By Jim Sabataso
I was holding off reviewing the new season of “The Americans” until things got more exciting, but at nearly the halfway point, I’m readjusting my expectations. Don’t get me wrong; the 1980s period drama on FX about a family of Soviet spies living in the U.S. has been consistently strong. It’s just a slow, slow burn.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg know how to play the long game. And while that can be less satisfying in the short term, it often yields big payoffs down the line. With only one season to go, storylines are beginning to converge and accelerate as they near resolution. Consequently, this season has seen a lot of table setting and moving characters into place for the series’ final act.
This season picks up where we left off with the Jennings family in 1984. After last season’s tense biological weapon arc that nearly blew their cover and resulted in the death of a colleague, Philip and Elizabeth are taking things easier working a new asset — a Soviet scientist defector who’s consulting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell continue to deliver as Philip and Elizabeth. Also a couple offscreen, the actors bring an intense chemistry to the characters. Looking back on the arc of their relationship, the distrust and resentment of season one is now absent. They are a team, professionally and personally, and the show has deftly illustrated that growth.
Philip still appears to be less committed to the cause, but Elizabeth no longer holds that against him. She may be less wavering, but she, too, has seen enough hypocrisy and mission-driven callousness to give her pause.
That tension between protecting their family and serving their country still looms large — especially after they were forced to disclose their secret double lives to their teenage daughter Paige. While her initial shock has since transitioned into acceptance and curiosity, she’s still pretty shook.
Holly Taylor does great work as Paige. Young actors who grow up on a TV series can be unpredictable. The adorable moppet may not always mature into a competent actor. Taylor has had no such struggle. She’s successfully leaned into the heavier material the show has thrown at her as she wavers between steely-eyed spy-in-training and fragile teen on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Across the street, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is similarly disenchanted with his work. After working with KGB operative and unlikely pal Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) to neutralize the bioweapon threat from last season, he learns that the CIA is going to attempt to turn Oleg, based on the intel Stan provided — a move that would ruin Oleg’s life and endanger his family. Unwilling to betray him in this way, Stan threatens to go public with information that would exasperate U.S.-Soviet relations at the cost of his own freedom.
Back in the U.S.S.R., Oleg is off the spy beat and working for the party to root out corruption that is contributing to food shortages, which seems to be putting him on a collision course with his well-connected father — at least in my reading of things.
The Stan-Oleg stories serve as a reminder that there were heroes and villains on both sides of the Iron Curtain. From the beginning, “The Americans” has sought to complicate viewers’ historical understanding of the Cold War. This season especially adds shades of grey as characters see the darker sides of their own government and honor in their adversaries.
On a mission this season to investigate another potential U.S. bioweapon, Philip and Elizabeth realize their intel was inaccurate, but not before they murder an innocent person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The death weighs especially heavy on Philip, who’s increasingly losing his stomach for this type of work.
Philip’s struggle has not gone unnoticed. His superiors at The Center are concerned, and it’s clear that any slip up or hesitation to follow orders will be met with punishment. If, or, more likely, when, that happens, Elizabeth will have to make a choice which could threaten the lives of their entire family.
As “The Americans” enters its final run, so too does the Soviet Union. This season has served up several reminders. From historical footage of barren Soviet farmland and people in food lines to the increasingly desperate mood of officials on both sides, a sense of finitude permeates every story. We know how the Soviet Union’s story ends. What remains to be seen is who among these characters we’ve grown so attached to will survive to see it.
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“The Americans” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.