There’s nothing quite like The Americans. Its depressing nature and slow plotting may be a turnoff for some, but the characters are exceptionally well-written and fully realized. This is a show where almost nothing happens in the span of 40 minutes but is still oddly captivating to watch (much like my new favorite show The Affair), and it only keeps getting better with every season, making it one of the finest shows on television today.
Right from the pilot, The Americans distinguishes itself as a unique, complex period drama headlined by Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys. The duo are perfectly cast as the Russian spies posing as a married American family in the 1980s who use their travel agency job to hide their secret identity from their teenage kids and the FBI agent living across the street. The debut season is meticulously written and well-plotted with a number of fantastic character developments and dark, gritty storytelling. Also, there’s bucket loads of spy hijinks and a range of intriguing supporting characters (Granny Claudia certainly stands out). Visually, the show is also fascinating; scenes either linger on a few seconds too long or end abruptly in an open-ended matter, leaving viewers the opportunity to wonder how these characters react. Then, when you least expect it the show pulls the rug from underneath with a startling development that never feels contrived, and even though the season finale doesn’t deliver jaw-dropping revelations, it still offers a satisfying conclusion to numerous storylines while opening up the door to so many new ones.
In the second season, Philip and Elizabeth’s work puts their entire family in jeopardy as the Jennings struggle to find balance in their marriage. The show becomes much more thematic, particularly in the eighth episode New Car, and there’s an added “whodunit” mystery to the season with the addition of another Russian family posing as Americans. Things become a bit complicated halfway through, but the finale weaves everything together in a carefully plotted hour that offers a truly remarkable ending to Stan’s heartbreaking storyline and a shocking twist to the mystery introduced in the premiere. Plus, the final scene regarding Paige shows that the writers have been slowly building up to what should be an incredible storyline next year.
Season 3 had a very promising start: shifting the focus onto Paige was a wise move as she dug deeper into her journey of self-discovery, and Holly Taylor was luckily up to the task with a top-notch emotional performance. That, coupled with two MAJOR game-changing reveals, the heartbreakingly unforgettable ninth episode and a few unapologetic gory scenes (the teeth plucking!), made this a truly intense season of television. However, the writers never got a real grip on the Northrop storyline and the Lisa character in particular. Additionally, I was not impressed with the finale; while the season ends on a chilling cliffhanger, I expected more resolutions from several other season-long arcs (Martha and Kimmy come to mind). The fact that the writers left so many subplots up in the air made this season feel a bit overstuffed, and I would have preferred a much more satisfying conclusion to an otherwise unforgettable season.
It feels like everything was leading up to this season of The Americans where the writers crossed off several characters (the gruesome, shocking death of one main character was especially disturbing) while simultaneously making room for so many new storylines. Dylan Baker’s guest appearances provided some much needed comic relief to a show that’s awfully serious and depressing in tone almost all the time, and Paige continued to defy expectations with some fascinating developments that were thoroughly compelling to watch. However, the MVP of the season is undeniably Alyson Wright who singlehandedly stole the show with her gut-wrenching performance, adding so much depth to a character that would have easily faltered in someone else’s hands. Her entire storyline, which admittedly flipped the show’s status quo, was utterly PERFECT from start to finish and its effects live on even in the slightly underwhelming and exposition-heavy finale. Regardless of how this show concludes its seasons (something I’m still not used to), I’m looking forward to see where the writers take the Jennings and the entire gang next.
Bits in Disguise
(Note: full of spoilers, read only if you’ve watched all four seasons)
– Margo Martindale (Claudia) was a series’ highlight with her granny-like attitude and snappy remarks at the Jennings. It’s no surprise she won an Emmy for her guest appearances (the only Emmy this show has ever won so far).
– Noah Emmerich (Stan) delivers a truly powerful performance throughout the entire show. It’s also worth noting that anytime he or Mathew Rhys (Philip) direct an episode, it’s visually more compelling than usual.
– I never liked Gregory or his forced subplot, so I wasn’t particularly moved or surprised that he was gone so quickly, unlike Chris Amador’s death which was quite poignant.
