‘The Americans’ season 3 lives up to expectations

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‘The Americans’ season 3 lives up to expectations

photo via wikipedia

photo via wikipedia

photo via wikipedia

photo via wikipedia

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At the moment, “The Americans” might be the best show that no one has heard about. A dark and intense drama about two KGB spies living in the U.S. as a happily married couple with two kids, this show doesn’t mess around when it comes to depicting the emotional and physical turmoil that seems to go hand in hand with Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ (Matthew Rhys and Kerri Russel) life as spies. As compelling an antihero story as you can find on TV, the third season’s premiere episode, “EST Men,” is as much a continuation of season two’s high quality, turbulent storytelling as it is the beginning of an entirely new chapter in the characters’ lives.

Last season left the characters with a series of life-altering revelations about the world they live in. Now, Elizabeth and Philip are dealing with the inevitable (and continual) collision of their “cover” lives and their identities as KGB agents. The opening scene—Elizabeth remembering when she threw her daughter Paige into a pool, despite cries of protest, in a determined and almost heartless effort to teach her to swim—shows a colliding of the traditionally Russian and KGB intolerance for weakness and her life in America as a mother and a wife.

In 1982, the stakes are higher. Paige is still being sought after by the Centre as a second generation asset and the infiltration of their Russian lives into their family creates palpable tension between Elizabeth and Philip. Elizabeth and Philip’s drastically different approaches to the situation with Paige comes to a head when they visit their previous (and future) handler, Gabriel, who is charmingly paternal until he asks how their progress with initiating Paige is going. Elizabeth assures him they’re doing what they should be doing, while Philip looks on in horror and confusion. During the resulting fight between them, Elizabeth claims she is only telling the Centre what they want to hear. But the entire exchange makes us wonder if this is really true or if Elizabeth, who has proved to be more devoted to the cause and to Russian values than Philip, actually wants Paige to be a part of their secret lives.

“The Americans” is a masterclass in depicting the struggle between performance and reality, something that Philip and Elizabeth have to use in order to do their work. But the extent to which the show uses it throughout all aspects of the story to upend the audience and make them increasingly unsure about characters’ motivations, desires and goals, is what makes this show so delightfully slippery. There is disconnect between what the audience is seeing and what we’re supposed to be believing. No character should be immune from being questioned, especially Elizabeth and Philip.

Such a quality story, an antihero story in particular, is only possible because of the dichotomy between Philip and Elizabeth’s status as the “heroes” and their role as KGB spies. They’ve killed and deceived, all on behalf of a nation that was the greatest enemy of the U.S. Yet we see them as parents who deeply care for their kids, as people who struggle against the ideals and directives of their own government and agency and, as is so important in storytelling, as fully flawed humans. This struggle is displayed perfectly in a scene in “EST Men,” where a disguised Elizabeth is almost apprehended by FBI Agent Gaad. A fight occurs and, even though in the long run we want the U.S. to come out over the Russians, when Elizabeth (or Philip or Nina) is put in danger, there is this undeniable desire to see them keep surviving, even succeeding in the face of U.S. interference. To have characters portrayed in this way is unnerving, ominously intense and so unbelievably compelling.

The third season’s focus on the melding of worlds is something that is already set up in this first episode in more ways than one. Just as Elizabeth and Philip are worried about, fighting about or anticipating the possible integration of Paige into their secret lives, they also have to deal with their own assets. The display throughout the show and in this episode, in particular about what terrible fates befall KGB assets (the CIA informant going to jail and Annalise falling victim to her mark just in this episode), makes the looming threat of what could happen to Paige if she is recruited even more of an issue. The tension this creates in Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship is something that could be extremely interesting throughout the rest of the season.

 

 

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