The Americans – “March 8, 1983” – Season 3, Ep. 13 (FX) SPOILERS
“You can’t see ten feet in front of you. I’ve done nothing but try to take care of you, and because you’re not getting what you want, you think I’m the enemy. And when Elizabeth doesn’t see things exactly the way you see it, you think there’s something wrong with her. You know who there’s something wrong with. Grow up.”
As KGB spy handler Gabriel, played with a precise mixture of grandfatherly warmth and icy detachment by Frank Langella, dresses down his charge, Philip Jennings, thusly, the two have arrived at a long-deferred, finally unavoidable turning point in their relationship. Philip, of course, has been a Soviet spy embedded in Washington, DC for his entire adult life, having navigated a fraught, prickly, at least initially window dressing marriage to fellow homegrown soldier Elizabeth. The Americans is set during the early ‘80s height of the Cold War, a time during which many Soviet and American pawns and proxies (Cuba, South Africa, Afghanistan) were erupting in civil unrest bordering on revolutionary violence and actively affecting the larger chess game in disproportionate ways. Stateside, Philip and Elizabeth are entrenched and invaluable operatives, skilled and deadly intermediaries involved seemingly in every covert Soviet action on the Eastern seaboard, not to mention the parents of two teenagers. The Jennings’ marriage began as an outright lie, though it evolved into something much more involved and tangible. Until recently, their children were never seen in official circles as anything more than details of a particularly convincing cover story. Philip and Elizabeth risk life, limb, and imprisonment on a weekly basis but have also lived this identity long enough for it to potentially poison their commitment to the cause that created it. Gabriel can only stage-manage Philip’s little righteous rebellions against the machine so far before he is forced to scold him as childish and short-sighted. Both men recognize a future in which the Jennings’ lives are expendable for the good of the state, though Philip increasingly refuses to be bound by it. At what point is a patriot’s duty to his country outstripped by his responsibilities as a husband and father?
Philip’s foundation, in particular, is showing cracks, though it’s done little to dull his ruthless efficiency in the moment. The season two finale, “Echo”, you may remember, was itself full of bombshells, as Soviet double agent Nina Sergeevna was apprehended and sent to prison in Siberia – leaving crestfallen/spurned lovers on both sides of the FBI/KGB equation – the season’s foundational murder mystery was revealed as an outwardly doting son turning against his own operative parents, and “The Centre” unveiled its long-term plans to indoctrinate the Jennings’ daughter Paige as the next generation of the family business. Season three has taken them from this embarkation point and worn them down further, ramping up the pressure of each individual mission even as the show’s brain trust has increased their variety, distinctiveness, and personal toll. Paige, introduced as a precocious bookworm who later rebelled against her outwardly normal but conspicuously secular parents by developing a strong moral voice and wholeheartedly embracing Christianity, became the wildest of wildcards. Of the couple, Elizabeth has always been the true believer (in the hammer & sickle), and season three has seen her increasingly torn between a reflexive instinct to protect her headstrong, inquisitive daughter from the truth and her simmering pride in potentially sharing it with her. Philip fiercely protects Paige from what he sees as The Centre’s nefarious attention, though when she finally forces the issue, demanding from her parents the whole truth about their mysterious nocturnal activities, his instinct is to level with her while resisting full disclosure, even as Elizabeth’s is to use it as the basis to attempt to forge a deeper connection. The moment of truth, so to speak, occurred unexpectedly around season three’s midpoint. After weeks of moments alternating reflection and acting out, the finale ran Paige through the ringer, and left her in an especially vulnerable state, one that essentially left her a walking timebomb just in time for a year’s hiatus.
In truth, season three of The Americans has been replete with turning points*. Paige’s confrontation and her subsequent struggles to come to grips with the truth of her parents’ identity is only the headliner. As “March 8, 1983” dawns, Jennings neighbor and FBI analyst Stan Beeman is sharing a living room, for potentially the last time ever, with his estranged wife Sandra, cataloguing and dividing up a marriage’s worth of memories. He offers to make copies of the family photo album so the two of them can each have one, while she preemptively cedes him possession of their wedding album. The aforementioned Nina Sergeevna was a more than contributing factor to the dissolution of the Beeman marriage. Even as Stan parses the past melancholically with his former wife, Nina is foremost on his mind. He sits in a sedan with his Soviet Rezidentura adversary turned temporary partner Oleg and is able to surreptitiously record him admitting that the defector Stan has been babysitting is a KGB spy. Beeman takes the tape to his boss at the FBI, hoping to trade the information for Nina’s release, but instead has his head figuratively removed for running his own off-books operation and cooperating with the enemy (Oleg being Nina’s other paramour) behind the bureau’s back. A few indignant, well-constructed sentences by Chief Gadd later, Stan is left an incredulous lump, his career in shambles. Gadd, in a fit of pique and frazzled by the ongoing investigation into who planted a listening device in his office, even accuses Stan. Stan is no traditional traitor, simply a distracted, love-sick obsessive, which is an irrelevant distinction to Chief Gadd, who recommends an investigation and Beeman’s dismissal.
*On the global front, the episode ends with a concerned Philip and Elizabeth watching then-president Ronald Reagan’s televised “Evil Empire” speech. His infamous characterization of the U.S.S.R. was a turning point in perception (and intent) for all parties involved.
