We began with the Red Creek tobacco tin, a weathered box holding a toxic agent, and the threat of catastrophe. We ended with a similar metaphor and similar peril, making for an elegant design, but with a story in which the drama was intimate and internal — the episode is a showcase for the qualities that make this year of The Americans so staggering. It was a season where the best thrills didn’t come from stakeouts and shakedowns and assassinations and flashes of ass — though there was good and plenty of all that — but in struggles of conscience, self-determination and relational flourishing. The Americans is technically about stressed and distressed married Soviet spies serving an empire in tumult and worldview in decline, struggling with their purpose, morality, identity, and each other. But this season more than any other was a clever and moving allegory about being American, or a true believer in anything, really, God or country. By the scary eyebrows of David Copperfield, that was a sensational season of TV.
Last season swamped Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) with ethically queasy ongoing labor and complex parenting crises, provoking relational duress and poking at unresolved emotional issues; it was a story about This Overworked, Overwhelmed American Life. This year gave them fewer missions — they even got a vacation! — and storylines that cut deeper and played out more completely. Guided by character-driven, cause-and-effect drama, season 4 achieved a clean yet intricate design: it was a series of rebellions and rebellions within rebellions, a set of Russian nesting dolls.
It opened with the Red Creek near-apocalypse, which afflicted Elizabeth and Philip with existential panic and mortal fear that culminated with a sickly dark night of the soul, resolved by an inoculating shot of willfulness and moral clarity. They defied the Centre on how best to manage the messy fall-out of heeding the command to convert daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to the cause. No, they would not kill Paige’s spiritual mentor Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), who now knew their secret. No, they would not embitter their daughter and subvert her self-determination any more than they already had. Dig it: Paige, conscientious objector and pushback adolescent, inspiring her mom and dad to go counter-culture, stick it to their parent state puppet masters and challenge the bankrupt practices of Business As Usual. This early victory for Clan Jennings, — a bright blast of optimism for The Bleakest Show On TV™ — was shaded by a tragic stunner across the sea and behind the Iron Curtain: Nina (Annet Mahendru), toiling in a blue-hued KGB underworld and trying to game a degrading system with do-gooding subterfuge, was executed with a bullet to her freethinking head.
Philip and Elizabeth were never in danger, and we knew that, especially after FX renewed The Americans for two more seasons last month. But their small revolution triggered a domino-fall that subverted the lives of many in their orbit. Martha (Alison Wright) — no longer eyes wide shut to Philip’s brilliant Clark disguise; torn between revolting against her sham marriage and staying in it — went a little wiggy and began acting out after losing touch with Philip during his Red Creek drama. She drew suspicion from FBI agents Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), prompting Phillip to defy the Centre again and remove Martha from her life and set her up with a new one… in Russia.
Martha tried to run away from that, too, but every possible way out led to a dead-end of some sort, figurative or literal. A long shot of Martha standing alone on a bridge, water raging over jagged rocks below, was imbued with foreboding and symbolized her moment of decision. It also slyly winked at a reference, Bridge of Spies, and implicitly whizzed on its happy ending. Where the deus ex machina is Tom Hanks? Where’s the “Holy Steven Spielberg!” angelic deliverance when you really need it? She chose the only one that gave her any glimmer of hope, however dim, at starting over with a new life. Watching her getaway plane launch into the night and vanish in the dark like a certain Lady Liberty magic trick was heartbreaking. (More on Copperfield, soon.)
What Philip lost in Martha, genuine intimacy in a fantasy of normalcy, Elizabeth lost in Young-Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), a vibrant, invigorating personality and the closest thing she’s ever had to a friend in this show. She tried to break away from this mission, too. She wanted to keep this grounded live-wire plugged into her life. She didn’t want to destroy this woman’s marriage and family, her rock, joy, and meaning, a source of pleasure and inspiration to Elizabeth herself. The Centre wouldn’t allow it, and perhaps stung by Philip’s clear emotional infidelity — and/or made cynical by the inevitable outcome of his revolutionary fail — she followed through with Operation: Homewrecker.
Elizabeth has done a lot of f’d up s—t on this show, but duping Young-Hee’s husband into thinking he screwed her, knocked her up, and drove her to suicide — Elizabeth! — was surely the cruelest thing she’s ever done for the sake of Mother Russia, trumping even last season’s queasy business of talking widow Betty into OD’ing to death. Credit the devastating impact to skillfully mounted long-play storytelling that drew us deep into the Elizabeth/Young-Hee friendship with wonderfully played bonding scenarios — the Mary Kay evangelizing; the theater-jumping movie night adventure — and cultivated intensifying dread by keeping us guessing what, exactly, Elizabeth was trying to accomplish with this mission. I am haunted by Elizabeth’s Patrick Nagel pastel femme fatale guise (those turquoise triangle earrings like daggers), by the use of Peter Schilling’s sad and spacey “Major Tom (Coming Home)” to soundtrack Elizabeth’s soul-killing good soldiering and emotional detachment, by the ironic solace she found in her own marriage (“I’m going to miss her,” she told Philip, sitting with her in the ashes of destruction that she wrought), and by Elizabeth listening to that voicemail — oh my god, that voicemail! — from a distraught Young-Hee, desperately needing her friend, her best friend… I could barely listen to it. Neither could Elizabeth.
