Joe Weisberg and FX Networks have impeccable timing. Just before the third season of The Americans, FX’s wonderfully intricate of Reagan-era spycraft and paranoia, federal prosecutors in the real world indicted three Russian nationals on espionage charges in New York. This case, with its angles of financial deceit and diplomatic immunity, is a bit more Lethal Weapon 2 than the slow burn of anything Weisberg puts us through
But The Americans couldn’t come back at a better time. Since we last saw Soviet phonies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, real-world Russia—led by a former KGB officer, no less—has conquered part of a neighboring country, been condemned and sanctioned by numerous industrialized nations, seen its economy deteriorate, and adopted increasingly retrograde policies. The Americans might be fundamentally, as Weisberg likes to say, “about a marriage,” but the scheduling is perfect.
In the premiere, it’s November 1982. Leonid Breznhev is dead, and Paige (Holly Taylor), the Jenningses’ 14-year-old daughter, could not care less as she flips away from television reports of the Soviet premier’s demise. As far as she knows, she’s still as American as the Reagan Administration’s ramp-up of aid to mujahideen fighters trying to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan—or, more directly, her newfound friends in the church youth group. She’s even got Elizabeth (Keri Russell) coming with her to services, though Elizabeth is not enthused about singing how she’s got a friend in Jesus.
As with previous threads in The Americans, Elizabeth’s newfound interest in her daughter’s extracurricular activities is a long con. It’s about making sure Paige is open-minded when the real truth arrives: that not only is she the daughter of deep-sleeper Soviet agents, but that it’s time for her to start being groomed to succeed her parents in spycraft, albeit with unimpeachably American credentials. That’s the mission the Jenningses’ handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale, nowhere to be seen for now), dropped on them in the second-season finale, and it’s what the Centre still wants in the season premiere, as reiterated by Gabriel (Frank Langella, always a welcome guest star), an old supervisor back on the job.
“A couple of years from now, she goes to college and she can have her own life,” Philip (Matthew Rhys) scolds Elizabeth later in the episode. “We owe her that. Don’t you get it?”
The characters obviously don’t know it, but they’re just seven years away from the end of the Cold War. Sure, Glasnost and Perestroikia aren’t that far off, but the Jenningses’ iron curtain might be crashing down sooner. Philip, as good an agent as he might be, is as desperate for an out as ever. Elizabeth, though, seems even more committed to the cause.
But she fouled up a job. Early in the episode, we see her go to a bar to meet a CIA defector who’s slipping her a list of names, only to be double-crossed and almost land in the arms of the FBI, who show up in the form of Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) and a partner. Elizabeth fights her way out of it, but not before losing the list and giving Gaad a story to share with Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich).
Meanwhile, poor Stan is trying to patch up his marriage to Susan by attending a crackpot self-help seminar. Lucky he’s got Philip in tow, but Philip appears more focused this week on getting the upper hand on an Afghan freedom fighter. A mid-coital murder would seem to do the trick.
- In a reminder that Elizabeth and Philip had lives before they started this mission, Elizabeth’s mother back in Russia is on her deathbed.
- Philip’s alter-ego “Clark” is still married to Martha (Alison Wright), who’s adding excitement to her life with two things: the Kama Sutra and gun ownership.
- Nina, per a conversation between Arkady (Lev Gorn) and Oleg (Costa Ronin), was convicted of treason after being shipped back to the motherland last year. Don’t worry too much: Annet Mahendru is still in the opening credits.
- Henry (Keidrich Sellati) still exists! Maybe this season he’ll get a real plot. Maybe.
- The Americans might be the only mid-20th-century period drama where the attention to accurate design rivals Mad Men. NB: Besides Agent Beeman, Erhard Seminars Training attracted the likes of Yoko Ono and Joe Namath. But the episode’s high design note comes in those cartons of Frusen Glådjé (like its more famous competitor Häagen-Dazs, a faux Scandinavian treat).
- Like everyone else, I hope Claudia comes back, but Frank Langella’s Gabriel is a welcome fill-in. Plus he seems like a nice guy and a good cook.