The Americans Deals With a New Set of Problems

By  · Published on March 24th, 2016

Welcome to Last Night on TV, our ongoing series that looks back at what happened on television the night before. If we’re going to stay up all night and watch TV, we might as well talk about it the next day.

Ideally, you wouldn’t wait four seasons (plus one episode) to jump into recaps of a specific television show, but I guess these things happen when they need to happen. If we’re to encourage people to watch The Americans going forward – it’s a weakened playing field with no clear frontrunner for ‘Best Show on Television’ status – then the least we can do is follow along in our little corner of the universe.

If you’re new to the show, stop right where you and go watch the first three seasons of The Americans. It’s all on Amazon Prime. I don’t mind waiting.

For the rest of us, ‘Pastor Tim’ was a methodical expansion of the slow unraveling introduced in the Season 3 finale and in last week’s ‘Glanders.’ The Jennings family is unburdening themselves of their lies, but this creates a whole new set of problems. Philip finally confesses to Elizabeth that he’s continued going to Est meetings; Elizabeth faces the news that her mother has died head-on; Paige continues to look to Pastor Tim for moral support and as a sounding board for Soviet-related familiar problems. Until this point, we’ve enjoyed watching Philip and Elizabeth thwart American intervention – perhaps despite our best interests – but much like the biological sample on the airport shuttle, the characters are starting to realize that they’ve been left holding the bag for something incredibly poisonous. “We’re in trouble,” Elizabeth admits at one point, and if she’s saying it then you know it must be true.

There’s an obvious link between Philip’s anxiety attacks and his sudden immersion in the lives of teenagers. While Philip has never been presented as devoid of a conscience – despite his occasional stubbornness, he has hitherto believed in his cause and turned against America or towards Russia in times of crisis – the unresolved storyline of Kimberly, the bureaucrat’s daughter, hangs heavy over these first two episodes. Meanwhile, Philip is still isolated – though perhaps not as much as before – in his defense of Paige’s adolescence. It’s not a coincidence that Philip is no longer able to hold off some of his own horrifying teenage memories; at least two high schoolers’ lives hang in the balance, and how he chooses to weigh their innocence against their long-term political potential will determine whether Philip ever finds his way back home.

As much fun as it might be to watch Philip falling apart – with Matthew Rhys seemingly having aged a decade between seasons – it is already apparent that Season Four will be Elizabeth’s time to shine. Elizabeth is supposed to be the ideologue; she never questions the Center and viewed the development of Paige almost as a great gift bestowed upon her. So why the sudden hesitation to follow orders? There are unresolved elements in play concerning last season’s meeting with her mother, but more to the point, Elizabeth’s loyalty to her family and her loyalty to her country are starting to diverge as two separate (and perhaps not entirely compatible) belief systems. When she shyly asks Philip if Est is the sort of thing he would like her to attend, it’s a revelation. The Elizabeth of seasons past would never give herself over to such Western ideas of pseudo-psychology, but Philip, Henry, and Paige are the only family she has left. She became a spy out of familial obligation; who’s to say she won’t resign for the very same reason?

Almost all television shows begin as plot-driven affairs, with later seasons diving deeper into character-driven storylines that result from unexpected performances or on screen chemistry. The Americans is no different, only these characters are processing the character-driven elements alongside the audience. As Philip and Elizabeth have become indistinguishable from their covers, the secondary elements that always threatened to overcome the spy narrative – marriage, fatherhood, divorce, and trust – are now in the foreground. The show has never been less about spy intrigue; it’s also never been better.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)