By choking Martha’s liberty and corrupting Young-Hee’s happiness, respectively, Philip and Elizabeth fulfilled the foreshadow of the toxic agent metaphor that opened the season and an early season musical cue, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” We thought it portended bad things for the married spies, but if anything, season 4 ultimately drove them toward each other, not apart. Their trials and tribulations — which included Elizabeth grieving the loss of her mother at the start of the year and wondering at the end of it what, if anything, remains of the war-rocked yet resilient hometown she knew as a child and forged her persona (her nostalgia for it, a metaphor for the romance of the American small town and the pining for lost Greatest Generation spunk) — reminded each of them that the only truly safe place for them, the only home they have left in this world, is the shelter of each other.
NEXT: Standout moments
But yeah, there were bumps. The season’s finest hour, the “Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (yes, that’s a title), tracked the emotional aftermath of Martha’s departure. It was directed by Matthew Rhys with a keen eye for meaningful yet unfussy image-making and strong belief in his cast (particularly his co-star and real-life companion, Russell). In one extraordinary scene, Elizabeth and Philip argue over his clandestine embrace of quasi-cultish self-help therapy, EST, an affair that offends her beliefs and wounds her personally, as infidelity tends to do: isn’t she enough for him? Rhys the director puts space between Russell and Rhys the actor that matches their enmity, isolation, and disconnection, then has the characters slowly begin to warily close that space as their conflict escalates and their need to vent exhausts. That space? It’s the perfect amount of space, enough to be felt and work for the scene instead of contrived and work against it.
Another standout moment in that episode saw Elizabeth detonate the tensions over Paige’s faith, KGB recruitment, relationship to Pastor Tim, and secret spilling by ripping into her daughter, as parents tend to do, with the most ballistic and ironic You’re going to church (and spy on your pastor) whether you like it or not! speech ever given — a fire and brimstone commissioning for Paige, the baby agent. The final scene, set after a well-played seven-month time-jump (and a well-constructed cross-cut montage set to Roxy Music’s “End of the Line”), saw a broken Paige offer a dispirited report on Pastor Tim. Paige had freely aligned with her parents at the start of the season out of regret for putting them at risk and perhaps belief they shared common cause; to see her robbed of choice and railroaded into service was chilling. She looked so trapped, so alone.
Season 4 was fantastic at making shattering scenes like that: still lifes of lives stilled by betrayal, stolen will, or regret. Special Agent Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), lost in thought and withdrawn from his subordinates, his sunken demeanor telling us exactly what he was thinking: I’m so getting fired for the Martha fiasco. It never needed to be said — that’s how good Thomas is — but his line reading of “They seduced — and married — my secretary” was an all-timer. (Of course, they — the KGB — had also snowed and befriended his top agent, Stan, and Philip’s work would victimize Gaad one last time: a report that included a thoughtless, passing mention of Gaad’s whereabouts led to his accidental death in Thailand during a KGB shakedown gone awry.) Other indelible moments: Martha, sitting on the safe house bed, girding for exile and frozen by revelation. “I’ll be alone,” she told Philip. “Just the way it was before I met you.” Gabriel (Frank Langella), slumped on a stoop, exhausted by a season that taxed him as father figure to so many rebellious, troubled children, mourning his foolish fear of intimacy and companionship. “I used to think I’d do better, serve the Centre better, if I kept to myself. You work alone, there’s no one there tearing away at you, weakening you. But…” — and after a pause, this kicker, the kind of phrase a killer actor like Langella knows how to elevate into a classic line — “You go to shit, anyway. And you’re still alone.”
Such beats were set-up for the wallop in the finale delivered by William Crandall (Dylan Baker), a plant inside a lab doing off-book research on virulent microorganisms for the military, a man whose decades-long, solitary service was spent waiting for just a few, choice chances to serve his country. They finally arrived in the form of sneaking out three small samples that could claim countless lives in the most gruesome fashion possible. These opportunities gave him considerable pause, and in fact, emboldened by Philip and Elizabeth’s conscientious protest to Centre directives earlier in the season, he tried to refuse the third and final mission on humanitarian grounds until Gabriel offered to satisfy a longing he couldn’t shake, the chance to go home. It didn’t work, he got caught, but instead of comprising his people by putting himself in the position of being interrogated — or tortured — for information, William sacrificed himself for the cause, cutting his hand with the vial before surrendering to the FBI with arms upraised, flashing his bloody stigmata like a weapon.
