FX’s brilliant, under-watched “The Americans” hit a new high in its third season. The series, about a pair of Soviet spies posing as Americans in 1980s Washington D.C., uses its action-based premise to explore deeper questions of family, identity and commitment.
Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (the stunning Keri Russell) must balance missions from their superiors in the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, with their duties at home with their two children. The older of the two, Paige (Holly Taylor), becomes increasingly important throughout the seasons as she begins to suspect that her parents are not being honest with her. Confusing matters further is the FBI operative, Stan Beeman (a great Noah Emmerich), next door. As Phillip especially becomes closer to the man, it starts to become apparent that he wishes he could be the American man he is pretending to be. However, in a nice gender-reversal, Elizabeth is the steely one, never wavering in her devotion to her country. But as the protagonists’ two worlds begin to draw ever closer to one another, the show asks, which is more important: devotion to one’s family or one’s country?
The show has certainly put the Jennings through the ringer this seasons, both emotionally and physically. Early episodes saw the couple breaking an asset’s bones to fit her body into a suitcase after she is murdered and watching a South African ally horrifically execute an enemy via fire and gasoline. However, by far the most wrenching moment of the show, at least on a visceral level, occurred after the two break into a seemingly-ordinary business after hours to find an innocent old woman paying her bills. As this woman has seen them undisguised, Elizabeth knows the woman will not be allowed to survive the night and opens up to her, finally finding someone besides he husband whom she can be honest to.
The beautifully written scenes between the two women that take up much of the episode serve as an explanation for what makes the show so great. While much of the show revolves around propulsive, visceral action sequences, it gets just as much mileage from showing how much humanity the characters must give up to complete their work. As the connection between the women begins to sour, Elizabeth defends her work by stating that she is making the world a better place. “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things,” the woman replies. As Elizabeth’s resolve begins to crumble, Keri Russell is truly a revelation, finally showing the doubts her character has for what she believes to be right.
Maybe the doomed woman is right: maybe these characters are evil. But much of the show’s genius comes from showing their viewpoint- our enemies- and finding the humanity within.
“The Americans” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Abrams is a member of
the class of 2017.