‘The Americans’ Enters Season Four Defying Expectations

The Americans returns with another promising season for the Emmys to all-but ignore

The Americans is a television prodigy.

The soviet-spy drama has the most consistently commendable reputation of any show in this golden era of television. It’s laudable in every way imaginable. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are impeccable as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings. The writing is extraordinarily well-shaded with historical insight and intelligent narrative power. The directing keeps a firm, calculated control over the cynical, cold story this show is telling.

Yet it has faced an upward battle in the way it has been received. Critics have been the only essential sector of the television-watching world to be enamored by creator Joe Weisberg’s show. For a television series that receives such a boost from critics, the lack of Emmy recognition is almost implausible. (It did thankfully begin to break through the glass ceiling last year in the major categories with a nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series.)

Despite an inability to deliver the most helpful ratings to the network, FX renewed the show for a fourth season, and thankfully so. The story will be able to unfold after the predictable yet life-altering conclusion from season three in the way it was imagined. The new season began with “Glanders,” which took the series off its usual dramatically raw note and nuanced storytelling style. But concerning the new season’s structure, “Glanders” did not make the resolution of season three’s cliffhanger its centerpiece. This struck me odd considering the weight of Paige revealing that her parents are spies for the Soviet Union to Pastor Tim.

After the season three finale, I thought through every possibility for how The Americans would continue since the cat was taken out of the bag. But the direction they chose to take – by not focusing on fireworks in the first two episodes – is surprising (and slightly disappointing). Instead, the premiere focused on Martha’s unresolved storyline from the second to last episode of season three. Here, she discovered her husband, “Clarke,” was not her husband but actually Phillip in disguise. (The fact that they did not reveal Martha’s concrete reaction in the season three finale was frustrating, so maybe they felt they had to overcompensate in this premiere.) As I mentioned before, “Glanders” is not The Americans performing in its usual tone. The show rarely dips into melodrama – typically maintaining an unyielding poker face – but in this premiere it unnecessarily went there. I found it regrettable that the series chose to go this route. Still, Paige’s revelation remains simmering under the surface, fodder for future drama no doubt.

In fact, Paige’s betrayal does not begin to crystalize until episode two, “Pastor Tim.” The creative team is not going for Elizabeth and Phillips’ central reaction to be one of anger, a route I assumed they would have taken but have not. Instead, The Americans is steering towards more subdued playing field of mind games. That psychological factors are drenched in the script for “Pastor Tim,” in particular with Elizabeth’s character development. Her individual storyline from last year came to a close with the death of her mother in Russia in the midst of Paige revealing she told Pastor Tim the family secret. These two events act as a collective dagger in the mother/daughter parallel relationships The Americans have used so nicely to enact part of the show’s allegory.

The overall progression of events in “Pastor Tim” will only make more sense as the season further rolls out as these first two episodes have been so deliberate and modest in their handling of Paige’s storyline. “Pastor Tim” reinstates the show’s somber flavor and earnestly improves upon the first episode. Still, The Americans is not firing as potently as it should be so far in when the Jennings’ life-threatening secret is on the line of being exposed. I was never a fan of the way “March 8, 1983” ended the exemplary third season to begin with, so there could be a problem if there is not a big payoff for it down the road for “going there” with Paige and Pastor Tim. But maybe the expectations game is tainting my view of this storyline.

“Pastor Tim” does do something memorably better than “Glanders.” Its character development builds using articulate dialogue and dense character exchanges, specifically between Elizabeth with Phillip in the opening and concluding scenes and Elizabeth with Paige both with the news of the death of Elizabeth’s mother and Paige’s confession. These deeply personal yet simple moments between the characters in impossible situations are what few shows do as well as The Americans.

The most admirable aspect of The Americans is the freedom FX allots it from deviating from delivering a commercialized product. The liberation from FX’s standards is most evident when analyzing the first season of The Americans against its second two. There is a correlation between a lack of excess violence and superfluous sexual content and The Americans‘ killer second season and near-perfect third season. When writers and directors are not held back by conventional, brain-frying material, something luminous is able to be created. That’s what happens in this show. Few shows have this privilege, so adults wanting adult television should not allow The Americans to pass by.

Though season four began more quietly than the previous season’s cliffhanger suggested it would, the groundwork is being laid for another intricate, compelling, and possibly explosive story arc.