Forget your dragons and your immaculate suits and your affairs with the President, the most consistently compelling drama on TV this year has been The Americans, which averages a measly 1.3 million viewers a week over on FX. It doesn’t have the buzz or the tweets of the most talked about shows of the year, but it’s turned in a season for the ages, superior even to its fantastic debut in 2013.
The season started with a bang, literally, as friends of Elizabeth and Phillip — and fellow KGB spies — are murdered in cold blood, with their eldest son surviving only because he happened to be at the hotel pool while the killer broke into the family’s suite. It upped the stakes tremendously on a show that always found a way to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Things were no less tense at the Jennings’ household. Paige (Holly Taylor), the couple’s daughter, took to sneaking out of the house late at night and skipping school. That is, until she met a girl on the bus who invited her to church. That made Elizabeth and Peter even more furious, because they swear allegiance only to Mother Russia, not the Holy Father. Paige’s immersion into religion was the most fascinating subplot of the whole season. Instead of a cliché reveal that the church she attended had any ulterior motives, religion instead acts as a wedge between a family that’s already splitting apart. Christianity itself isn’t what causes Phillip to threaten violence against the pastor or rip up Paige’s Bible. It’s because religion represents yet another way they’ve lost their kids to the American way of life. (Their son Henry was caught breaking into the neighbor’s house to play video games after they refused to buy him a system.) I’ve never seen a show deal with religion this way. It’s not dismissive or cynical. Christianity – or at the very least the community and refuge it provides – is solely what Paige puts her trust in now since she can’t trust her parents.
In fact, trust has been a constant theme of this show. There’s a constant teeter-totter between Elizabeth and Phillip as to who trusts that the Soviets have their best interests at heart. Some weeks it’s Phillip, seduced by capitalism and a desire to have the nicest car on the block. Some weeks it’s Elizabeth, uncertain that all the people whose lives she weaves in and out of aren’t hurt by her necessary deception.
Take, for example, a sailor she seduced to get information about a rogue Navy SEAL who may have killed her friends. She’s tender with him, cautious not to break such a delicate person. Yet it’s written all over her face that she knows this guy has true feelings for her, and she has to just run, because the mission comes first, and there aren’t always time for goodbyes.
Next door to Phillip, another tragedy is unfolding. Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent, who fell in love with his KGB mole, has put his career and marriage on the line. His wife Sandra (Susan Misner) throws herself into art and “self-improvement” conferences and eventually cheats as well, after she puts two and two together. A lesser show would have staged her discovery of Stan’s affair in the kitchen, with lots of plate smashing. But this is a quieter show in these kinds of moments. When Stan asks questions like, “Is he a good guy?” it’s more devastating than if they had screamed at each other.
The other woman in this is Nina (Annet Mahendru), who has tried to play both sides for so long that even she’s not sure who she supports, only that she wants to be on the winning team when it’s over. But in falling for Stan, she may have hitched herself to the wrong wagon.
Her colleague Oleg has had the most interesting arc of the whole season. He started as an obnoxious son of a high-up politician, riding daddy’s coattails to a cushy job at the Soviet embassy in Washington. He loves terrible pop music and the Washington Capitals, especially dreadful during the early ‘80s. First, he just wanted to get Nina into bed. But his desire for conquest evolves into genuine care for her as the season went on. He seemed content to coast, but as Nina gets closer to danger, he’s finally willing to risk something.
The show hasn’t had a slip up yet, even if plot-heavy episodes like “Stealth” aren’t quite as incredible as much of the season. But it’s so well directed, with such attention to detail, and such great use of character actors to fill in its cast. Even without the hype or the budget, The Americans has staked its claim as the best drama on TV.