On March 8, 1983, President Ronald Reagan addressed the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. His remarks ranged widely, touching on the Book of Isaiah and The Screwtape Letters, Alexis de Tocqueville and the Declaration of Independence, but his central subject, as he described it, was the knowledge “that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin.” Though it was his invocation of the Soviet Union’s “evil empire” that made waves, as we see in a nightly news segment at the end of tonight’s episode of The Americans, it’s Reagan’s decision to cast Cold War politics in such stark terms, both secular and religious, that underlines the moral compromises on which the series has focused throughout its brilliant third season. In “March 8, 1983,” 48 minutes that come as near to perfection as television can, it turns out that the phenomenology of evil and the doctrine of sin are inadequate hermeneutics for the dark night of the soul.
In the crack of a corpse’s bones and the melody of a church-pew hymn, in death by fire and rebirth by water, The Americans, not unlike HBO’s The Leftovers, understands that in the wrong hands, belief, whether ideological or supernatural, may be no more than a kissing cousin to the violence it justifies, and “March 8, 1983” is nothing if not a test of faith. To trust one’s family, one’s country, one’s God, the episode suggests, isn’t only to find sustenance, but also, as Paige (Holly Taylor) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) come to realize, to become vulnerable to unimaginable pain. “Yousaf,” Philip explains, after the asset (Rahul Khanna) reports on the cancellation of the mujahedeen meeting with U.S. officials, “I feel like shit all the time.”
Even in its most hopeful moments this season, as Henry (Keidrich Sellati) developed a relationship with Stan (Noah Emmerich) and Philip skirted Kimmy’s advances with kindness, The Americans tapped a vein of grief—for Henry’s friendship with Stan signaled his growing neglect by Philip and Elizabeth, and Philip’s rare frankness with Kimmy stood in stark contrast to the depths of his dishonesty with Martha. Thus the visitation from Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) mother (Aleksandra Myrna) in a West Berlin hotel room, the clasped hands of kinship and, later, the comfort of prayer, is nonetheless fraught with disappointment. “Oh, my little one,” Elizabeth’s mother coos, her daughter kneeling at her feet. “All this time gone.” There’s a shine of tears in Elizabeth’s eyes as she accepts her mother’s faint reassurances, but as with Paige that night, lying in bed wondering if she’ll face the same fate, there’s no staving off uncertainty altogether. This is how The Americans views faith, broadly defined: as a desperate, never-ending battle with doubt, one in which we cannot be victors.
And so trust necessarily shatters. After working with him all season to retrieve Nina (Annet Mahendru) from her Soviet prison, Oleg (Costa Ronin) betrays his country by confirming to Stan that Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova) is no defector; Stan in turn betrays Oleg by recording the conversation and bringing it to Agent Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas). “Sex-expression is self-expression,” a slide at one EST seminar reads, and indeed Stan’s intimate relationship with Nina has, in her absence, uncovered new layers in his identity. Once such a company man that it threatened his marriage, Stan’s long since gone rogue. “Do you give a shit about the Bureau, Stan?” Gaad asks. “Did you put the bug in my office?” Of course, all of Stan’s efforts are for naught. Though one of Reagan’s functionaries, Deputy Attorney General Warren (Cotter Smith), saves him from Gaad’s disciplinary measures in order to maintain the promising connection with Oleg, Nina, increasingly under the Soviet-resistant sway of Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov), is unlikely to be rescued anytime soon. Stan’s commitment to country has wavered, as so has its commitment to him.
Blame for the bug will instead fall to F.B.I. technology specialist Gene Craft (Luke Robertson), thanks to Philip’s terrifying intervention in the course of events—one of several passages in “March 8, 1983” to achieve a striking coherence of form and function, further evidence that The Americans is more sharply directed than its critics give it credit for. As Craft enters his apartment, we spy Philip in the lower-right corner of the frame, lurking in the background. When Craft moves, so does Philip, disappearing behind him until, suddenly, a pair of arms appears, moving in for the kill. Their struggle, a deadly dance filmed from a high angle in a single, gut-wrenching take, only amplifies the horror of the sequence, its emphatic illustration, from Philip’s ragged disguise and shifty manner to his desecration of Craft’s good name, that our heroes are also capable of evil, of sin. Planting evidence and staging Craft’s suicide, Philip completes perhaps his most hideous crime of all, but the camerawork, holding on the note he types on Craft’s computer as Philip departs, offers a reminder that such actions eventually take their toll. The words might also apply to Philip, reeling from all the lives he’s ruined this season: “I had no choice… I’m sorry.”
The construction of the episode, then, creates an echo effect, a call-and-response that binds each of the characters into a kind of Cold War complicity, however idealistic their motives. “March 8, 1983” dredges up the season’s dominant themes and, without losing its subtle affect, charges them with new meaning. We never stop being our parents’ children, no matter what disagreements or distances may separate us—and so Paige discovers what her mother’s work entails on a dim sidewalk in Kreuzberg, Elizabeth offers a simple “Mamuschka” upon seeing her mother, and Gabriel (Frank Langella) advises Philip to “grow up.” We can never eliminate the need for human connection, for touch, no matter how pure our beliefs—and so Anton urges Nina to decline “the things the body cries out for,” the camera closes in on Philip as the EST seminar leader calls on the participants to listen to their gut, and Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner) admits that “the sex part’s not really about the sex…It’s about everything.”
The series remains committed to the notion that no country or ideology holds a monopoly on evil, that no person is without sin, for its only belief by this point is in the omnipresence of doubt, in the truth, as Elizabeth tells Paige, that “everybody lies.” And so the season finale of The Americans, an impossibly bleak portrait of the universal battle of hearts against minds, culminates in an extraordinary, five-minute-long sequence in which Philip and Paige’s respective tests of faith, juxtaposed with Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and Elizabeth’s interest therein, promise to tear the Jennings family asunder once and for all. Cutting back and forth between Paige, seeking solace over the phone from Pastor Tim, and her parents, discussing the aftermath of Philip’s violent act, the scene comes to seem almost a microcosm of the entire season. Philip, increasingly troubled by his own compromises, Elizabeth, newly confident in her choices, Paige, in such pain that even prayer fails to assuage it, and Reagan, staking out moral high ground before a convention of evangelical Christians, represent what one might call the four quadrants of The Americans, the ever-evolving arrangements of spiritual and secular, ideology and instinct. For all my speculation about Martha’s impending demise, the uses of mail robots, and the mission inside Northrop Grumman, the episode zigs where I expected it to zag, and Paige finally confesses the truth, or nearly all of it. “I can’t take it,” she tells Pastor Tim. “They’re liars. They’re liars, and they’re trying to turn me into one. They’re not who they say they are. They’re not Americans. I’m not supposed to say it, you can’t tell anyone. They’re Russians.”
In the end, like Mad Men’s The Grown Ups,” set during and immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, “March 8, 1983” uses an epochal moment to suggest the irrevocable in each character’s life, their points of no return. The series of dissolves that concludes the season finale suggests a number of readings to echo the episode’s narrative developments (the ellipsis of change over time, the dreamlike emergence of new mentalities), but most forceful of all is the indication that the characters are linked together despite the emotional distance among them, a kind of complicity in its own right. The scene shifts from Henry and Stan bonding over football, to Paige on the phone in her room, to Reagan on television, to Philip lost in thought, and finally to Elizabeth, watching intently, as a new era in the Cold War begins.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.