As he lay dying in quarantine — or rather, waiting to die in the most horrible way possible — William was offered a Coke by Stan and Aderholt in a feeble but well-meaning bid to connect with him, to show him a kindness or dignity. William’s laugh alone — a joker’s death rattle — should get Baker an Emmy nomination. He should win it for the soliloquies that followed about his down-low spy life — exciting at first; degrading as it progressed; ultimately leaving him desperate to be known and recognized — and his reverie about an ill-fated attempt at a relationship with a woman. His condition combined with his speeches made William a clear metaphor for homosexuality and AIDS, which, at the time, was still being ignored or denied by the Reagan administration. (Interesting timing: this week marks the 35th anniversary of the first CDC report on AIDS.) Yet his despair was also universally existential, too. And his last words, a feverish reverie, about an unnamed couple that was clearly Elizabeth and Philip (“She’s pretty… he’s lucky…”), represented a kind of valedictory for their relationship — and, inadvertently, provided Stan with some vague clues about a certain pair of subversives living across the street from him.
NEXT: How do the Jennings’ want to live, for what and for whom?
These memorable moments of painful individual isolation stood in stark contrast — in my mind, at least — to equally memorable moments of family and global village community brokered by the act of watching television. But the motif had an interesting trajectory. It went from huge event specials like The Day After and the David Copperfield special (both of which were smartly and evocatively used in their respective episodes), which brought the Jennings family together, to daypart/niche TV like General Hospital, which divided Elizabeth and Paige. (“It’s emotional,” said Paige, scolding her stone cold killing machine mom for failing to appreciate the melodrama.) In the final appearance of the Jennings family TV this season, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), Matthew Beeman (Daniel Flaherty), and Paige were hooking it up to the family computer so they could play videogames. It’s like The Americans was giving us an allegorical history lesson about American screen life, from the twilight of all-audience, Big Network monoculture to current era of fragmentation and interactivity. (Proto-console jockey Henry, who I predict will be seen reading William Gibson’s groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer next season, sure spent a lot of time off-screen this year, sometimes heard — throwing balls against the garage door, for example — but usually only seen when playing GORF or hanging with his surrogate big brother Matthew — son of figurative Big Brother Stan — across the street.)
This coded storyline reaches a climax in the last act of the finale, which takes place on January 22, 1984, which was Super Bowl Sunday that year. (The Oakland Raiders’ stunning upset blow-out of the Washington Redskins: how appropriate for a story in which our red commie “heroes” suffered a staggering setback — and in the case of gone-liquid William, a real blow-out — by villainous men in black.) Interesting that no one in the episode watched the game except Paige and Matthew, and they sucked face for most of it. (Their romance, blooming in late season, was one of the year’s most surprising and intriguing developments.) Unmentioned and unseen was the most famous Super Bowl commercial in Super Bowl commercial history: Apple’s “1984” ad, the big bang of the home computing revolution and piece of creativity that speaks into the text of The Americans, as it was inspired by George Orwell’s novel, a bleak critique of gone-wrong utopian empires like the Soviet Union or [REDACTED BY THE MINISTRY OF INFORMATION FOR BEING TOO POLITICAL. AMERICA DOUBLEPLUSGOOD!]. Seriously, I expect an episode next season that communes more directly with that reference.
Until then, we sweat the choices sweating Elizabeth and Philip. With William in custody and his status a mystery to them, they couldn’t be sure he hadn’t given them up. Gabriel instructed these “travel agents” to pack their bags and their kids and get back to the U.S.S.R. It was time, he told them. Philip’s heart wasn’t in it; Elizabeth was getting ragged. He was right, but they still looked sucker-punched and reluctant. “Elizabeth” and “Philip” are no longer covers; they had become identities. Their kids were Americans, not “Americans.” And they know that the homeland they know — a moment in time more than a place — is gone. Do they dare rebel once again against the Centre? Should they stay or should they go? Don’t think of it as a cliffhanger, because it isn’t much of one. They can’t leave. Right? We know Philip’s adult son is making his away to the States to search for his dad. And the storytelling can’t cut bait on the Beeman boys. Surely Paige and Matthew must play out their star-crossed, Romeo and Juliet love!
Philip pulling Paige away from the Beeman house and ordering her to shut down that romance, one last subversion of her agency to sum up her arc. As the very last scene in a season about frustrated self-determination, it brings Elizabeth and Philip and their kids to a place where they must choose how they want to live, for what and for whom. I can’t wait to see what they decide. A