The Americans became one of the best shows on television on the strength of a metaphor: Spying — espionage, secrets, lies, loyalty, and betrayal — as an alternate version of what it’s like for anyone to live in a family. Although we’re following the clandestine assignments of a pair of Russian spies living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., during the Reagan era, the show achieves its best effects when it makes things personal — small-scale and intimate.
The fourth season, premiering on Wednesday, picks up where last season left off, with the teen daughter of our top-secret snooping-twosome, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), now in on her parents’ secret. Young Paige, played with notable poise by Holly Taylor, is now in effect an accomplice in everything her parents do, even if they keep her in the dark as best they can about their specific, seditious assignments. (When Paige asks them if “people get hurt” in the work they do, their rapid, in unison, “No! Of course not!” is one of the most heartbreaking lies you’ll ever hear.)
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This adds extra layers of anxiety and anguish to the show. When it first premiered in 2013, it was difficult to imagine that creator Joe Weisberg would be able to sustain the spies-in-suburbia conceit, especially given the sometimes foolish-looking wigs and facial hair Philip and Elizabeth regularly had to sport while on assignment. (Or was that furry absurdity simply a function of our 21st-century eyes not believing the long sideburns and pornstache lip decorations of the 1980s?)
Yet here we are, now four seasons in, and I’m aching to see how Paige squares her budding religious faith and chaste devotion to Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) with the need to keep secrets that seem all the more potentially awful the longer her parents withhold further intel from her.
In the four hours FX made available for review, The Americans does an awfully good job of juggling its numerous subplots. Nosy, nervous FBI secretary Martha (Allison Wright) is also moving closer to the ultimate truth about Philip, even as the FBI agent next-door, Noah Emmerich’s Stan, becomes more suspicious of… well, everyone. Since losing his wife (Susan Misner) to the self-help cult EST, his radar is up and at-full-attention — instead of being a sappy cuckold, the show turns him into a more obsessed, cagey man. He’s another example of the show’s organizing principle: He uses his skills as an intelligence agent to gain information about his own life.
Frank Langella is back as Elizabeth and Philip’s handler, Gabriel, and I wish Richard Thomas was more prominent as FBI supervisor Gaad, although perhaps that will happen deeper into the season. If there’s a weak spot in the series, it’s that the subplot involving Nina (Annet Mahendru), the Russian KGB agent now in a Soviet prison, seems increasingly extraneous to the show.
Dylan Baker makes a strong impression early on as a new character, a grim biochemical-warfare chemist who literally hands Philip and Elizabeth their toughest assignment yet. Can’t say much more without giving away details that might get me killed; I’d hate to be transported back to the ‘80s to face a fierce Keri Russell in fight mode.
The Americans airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.