I’ve loved The Americans for a long time now – probably since the show shook off its few growing pains about halfway through the first season and never looked back. But even with that love, I’d have to acknowledge that it’s always been a show that was a little over-stuffed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, not when every plot line and character delivers such quality, nuance, and depth. From Philip’s faux marriage with FBI secretary Martha to Elizabeth’s series of informants, from the complex relationship between the Jennings and their “handler” to the intricacies of the Russian embassy, from Nina Krilova, exiled to Russia, to the Jennings’ fraught relationship with their daughter Paige – every bit of it is compelling, rich, and thoughtful. But it’s taken a toll on the show to some degree, forcing it to split its time among all of these threads, and sometimes leaving you wanting more.
So, part of what’s made this season of The Americans the best yet – and given how good the show always is, that’s no small feat – is the way it’s narrowed its focus this season, wrapping up storylines with ruthless efficiency and allowing the show to focus almost entirely on the tensions within the Jennings household. And given how much is going on there – the couple’s anxiety about Paige’s knowledge, the constant fear of being caught, to say nothing of the toll that their missions are taking on them – that’s a wise choice. Mind you, that choice doesn’t mean that the storylines in question get short shrift; if anything, it’s the opposite, as The Americans delivers some of the most powerful material the show’s ever done as the noose of suspicion tightens around Martha’s neck, or as Nina begins to realize the true hopelessness of her situation.
Nor does it mean that the show can’t continue to develop new storylines and threads. Indeed, the addition of Dylan Baker this season as a Russian plant in an American biological weapons division is one of the best “gets” the show has ever gotten, with Baker’s cynicism and weariness bringing out so many of the show’s themes and ideas without even having to utter a word. More than that, Baker gives Philip a true counterpart, someone who understands what this job can do to you, and with whom Philip strikes up a genuine bond – one that reminds us what it must do to you to make your whole life a performance.
In the end, though, The Americans belongs to three actors: Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, and Holly Taylor. Rhys and Russell have been delivering astonishing performances since the series began, and they’ve only grown more and more effective as the show has continued, and Philip and Elizabeth have come to rely on each other more and more. But the show’s choice to add Paige into their circle of trust means that Holly Taylor, who plays Paige, has had to match their work – and that she has, making Paige into one of the most heartbreaking characters on television today, as she tries to reconcile her rapidly emerging self with the dual life she’s forced to live. It comes to the point where we wonder if Paige is taking actions for herself, or for her family – and whether she even knows herself.
More than that, though, we start to see what the pressures of this job can do to people. What does it mean to live a double life at all times? What does it do to your ability to connect to other human beings? Is an ideology – any ideology – worth giving up your entire life, and maybe even your entire self?
The Americans doesn’t always offer answers, and when it does, they’re nebulous, at best. It doesn’t take political sides, it doesn’t traffic in historical irony, and it doesn’t take shortcuts. Instead, it tells the story of life as a spy in America, and the toll it takes, and lets the morality simmer, in every shade of gray imaginable. And that willingness to let the audience think about choices – and make their own calls – is a rarity in storytelling anywhere, much less on television. But that’s part of what makes The Americans maybe the best show on television right now.