Do not read on unless you’ve seen “March 8, 1983,” the Season 3 finale of “The Americans.”
It’s too bad about that mysterious and fatal car accident Pastor Tim is going to have in Season 4, isn’t it?
Okay, maybe I’m jumping ahead and engaging in wild speculation, the kind that Gabriel would surely shoot down in an instant. One thing is for sure: We’ve come a long way since the laundry room.
Back at the end of the first season, young Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) hung out for a few moments in the family laundry room, a place that her parents spent a lot of time -- a suspicious amount of time, actually. She was curious about what her parents were doing in there, and she strongly suspected it had nothing to do with folding clothes.
Paige’s instincts about her parents weren’t wrong: This season she found out there was definitely something awry, and it wasn’t a covert addiction to fabric softener. All season long, since Season 2’s fabulous close, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have wrestled with the idea of letting Paige in on their enormous secret: the fact that they are high-level Soviet agents posing as average suburbanites.
From the start, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) was more in favor of bringing Paige into the fold and possibly making her part of the family spy business. Philip (Matthew Rhys), who deeply feared the damage that the secret knowledge could do, was wary of introducing their daughter into their clandestine world and the sometimes brutal choices that accompany it.
It was an excellent choice to have Paige demand honestly from her parents a few episodes ago -- to have her find out for herself, essentially. That move relieved each of her parents of the burden of being the one to tell her, and it tracked with the inquisitive, challenging spirit Paige has shown since the show began. Every teenager wants to know why his or her parents are so weird and frustrating, and most of us eventually realize it’s because they’re flawed human beings who are just trying their best and failing some of the time.
That’s true of Paige’s parents as well, but there’s more to it than that. It occurs to me that “The Americans” has a lot in common with Amazon's "Transparent”: They’re both about families with long-buried secrets, kids who attempt to parent themselves and adults who are so distracted by their own needs that they can’t quite see their children. (Also, both shows would not exist if the wig industry were not at the top of its game.)
On “The Americans,” the secret-keeping had reached toxic levels. Paige wanted the truth, but, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
It was a little surprising but not necessarily out of character that Paige’s trip to visit her dying grandmother didn’t deter her from calling Pastor Tim. “The Americans” continually avoids taking the easy path, which has made it beloved by its audience and not so much of a killer in the ratings department. But we look to this show to adhere to the emotional realities of the characters, and that has, time and again, made for memorable arcs and movingly bittersweet decisions.
The truth is, this knowledge would just be too much for any young person to handle on his or her own. Paige -- like her brother Henry -- has found alternative parents, people who have time to spend on her moral and emotional development, people who want to just hang out with her and who like her as a person.
It’s not that Elizabeth and Philip don’t love their kids -- they do, fiercely -- but they’re just not around, and when they are in the house, their minds are often on other tasks. At this point, their kids see them as random phantoms or erratic roommates, not pillars of stability. For a teen going through a lot of changes of her own, connecting with and respecting guarded and unreliable parents -- who are, as it turns out, huge liars -- presents an almost insurmountable challenge. It’s understandable that Paige turned to the people who had given her life some kind of moral structure and emotional scaffolding.
All in all, it was a satisfying finale, perhaps not as thrilling as the end of Season 2, but that's a high bar to clear. In any case, the ending built on an entire season’s worth of deep foreboding, and also gave the show a roadmap for the next set of episodes. I have to confess, I was a little confused by the way the show left the Martha storyline hanging: The last we saw of her, Philip had done his big reveal and removed his famous wig in a final attempt to keep her in the fold. We don’t know whether that got her to stick around, or whether there’s still a possibility she would leave town or turn him in (and yes, by killing the computer guy, Philip got her off the hook, but as Elizabeth noted, Martha still may present a risk to the couple).
Other than that, the closing of the season had the emotional density and palpable weight I expect from this fine show by this point. All the characters will have to wrestle with knotty personal and professional problems that will continue to make the Jennings’ home anything but a refuge from the outside world. A tired and demoralized Philip seems poised to leave the program entirely, while Elizabeth’s reaction to Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech makes it clear that she is nowhere near ready to abandon the motherland. There are excrutiating choices ahead for all of the characters, and, as is almost always the case on this show, things are only going to get more difficult from here on out.
And if I were Pastor Tim, I’d get the brakes on my car checked.
Now, here are a few memorable scenes that stayed with me during the third season of “The Americans” (which just won a Peabody Award, by the way).
- Sexy home dentristry. Any right-thinking human understands that the preceding three words do not belong together. Home dentistry, sexy or otherwise, should absolutely not be a thing. And yet on this show, where spies and targets regularly shed their clothes and get down, the scene in which Philip pulls out Elizabeth’s broken tooth ended up being one of the most electric moments of intimacy I've ever seen on TV. Elizabeth hides her vulnerabilities behind a series of emotional walls at home and under a procession of wigs out in the world. Her husband is the only person she lets in, and given how much he loves her and hates hurting other people, the whole operation was suffused with his compassion and her frightened, wary vulnerability. In that hushed moment, director Thomas Schlamme wisely focused on the characters’ eyes, which connected in a profound way in that scene. Like so many fine moments on “The Americans,” it was an almost wordless meditation on fear and trust, delivered with perfect restraint and believable emotion by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.