America’s favorite family of seemingly regular people who are actually Russians spies living as Americans during the Cold War are back! The acclaimed FX series, The Americans, returns to television this week and despite being a show that is not reaching nearly as many audiences as it deserves, there is still plenty of confidence to keep this series structured and paced in the way that has made it so compelling and confident thus far. Its season 3 premiere episode, “EST Men,” shows no sign of the series wanting to tinker with its own formula, as we may get a few new characters (Frank Langella!), but the show is still very much a drama series that wants to both put the story of a marriage on display, as well as work as an 80s-set espionage thriller.
To catch us all up: Last season was juggling a lot of characters and storylines, but kept it all balanced and concluded with the elimination of the threat responsible for the deaths of fellow agents and friends of Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell); the failure to recruit FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) to the other side, despite the failure of his own marriage with Sandra (Susan Misner); the punishing of Nina (Annet Mahendru), who was sent back to Russia; and the news that Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) is now part of a plan to indoctrinate the American-born children of the Russian spies. Also, poor Martha (Alison Wright), is still married to “Clark” (Philip in disguise) and is none the wiser to anything going on.
Basically, it is not easy for the lives of covert operatives, but things must carry forward and that they do in this first episode. Already off to an explosive start of sorts, “EST Men” begins with some catching up with our leads, but not before long, Elizabeth is in a fight with Special Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas), which also happens to be the first time these two opposites have ever encountered each other. There is another shocking event that takes place at the end of the episode, but something I quite like about this season opener, as a whole, is the devotion to the characters and world, over setting up another very clear plotline. Make no mistake, season 2 was even better than the first season and it began with a shocking end in its first episode, which set up an ongoing storyline, but showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields continue to show that they have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, when it comes to finding ways to twist and turn a series that has so many possibilities.
One of those turns is actually something quite refreshing, as Liz and Phil reunite with Gabriel (Langella), a former handler who appears to be all smiles and full of warmth. Obviously in a show about the Cold War, being full of warmth can only mean something more sinister must be lurking below, but for the time being, the presence of Langella as a counter to the great Margo Martindale’s much colder, but very effective work, as Claudia in previous seasons, is interesting to see.
Of course, being a show where it uses the framework of a spy drama as a cover over what is actually more important – the marriage, I have to mention what is going on there. Basically, Paige has only grown stronger in her embrace with religion. Her parents are mixed on this, given what they see as an outside (and American) influence on their child, in the midst of the debate going on between them in regards to how the agency now wants their own control over Paige. That being said, they are arguing over what is the best course of action. While I am sure other elements of drama will play a factor into the marriage, putting a deeper focus on the increasing amount of individualism their children have is a great way to pull more interesting angles out of what it means to be a family with some deep secrets buried under the surface.
Moving on, Stan the Man is not feeling so great. Having only the shreds of a marriage left, Stan begins this episode at EST (Erhard Seminars Training) in an attempt to get in touch with what it is his wife has been up to. He hates it, but given the loss of his Nina and his new pursuit to fix the problems in his life, I will be curious as to how many ‘wins’ Stan is going to be able to file for himself this season; especially with the big thing that is his best civilian friend being a Russian spy.
Speaking of Nina, while there are no signs of her this week, we do get plenty of discussion about her. Oleg (Costa Ronin) is still in the Residency, trying to figure out a way to make things better for Nina, with discussions with Arkady (Lev Gorn), going nowhere, but hitting the right beats in terms of showing concern. I do not know what will come of Nina, but she is still part of this cast and I am sure we will know soon enough. That said, it makes me curious how useful Oleg will be without her, given how that is what drove his actions in this show last season.
Getting to the other main event that took place this episode, Philip (in disguise) once again recruits his informant Annelise (Gillian Alexy) to work on her mark Yousef. While she was certainly happy to pleasure Philip for giving her the assignment, her love for Yousef is tragically made too apparent, when she decides to admit part of the truth to him. She is strangled for this and we are left with Philip trying to find a way to pick up the pieces by confronting Yousef. Given that Philip has always been the more emotional of the Jennings in terms of the lives being affected by their work, here is another chance to see what kind of outcome is going to take place and how it will presumably effect at least part of this season.
I am so glad this show exists and has come back for another season. Like many of the best, character-driven shows on television, The Americans plays like a game of chess, as it carefully moves around its various pieces, setting up for some devastating blows, rather than constant pay-offs that add little substance around it. This is a series that is very well-acted, well-written, and assembled in such an effective way in terms of blending suburban drama with high stakes spy thrills. It pulls it all off quite well and I cannot wait to see more of what we have in store for this season.
Other Things Behind The Red Curtain:
- And we’re back! I am happy to be writing about The Americans again this season, as this show is truly great and I can only hope it builds a bigger audience.
- During EST, all I wanted to say to the instructor was, “How do you like them apples!”
- Who do you think wins the Scrabble games between Gabriel and Philip?
- Poor Martha gets to play with guns in this episode.
- Lil’ Henry is growing up, but still left with nothing much to do.
- Elizabeth’s mom is apparently dying. Times are a changin’ and we’ll see where this goes.
- The nondescript way it stated how Leonid Brezhnev died in this episode is the kind of subtle work in indicating where we are in time and what is to come as a result is part of how great this show is.
- “I can make this go away.” – RIP Annelise