The FBI does end up using Beeman’s intelligence as cause to apprehend the defector, but trades the spook not for Nina but for a higher-prioritized CIA asset jailed in Russia. “It’s been a day of disappointments all around,” offers Gadd, before storming out. Bridges now burned irrevocably within his office, Stan is granted a momentary reprieve when the FBI director, having recognized his established talent at engaging Soviet targets, grants him license to continue his relationship with Oleg, not realizing that with Nina’s release now off the table as an outcome, the two have only a lost mutual love and deep-seated animosity left between them. For the true source of the FBI bug, Philip’s fake second wife Martha, the shoe dropped in episode twelve, as, heartbroken and desperate under the continuing investigation’s pressure, she fled both D.C. and the assurances/conditional embrace of her loving “husband”, leaving the KGB one highly positioned, albeit unwitting, asset short. Though she isn’t technically present here, Martha’s presence lingers (Alison Wright is to be commended for the heart-wrenching, Emmy-quality supporting she’s done this season). Philip, with Gabriel’s rebuke still ringing in his ears, seeks out one of Martha’s FBI co-workers, an earnest kid working in its computer division, and professionally, only somewhat dispassionately, arranges his suicide, in effect framing him for the bugging incident and clearing the way, ideally, for his “wife’s” possible return. Whether or not Martha is a part of season four, she’s seen “Clark” laid bare now, and knows him for what he truly is, which is an unforgiveable liar. She loves “Clark” but knows she can’t trust him. Like Paige, like Stan, but somehow even more conclusively, her illusions are shattered. Martha might indeed be able to go back, but there’s almost no way, within this world’s cruel parameters, that she can go forward.
In the meantime, mother and daughter are an ocean away. Paige, having demanded the truth about her family, has received it in spades, and Philip has called in favors and circumvented proper procedure – thus invoking Gabriel’s disapproval – to secure a possibility for Elizabeth to visit her dying Russian mother, a grandmother Paige has only understood as a fact for a matter of days, let alone ever seen. As the two walk uneasily down the shadowy, cobblestoned streets of West Berlin, the KGB operative lapses into reflexive paranoia that she’s being followed. Normally, however, it’s self-defense as second nature, and she definitely does not have a scared teenager to either protect or answer to. Keri Russell, always so impeccable at incrementally revealing the full range of Elizabeth’s tightly guarded emotions, is devastating in the presence of her frail, wheelchair-bound mother, who takes her hand, lamenting that she “had to let you go”, before turning her head slightly toward the stranger in the room and saying, ever so delicately, “Paige?” The Americans is possessed of a cast of nuanced and finely-tuned actors, and “March 8, 1983” is a showcase for great performance after great performance: Matthew Rhys plays Philip’s overprotective defiance close to the surface, yet ripples underneath with palpable fear and uncertainty. Langella perfectly brings to life a compassionate but taciturn man, the kind you feel comfortable entrusting with your secrets but even then only to a point. Annet Mahendru, as Nina in exile, has a wonderful, well-observed moment where she finally decides to stop being a pawn in the destructive games of others. As Stan, Noah Emmerich dances on the edge – of existential dread, of professional ruin, of emotional breakdown – for so much of the episode, and the season, that seeing him laugh as he plays handheld football with the Jennings’ son Henry at episode’s end is a tremendous relief. Philip even connects by accident with Sandra as both of them attend the same EST conference sans partner and later find themselves in an extended, tenebrous conversation about living life “without secrets”. Philip doesn’t think it’s possible, yet is outwardly noncommittal. Sandra would like to give it a try.
“They’re liars, and now they’re trying to turn me into one.”
And, as Paige, seventeen-year-old actress Holly Taylor provides the most startling and moving indicator (or embodiment?) of both where the show has been and where it may be headed. Clearly shaken by her days lately wandering an entirely new and foreign landscape/headspace, to say nothing of her intensely disorienting and emotional time spent overseas, Paige lies in bed, awake, as she has been the entire episode (she has to wake her mother up in West Berlin for a terse, pointed heart-to-heart) until she absolutely cannot contain the secret she’s been tasked with any longer. The Americans is so dense with plot, principals, and particulars on a week-to-week basis that it almost defies casual viewing, even as it wholly invests its audience in the trauma and travails of its characters. That in itself is a remarkable accomplishment. Without a scorecard, or repeat viewings, it can be fairly tricky (occasionally, nigh impossible) to reconcile this South African businessman or doomed, overwhelmed native operative with that naïve high school seduction target (an exquisitely icky subplot, given Philip’s own family situation, and one that thankfully, at least for the moment, remains unresolved) or that coldblooded Afghan jihadi, and piece together their various relationships with the Jenningses and their connections to the larger narrative.
With The Americans, I tend to only ever know about 85% of what is going on at a given moment, yet, in my view, it is still far and away the best show on television, effortlessly tense, intriguing, and exciting on the one hand, and emotionally involving, demanding, and resonant on the other. Whatever the ramifications of Paige’s tearful confession to her pastor will be, in some ways the die has already been cast. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings can struggle to defend their family against the crushing encroachment and influence of the monolithic government they work for, even as they seek to expand that state’s foothold domestically, but unless they can convince their daughter that some lies do have inherent worth and that good intentions expressed might actually translate into positive, productive lives, it’ll all be for naught. Are the Jennings’ intentions even good? That’s left to us, and Paige – and, every so often, her parents – to decide. Every season of The Americans thus far has not only greatly expanded the show’s purview (from an espionage-soaked stealth treatise on marriage, to one on family, to one on the nature of trust and loyalty) but produced a marked uptick in quality. For all the check-ins with “Mail-Bot” and dark nights of the soul, from the girl in the suitcase to the kindly accountant who worked after hours on precisely the wrong night, season three was sustained, peerless, unforgettable television. The only thing certain about season four is that it will have the highest bar yet to clear. Something tells me the Jennings family isn’t fated to happily retire to open Northern Virginia’s preeminent fashion wig shop. I’m expecting the unexpected going forward, the bitter and the sweet in heavy doses…but that, at least, would be poetic.