Mar 12, 2016 Film & TV
An acclaimed series returns without titillation, just a growing sense of impending crisis.
The first hour of The Americans’ fourth season is titled “Glanders”, after the deadly disease the Russians are attempting to weaponise with the help of our deep-cover KGB spies, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. But it could just as well be called “Are You Okay?”, the question Elizabeth puts to her husband with increasing urgency throughout the episode.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell), a steely true believer in the Soviet cause, is unable — or unwilling — to see it, but Philip (Matthew Rhys) is very obviously not okay. There’s the fact their elaborately crafted deceit is springing more leaks than a Lada’s oil sump, for starters. Both Philip’s “second wife”, FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright), and his daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) now know he’s a Russian spy, and to say that neither is handling it well would be something of an understatement. Then there’s his relationship with handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) which teeters on the edge of complete breakdown as suspicion grows on either side.
Meanwhile, the effects of all those murders and suicide stagings and death-scene clean-ups are becoming ever harder to bear, especially when they involve innocent bystanders like Gene, the gentle IT guy Philip kills to save his own skin. As the threat of exposure looms, Philip suggests that he and Elizabeth cut and run. But they both know they’re in too deep. Not long after, he’s strangling to death another poor sap who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, a look of dead-eyed determination on his face. Philip may be cracking up, but he can still compartmentalise like a champ.
Despite its wide and sustained acclaim, the return of The Americans for its fourth season is now only a niche concern. If you’re not already watching you are unlikely to jump in at episode 51, an expertly made but defiantly understated start to the year. These days, that’s how highly serialised shows like The Americans work: you might throw in an end-of-season cliffhanger to keep existing audiences hooked, but premiere-episode dramatics are largely a waste of time.
Back when there was still some hope of attracting channel-hoppers, season two opened with a gruesome massacre and a particularly titillating sexual encounter that had the blogs aflutter for days. This time around the focus is squarely on the characters, all fatally compromised, all hurtling towards psychological meltdown. Alongside the superb Rhys and Russell (now a real-life couple with a baby on the way, bless ’em), standout performances include Taylor as the deeply moral Paige, and new castmate Dylan Baker as the Ruskies’ latest inside man, who he plays as a petulant, sour-faced jerk. For now, The Americans’ stunts and stylistic flourishes have been sidelined, replaced by a tragic, ratcheting sense of crisis. And that’s okay.