At a turning point in season three of The Americans (and a turning point for the entire series), Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) learns the truth about her parents: They’re KGB spies posing as American citizens. Like nearly ever major event on the show, this is a crisis that was long coming, and yet still manages to arrive as a surprise. After weeks of arguing over their daughter’s future, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) come home to find at least some part of the decision has been taken out of their hands. Paige is old enough to start asking questions and demanding answers, and, with great reluctance and care, her parents try to give her what she wants.
Unfortunately, what Paige wants, and what she needs, aren’t necessarily compatible. The Americans is a routinely grim, resolutely tragic series, and one of the core engines that drives its impeccably crafted misery is the understanding that no matter how many wigs the Jennings might don, they can never truly separate their lives from their work. Paige requires the truth, but, being a teenager, she expects that truth to be available in clear, distinct lines, when reality is a lot more complicated. Every subterfuge carefully constructed to provide the Jennings with the cover they need to do their jobs becomes an agonizing betrayal. In one scene, Elizabeth tries to heal some of the damage by telling Paige a story about her real grandmother. Paige listens to her mother explain, and then says, “How can I believe anything you say?”
The scene ends right after the question, because there is no answer. Trust is an essential part of how the Jennings go about their business, using and manipulating the needs of other people to create relationships that can then be exploited for ulterior means. And both Elizabeth and Philip are experts at their work, even if their efforts cost them dearly. While The Americans’ gray skies and no-real-winners approach to spycraft gives the series an illusion of realism, the consistently high-quality expertise of its protagonists pokes holes in that illusion. It’s doubtful real-life agents are quite so adept at, well, everything. But that exaggerated expertise is essential for the series’ exquisite sense of tension, and for making sure each character is perpetually on the verge of catastrophe.
It also makes for a startlingly effective metaphor of the tempestuous sparring between teenagers and parents. For much of the first half of the third season, the debate was centered between Philip and Elizabeth, with Philip wanting to protect Paige from knowing too much, and Elizabeth wanting to make Paige a part of their “real” lives. With Frank Langella as their new handler, manipulating from the sidelines under the guise of calm, reasonable authority, the fight played out much like any mother and father arguing over the future of their children. What’s striking is how such a familiar issue lends itself to the tactics the two spies were already using outside the home. Operating with the best of intentions, Elizabeth and Philip treat their daughter like a potential asset, pitting themselves against one another as they try to manipulate her for her own good.
Paige’s storyline is only one of several threads running throughout the season, and as the finale approaches, it’s clear that something is coming to a head, even if it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what that something is. Is Martha (Alison Wright) as doomed as she appears to be? Will Philip have to make contact with Kimmy (Julia Garner), the underage daughter of an important target, and will that contact force him to betray a true innocent? Will Stan (Noah Emmerich) reveal the double agent Russian “expatriate” he’s been guarding, and will he finally get over his ex-wife? Will Nina (Annet Mahendru) earn her freedom, and will her plot ever connect with everyone else’s in a way that’s more meaningful than vague thematic relevance? Will the batteries in Henry’s (Keidrich Sellati) football game ever die?
While the Jennings have never come across as heroes, the third season has also made sure to underline again and again the cost of what they do, and how hard it is to defend that cost outside of the moment. The word “evil” even comes up. It’s been relative easy to make the moral adjustments required to root for Philip and Elizabeth as they commit horrible acts in the name of the motherland, but now that Paige is involved, those calculations refuse to come out so evenly. Suddenly it matters if these spy games are evil, in a way it didn’t quite seem to before; and it’s hard to see the answers satisfying anyone.
The Americans remains one of the best-written shows on television, and quite simply the best at the constructing intricate, layered plots. Every episode, every scene, gives the impression of a gun being cocked and placed carefully on a wall. It helps to keep the pacing tight even if the immediate details are obscured. While Nina remains a tragic figure, her struggles overseas don’t immediately seem to have much to do with anything else—yet it is still possible that some other shoe will drop in the finale and pull everything together. (For that reason, it’s worth keeping an eye on Henry. The number of times his parents and sister have pointed out how oblivious he is this season might be leading somewhere.)
But that intricate plotting would not be nearly as effective if it weren’t for the strong undercurrent of feeling that powers it. While there were several horrors throughout the third season, none hit quite as hard as the panicked, furious look on Paige’s face when she demanded to know if any of the photos of the family album were real. (It doesn’t hurt that those earlier catastrophes all served to reinforce how easily situations in the Jennings’ lives can get out of hand, and how “getting out of hand” nearly always means someone dies.) The greatest genre shows use their genre to dig at universal realities, and this season has uncovered a bitter one: childhood doesn’t end, it shatters. And in the wreckage that follows, no one escapes without injury.
A finale review by Erik Adams will run after the episode’s East Coast airing.