Among the many reasons to praise The Americans’ third-season premiere, there’s this: It shows that Elizabeth and Philip Jennings aren’t invincible. The Jennings are always on the job, and that means a smart move in the field could lead to a mistake at home, and vice versa. In the very first scene of season three, Elizabeth works on her lung capacity, submerging herself in the bathtub while thinking of the way she taught her daughter to swim: by hurling young Paige into a pool. (The symbolism of the scene runs deeper than that “4 FEET” tile indicates.) Philip’s investment in his marriage is stronger than ever, but that doesn’t stop him from engaging in an extramarital tryst that isn’t a requirement of his job. In a error that could have lingering consequences, Elizabeth loses a list of Near East and Special Activities Division operatives working against the Soviets in Afghanistan, then gives Frank Gaad a good, long look at her face. She shows him her face—she shows it to him.
The Jennings are imperfect: As spouses, as parents, as covert KGB operatives embedded in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. That’s part of what makes them so fascinating to watch: Even in the tasks they’ve trained for for their entire adult lives, they’re still learning. The first two seasons saw them learning to trust one another and possibly distrust their superiors; this year, it looks like the Jennings will grapple with being the commanding officers of their own household. As revealed by their once-and-current handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella), The Centre’s plan to induct Paige into the KGB was no idle threat. Because of this, questions about how the Jennings are raising their children have gained a tremendous gravity.
To demonstrate this gravity, The Americans turns to its most reliable asset: Keri Russell’s portrayal of Elizabeth Jennings. So much is expressed in silence in “EST Men,” much of it on Russell’s face: Shared glances between Elizabeth and Paige during church activities, or the spark of familiarity (followed by the dawning of grief) at the recording of Elizabeth’s mother’s voice. To date, these strengthened mother-daughter bonds are The Americans’ most intense focus on “the Jennings as parents,” but the versatility of the actors and the show allows us to see Philip and Elizabeth as someone’s children, too. It’s in that tearjerker of a scene with Elizabeth and the tape recorder, and it’s in Elizabeth and Philip’s first onscreen meeting with Gabriel. The paternal warmth of Frank Langella ought to lower the Jennings’ defenses, and in their scene with him, Russell and Matthew Rhys play like collegiate sweethearts visiting with a beloved grandfather, rather than Soviet super-spies reconnecting with a supervisor. It’s nice to see the actors hit these notes in a scene that’s not a flashback.
There’s so much power in the small gestures of “EST Men,” a quality that encapsulates a very Americans season premiere. Apropos to the show’s treatment of Cold War milestones, dessert with Gabriel (Mmm, Frusen Glädjé—“Enjoy the guilt!”) gets more screentime than the death of Leonid Brezhnev. I guess that means Brezhnev won’t receive that “Get out of Afghanistan” recommendation from Oleg, which comes up in one of the episode’s many check-ins with The Americans’ expanding-and-contracting dossier of major players. Even Nina gets a status update, though Annet Mahendru is nowhere to be seen. Her name is still featured in the opening credits, however, and the exchange between Oleg and Arkady at the Rezidentura suggests that her fate remains unsealed.
On the FBI side of things, the Beemans remain separated, despite Stan’s earnest (but not completely honest) attempt to crack the EST code. As the mirror version of the Jennings, the couple across the street is never going to merit equal airtime, but “EST Men” elegantly weaves their troubles into the episode’s thematic fabric. As Sandra reminds her husband, one of the founding principles of EST is a radical honesty; as a guy involved in an industry of lies and disguises, that’s not going to work for Stan. Noah Emmerich is now mining Stan for sad-sack pathos, and it really works in this first hour of season three. Digging through the Jennings’ refrigerator for one last beer, Emmerich truly appears as a man who’s lost both of the women he loves. He handed Nina over to an enemy they both knew too well; Sandra’s departure was hastened by an adversary he’ll never comprehend.
There’s not a lot of action between the opening and closing credits of “EST Men,” per se, but the Beemans demonstrate the episode’s tremendous sense of tension. The script, by showrunners Joel Field and Joe Weisberg, masterfully handles the ideological stalemate between the Jennings, grounding it in established differences (of commitment, of loyalty, of patriotism) that are refreshed by a new source of conflict. Philip is a flat “no” on exposing Paige to The Centre, while Elizabeth entertains the thought if only to keep up appearances. But appearances on this show are always deceiving; that’s where half of the suspense in spy fiction comes from, after all.