– The reveal that Jared, Emmett and Leanne’s son, was the real murderer was an unexpected twist. His final scene was a bit exposition-heavy but also incredibly intense.
– I don’t know why the show never realized what to do with Sandra (Susan Misner). She seemed quite integral at first but slowly started fading out and only appeared in a handful of “est”-related scenes in the most recent season.
– Paige and Henry are really written quite splendidly. TV kids are usually the worst, so it’s a relief to see the writers properly give these kids good material (despite Henry receiving very limited screentime).
– I loved Nina’s storyline in the first two seasons, but containing her into a prison cell for the ENTIRE third season was slightly underwhelming. As realistic and dark this show wants to be, this was very unfair for a character that was truly fascinating at first.
– I loved that mail robot! It’s strange to see that it existed in the ‘80s considering how modern it actually seems and works.
– The third season bringing back the storyline of Martha bugging Agent Gaad’s pen from season one was amazing and left me uneasy for several episodes.
– Philip plucking out Elizabeth’s teeth in the basement made me want to throw up. The camera position, the lighting and the powerhouse performances by our two main leads made this scene a truly unforgettable one.
– I can’t mention this enough: the ninth episode of the third season “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” is the single most heartbreaking and disturbing hour of television I have ever witnessed. Elizabeth sitting with Betty (a brilliant Lois Smith), making small talk before making her realize that there’s no way she can let her get out alive, then handing her the pills to overdose on, was brutal in every single way. Perfection.
– I never would have expected Paige to find out about her parents the way she did: by simply asking them. What a game-changing twist that was!
– Philip revealing his true identity to Martha was also equally magnificent.
– No other death in the history of television has shocked me like Nina’s. It was undeniably the most sudden execution in television history thanks to how this show has mastered the intense, slow-burn type of plotting that culminates in a jaw-dropping moment. I also love that this show doesn’t treat it as this big, shocking arc. Nina dies, people find out and the world goes on. Brilliantly depressing.
– Most of the times, episodes seem purposely anticlimactic as if the writers are simply testing the audience into seeing how far they’re willing to watch characters simply “react” rather than “do something” such as in the way season four handled Young-Hee’s subplot.
– Elizabeth’s latest persona, Patty, was my favorite disguise as she often added comic relief to the storyline. Even better was how the show refused to let us in on the scam until the very end of this plan (which was expectedly heartbreaking).
– Throughout the first three seasons, the show constantly had me questioning who to really root for, but shipping Martha off to Russia in season four without letting her parents know had me wanting the Jennings to die a horrible death.
– Most surprising move of all: the 7-month time jump that occurs in “The Magic of David Copperfield V The Statue of Liberty”, an episode that felt like a series finale with an added reboot twist at the end.
– Amusing touch: Paige reporting to her parents every time Mathew talks about his dad’s FBI adventures. She really is going to be a well-trained spy one day.
– I really want Henry to shock us all and have him be a sleeper agent as well.
Quips from the Motherland
Elizabeth: I’m sorry I didn’t kill you. That’s my apology.
Claudia: Better luck next time.
Philip: What are you, the Kenny Rogers of Tel Aviv?
Philip: It would destroy her.
Elizabeth: To be like us?
Elizabeth: If you could go back…
Philip: Back? What do you mean back?
Elizabeth: With Martha. If our kids were grown, and you could just get out of this whole life…
Philip: What are you talking about?
Elizabeth: Would you? Go with her?
Philip: Are you crazy? Martha and I…
Elizabeth: I’d understand.
Philip: It’s not like that. At all.
Philip: We’ve been on a break.
William: A break? We get breaks?
Stan [to a pregnant Alice]: Oh, I see Elizabeth’s not the only one with a roast in the oven.
Lawrence: I’ve got news for you. You love your prison. You love the prison you’ve made for yourself. If somebody came along and broke the lock right now, you wouldn’t know what the hell to do with yourself…wouldn’t have a clue.
With exceptional performances, tight plotting and a compellingly fitting ‘80s soundtrack, The Americans went from being an interesting complex drama to must-see television in the span of four seasons. Highly recommended.