence to undertake a mission to rebuild Jerusalem, which has fallen apart in all sorts of ways, leaving it vulnerable to attack and internal corruption. He repairs the wall around the city (the project has some queasy political resonance for us, but let’s assume it wasn’t a bad thing for Jerusalem). Social and economic reforms follow that help women, children, and other exploited classes. He insists society repent of historical injustice and then commands them to re-commit to a strong moral code, God’s law. 

His work seemingly finished, Nehemiah leaves Jerusalem … and then corruption flourishes anew. He has to go back again and set things right. The labor of making a great society — of keeping it great — is constant struggle. Stick With It-ness is required to manage — dare I say trump — insidious patterns of history or expressions of malignant values that never go away. But it needs to be protected — immunized — by stewards of highest quality conscience and character. And so it’s interesting that after we get that glimpse of the Book of Nehemiah, Philip opens a drawer and we glimpse another book: The Law of Christ, Volume 1 by Bernhard Haring, whose other books include The Christian Existentialist and Dare to Be Christian: Developing a Social Conscience. (Full disclosure: I am a Haring ignoramus.) To be clear, I don’t think The Americans is stumping for Jesus. I think these references are consistent with the show’s progressive sympathies and sly critique of so-called “Christian nation” identity. 

It gets better. Episode 4 is entitled “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” — a reference to EPCOT, the Disney theme park that opened in the fall of 1982. EPCOT builds upon the Nehemiah; it’s another story about building a great city of the future. Or it could have been. Walt Disney’s vision for EPCOT was to build a functioning town that would host a kind of permanent World’s Fair, a living laboratory where scientists, industrialists, artists and people from all walks of life would exhibit and develop ideas and innovations for the improvement of American society. The Walt Disney Company didn’t build Walt’s EPCOT. Following his death in 1967, the company spent years redeveloping EPCOT into something that honored his vision but fit better with their traditional theme park business. FUN FACT! EPCOT is located in Orlando, Florida – the place where President Reagan labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, which we heard in the closing moments of the season 3 finale.

The Americans uses EPCOT in provocative fashion in season 4. Philip and Elizabeth are ordered to take their kids to EPCOT for the weekend so that The Center can execute a dirty deed Philip and Elizabeth can’t do. It’s also something Philip and Elizabeth don’t want to do. EPCOT is an opportunity — or rather a temptation — to escape uncomfortable, inconvenient realities. Should they stay or should they go? What does it mean to be a “good soldier” in a scenario like this? What would Nehemiah do? The challenge brings them to a pivot point in their mission and their individual arcs. Happy endings might be impossible for these toxic biological agents. But watching them work out their poison this season brings a glimmer of hope to a show so dark you’d think it suffered from photophobia. I like the idea that The Americans might be developing into an allegory for what it means to be a conscientious objector in a broken, wayward culture. Choose wisely, comrades. The future is counting on you.

Other observations/theories/ridiculata:

  • President Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech was delivered on March 8, the same day that the home-computing revolution went next level with the introduction of IBM PC XT. Apple’s Macintosh looms. It’ll launch January of 1984, with a legendary TV commercial directed by Ridley Scott, inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The relevancy: in the show, The Center wants Philip and Elizabeth to get a PC for the purpose of becoming tech-savvy and future-ready. Foreshadowing? Don’t be surprised if sometime downstream, we watch the show’s wannabe revolutionaries watch that revolutionary Apple ad, which premiered during Super Bowl XVII — a game that saw the Los Angeles Raiders, the anti-hero outlaw rebels of pro sports, kick the crap out of a team that has become a symbol of so much American wrongness, historically and culturally: the Washington Redskins. 
    • Speaking of Orwell: The Police’s smash “Every Breath You Take” — which Sting would say was inspired in part by Big Brother-ish anxieties about surveillance and control — is coming soon to the world of The Americans. It was released in May of 1983. Other songs I would include on my period-appropriate season 4 playlist: “Trouble” (1981) by Philip look-alike Lindsey Buckingham and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (1982) by The Clash. Also include the single’s original B-side: “Inoculated City.” Perfect for a story about biological agents running amuck, not to mention morally confused soldiers and conscientious objectors. (No one knows what they’re fighting for / We are tired of the tune / You must not relent.) Given The Americans is also coming up on Michael Jackson’s first Moonwalk (on the May 16, 1983 telecast of “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever”), let’s add “Billie Jean,” too. I’m also tossing in Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” (1984) although we’re still 9 months away from it. I’ll let Henry explain why.  
      • In episode 3, we see Henry play a videogame called GORF, an acronym for Galactic Orbiting Robot Force. It’s a game not unlike Space Invaders. Relevance: President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) on March 23, five days after the events of episode 4. Speaking of Star Wars, The Return of the Jedi is coming soon (May 25) to a theater near Philip and Elizabeth. This was the movie in which Luke Skywalker and company defeated his evil empire once and for all … or so we thought until Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fighting the good fight is never-ending work. Just ask Nehemiah.
      • FX’s period drama—starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys—explores the the Cold War 1980s through the professional and personal lives of the Jennings family.
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