Considering Philip’s lust after his wife’s brownies (not a euphemism), it’s reasonable to assume the stalemate is physical, too. When Philip cuddles up to Elizabeth at the kitchen sink—an Americans motif that’s tracked the Jennings’ growing comfort with one another since the pilot—the lost list monopolizes Elizabeth’s thoughts. Something’s getting between husband and wife, and director Daniel Sackheim is wise to reflect that in the way Russell and Rhys are blocked in “EST Men.” Even within the same shot, the actors are often isolated from one another: Other characters serve as buffers, or shot composition fabricates distance. Intimacy comes in many forms, however, and the most sensual image of the episode isn’t Martha and Clark’s Kama Sutra experiment; it’s Elizabeth unwrapping that brownie on Philip’s desk. (Once again, not a euphemism, though it sounds straight-up filthy.)
“EST Men”’s final service as a season premiere, however, is to remind us that for all their growth, for all their acceptance of roles they never anticipated, the Jennings remain dangerous. Following Scott William Winters’ advice about not waiting for things to happen, tonight’s episode is bookended by scenes of the Jennings taking control in frightening fashion. Elizabeth doesn’t wait for the FBI agents to fully identify themselves, she just unloads. (And let’s be honest ourselves here: Gaad and that smug face of his had this coming for two seasons.) Sensing that Annelise is going rogue, Philip puts her in a pernicious spot—then uses her death as leverage over Yousaf the ISI agent.
Annelise’s death is a devastating note to hit at the end of “EST Men,” one that sheds new light on the Jennings’ personal imperfections. People are used in spy games all the time on this show, but Philip intentionally put Annelise in harm’s way, a pawn sacrificed in order to capture a knight. In doing so, he calls into question all of his convictions regarding Paige’s future in espionage. There is no “but she’s my daughter” anymore, because let’s face it: Annelise was somebody’s daughter, too. This is a score for Philip the spy; for Philip the father, it’s an error.
- Hello, zdravstvuj, and welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of The Americans’ third season. I’m excited to be reviewing my favorite ongoing basic-cable drama (qualifications!) for the site, and I hope you’re looking forward to watching alongside me. As ever, if there’s something about the episode/show/review that you’d like to discuss with me further, I can be found on Twitter and/or contacted via numbers station. And now, the most important parts of the review:
- The Americans Wig Report, Season Three, Week One: B. Elizabeth carries the wig game this week, busting out a pair of looks that have her resembling recording artists from two separate eras of pop music. First the return of an old standby: Young John Denver:
Later, during her driver’s ed excursion, she takes on some bangs, keeps one foot in the ’80s while planting the other in the mid-2000s and the promo materials for Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report, Season Three, Week One: C-. The only real disappointment of the season premiere is its failure to live up to the promise of FX’s Police-cribbing ad campaign. No period-appropriate Top 40 cuts or new wave favorites to be heard tonight, not from the West, at least: Could anyone identify the song playing in the background of the Clark-and-Martha scene?
- Was there any Mail Robot? No.
- Did anyone mention Mail Robot? No, but I bet it came up with a sick burn about Gaad’s bandaged face.
- Paige is the Jennings kid that “EST Men” is most interested in, but Henry shows up just long enough to remind us of his existence—and to tell his sister that he’s done watching that Hershey’s Kisses commercial with Jason Alexander. In what feels like a statement of her shifting priorities, Paige The Nuclear Disarmament Activist skips right past the news in favor of The Jeffersons.
- Martha is learning how to shoot a gun. That… doesn’t seem ominous at all, does it?
- On the serialized front, Gaad may have gotten a face-full of his own weapon, but there’s still a victory for his team: A woman with a lot of knowledge about the Soviet side of Soviet-U.S. relations is either defecting or agreeing to cooperate with the Reagan administration. Apparently she works for the U.S.S.R.’s U.S.-Canada Institute. “What’s the U.S.-Canada Institute?” one of the FBI guys asks. “I’ll tell you later,” Stan helpfully replies. (Though it remains in operation today, The Institute for U.S. And Canada Studies’ Cold War function saw it advising Moscow on its North American foreign policy.)