Not all that long into the third season of The Americans, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) remembers a moment from her formative years in the Soviet Union, of her mother casually dismissing her dead husband as a deserter to the communist cause. It’s a critical point in the formation of Elizabeth’s ironclad nationalism, the same one that leads her to groom her daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), as a sleeper agent for Mother Russia. Exactly how we pass history and personal wisdom onto our children, and just how these notions are ultimately expressed, is part and parcel of the myriad psychological, sociological, and political ruminations that series creator Joe Weisberg and the show’s writers continue to toil over.
Just as Elizabeth and husband Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) connections with F.B.I. agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) have grown increasingly personal and close, the geopolitical moves the pair makes are now dizzyingly intricate and pointedly reflective of the times. Their recent operations are aimed at gathering information on Afghanistan intelligence, with one character labeling the conflict in the Middle East as “Russia’s Vietnam.” The formidable toll of the motherland’s colonialist itch in Afghanistan is felt early on in the third season, when the mix of romantic yearnings and the duplicity of double agency lead to the brutal murder of one of Philip’s favored assets. The slaying yields a key Afghan contact, Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), but both his and Philip’s closeness to this particular asset haunts both characters.
Throughout The Americans, there’s an ever-present sense of an unwieldy narrative arc being perpetually built up, which has become a noticeable trend in primetime television. Each episode works within a tenuous, vast web of national and personal loyalties, to say nothing of the popular history and culture of the era, but if one can barely grip the shape of a season’s narrative, it’s because of how the political is so duplicitously subsumed in the personal. The plotting is less tight-knot than the characters, who are all prone to gestures that are at once expressions of sincerity and manipulation. This would include Philip gifting Paige a copy of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s, an empathetic olive branch from a father to his daughter that’s also a blatant, crafty maneuver against Elizabeth, with whom he disagrees on everything from parenting to national allegiance. In this way, The Americans locates a stirring balance between the brooding, heated familial melodrama and the equally taut, often lethal procedures of its infectious spy drama in ways that often evade works set in the 1980s. For Weisberg and company, the attention is less on the characters donning Springsteen jeans or Cyndi Lauper hairdos than how they reconcile their individuality with their accepted national identity and “duties.”
They’re hardly the show’s only pair pulled apart by the nuances of geopolitical conflicts. At home, Beeman is estranged from his wife, Sandra (Susan Misner), and at the office, he’s faced with the looming fate of Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru), his former Soviet informant and lover, currently imprisoned in Moscow. It’s not until after Beeman is nearly executed by Nina’s close friend and colleague, Oleg (Costa Ronin), that the agent is moved to actually work for reconciliation with Sandra. Elizabeth is similarly shook up and refocuses her energies after nearly getting nabbed by a pair of F.B.I. agents, and the show’s commitment to articulating Paige’s increasingly mainstream-America values lends a key measure of understanding to both Elizabeth’s panic over her daughter’s identity and her own bull-headed nationalism. In Philip’s case, his fear and uncertainty over Paige’s future grows morally complex and disquieting when he’s implored to target, seduce, and pump the rebellious teenage daughter of a C.I.A. honcho for information.
While watching news clips of President Reagan’s visit to Russia upon the death of Leonid Brezhnev, Oleg and a comrade consider the fact that Reagan made the trip because his perceived adversary was so close in age to the commander in chief. Each man’s dedication to the idealized concept of their respective nations and political systems, along with rampant egotism, was the driving force behind the war between Reagan and Brezhnev, and it’s similarly the underlying rift beneath Elizabeth and Philip’s increasingly common spats, especially in relation to Paige. Few series (or movies, for that matter) have so brazenly and inventively envisioned nationalist tendencies as great weaknesses without tipping into outright nihilism. Working with a uniformly subtle and expressive cast of players, the writers sneak in small, unassuming truths about family life and the benefits of modulated pride. At one point, Paige admits to Elizabeth that she feels like she and Philip look out for each other, even more so than their kids. It’s a revelatory moment for Elizabeth, realizing that her prejudices are quietly corrupting her family. She seems less concerned with (or aware of) the toxicity of the strict nationalism she means to pass onto Paige, a chilling echo of her mother’s belief in the Soviet Union’s great communist future, fueled by ideologies grounded in daydreams of national supremacy, and irreconcilable with personal loyalties and truth.