In its first three seasons on FX, The Americans has never been a huge ratings hit. Its most recent season finale barely topped 1 million viewers. It’s never been nominated in the Best Drama category at the Emmy Awards. It’s never even been nominated for a Golden Globe, an awards show that loves to shower prizes on little-watched series. And there are no dragons or zombies to be found.
Yet despite everything working against it, The Americans is also hands-down one of the best shows on television.
Set in Cold War-era Washington, D.C., The Americans tells the story of a seemingly normal American couple, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who are actually Soviet spies. And while the show features enough espionage and violence to satisfy almost anyone on a surface level, its true success is the way it depicts the family drama at its center.
For the first few seasons, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ young children had no knowledge of what their parents were up to when they claimed to be working late at their travel agency. But all that changed near the end of Season Three when they finally told their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) who they are.
Philip and Elizabeth’s handlers urged them to bring Paige into the fold, in the hopes that she would eventually join their efforts against the United States. But as we learned in the last moments of Season Three, their plan appears to have backfired in a big way.
Unable to keep this enormous secret any longer, Paige calls her trusted confidant, Pastor Tim, on the phone and slowly but surely tells him that her parents are “not Americans.” As Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech plays in the background, Paige tells him that her parents are Russians and don’t want anyone to know. She doesn’t have to say anything more for him to get the picture.
In a series that has included such graphic imagery as its main character breaking a dead woman’s bones to fit her in a suitcase, the phone call between Paige and Pastor Tim was as suspenseful as The Americans has ever been. Heading into Season Four, the central conceit of the show could be in jeopardy.
If Paige’s pastor decides to go to the authorities, then her parents “will go to jail, for good,” as her father warned, and her world as she’s thought she’s known it all her life will be over. Early in the new episodes—the first four of which were made available to critics by FX—we learn that Elizabeth has bugged Pastor Tim’s office. It’s only a matter of time before she discovers that Paige has blown their cover. No one on The Americans has ever learned the true nature of Philip and Elizabeth’s work and lived to talk about it, which means Pastor Tim is in far more danger than either he or Paige could ever imagine.
And Paige too is conflicted about her decision. When she asks her parents if people get hurt because of the work that they do, Elizabeth replies, “You know us better than that”—a mild comfort to her but a chilling moment for viewers. As Paige composes herself outside of her high school classroom while her classmates recite the Pledge of Allegiance inside, we can see the combination of fear and regret on her face.
The possibility of Philip and Elizabeth getting caught is the ultimate existential threat for the series. But the fourth season of The Americans has an even bigger threat up its sleeve: biological warfare.
On a show full of excellent character actors, The Americans has added one more in Dylan Baker, who joins the cast this year as another Soviet spy, posing as an American scientist in order to obtain samples of biological weapons capable of killing thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians.
With just one short scene in the premiere, Baker makes his mark with a withering sarcasm rarely seen on the show. Asked by Philip and Elizabeth if he knows he’s under surveillance, he deadpans, “No, I just thought random people couldn’t stop staring at me because I’m so handsome.” Then he gives them a sample of a biological weapon that promises to give its victims a disease called “Glanders”—the title of the first episode. As Baker describes it, Glanders “is to meningitis what bubonic plague is to a runny nose.”
The episode ends with a sequence nearly as panic-inducing as Paige’s phone call. The Jennings’ FBI agent neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) confronts Philip about his ongoing friendship with his ex-wife Sandra. “Are you screwing my wife?” an increasingly unhinged Stan asked as he slams Philip against the wall with the bioweapon sample in his pocket.
The new season also finds Stan starting to become suspicious of Martha, his coworker at the FBI who is secretly married to Clark, one of Philip’s cover identities. Last season, Martha was on the verge of being caught placing a bug in the FBI director’s office on Clark’s request. But ultimately Philip sacrificed her friend Gene to protect her.
“What have you done?” Martha asks Clark when he decides to reveal what he did to keep her safe. But she quickly realizes that she is just as much at fault. “What have I done?” she asks herself. “I killed him.” Thanks to Alison Wright’s consistently skillful performance, it is one of the most powerful moments in this week’s premiere. But shockingly, it does not represent a breaking point for Martha. In a later episode, Martha calls her sham marriage with Clark “the most honest relationship” she’s ever experienced.
It became clear early on in The Americans’ run that any stability in these characters’ lives would always be on the verge of collapse. In its fourth season, with Pastor Tim’s life, Martha’s sense of reality and potential biological warfare all hanging in the balance—not to mention the devastating debacle of Nina’s exile in Russia—the show has only raised the stakes.
Those stakes are encapsulated by a conversation in the third episode between the Jennings’ former handler Claudia (guest actor Margo Martindale, the show’s only Emmy winner, in an unexpected return) and their new one Gabriel (Broadway legend Frank Langella). Discussing a certain predicament, Gabriel tells Claudia they have “no other choice” but to essentially abort the entire decades-long mission. Moments later, he adds, “There are no good choices here.”
“First there were no choices, now there are no good choices,” Claudia replies. “I’d say we’re making progress.”
There are never any “good choices” on The Americans. It’s the nature of the clandestine work Philip and Elizabeth do. But at one point in time, they at least believed they were risking their lives for the greater good.
Now, they aren’t so sure that’s the case. As a despairing Philip tells Elizabeth in Season Four, “I’m looking for some good in all of this.”
As hard as any sense of hope is to find in the world of the show, The Americans itself has never been better.