What do you have when you take two KGB agents, trained as shadowy assassins, groomed to blend in with American suburbia, and drop them into Reagan-era Washington D.C.? Throw in moody teenage kids, basic family drama, and add all the delicious wigs you could ever desire, and you get FX's outstanding spy drama, The Americans. Season Four premieres March 16 on FX. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are the two central KGB implants, each having differing levels of loyalty to the cause but equal length trails of dead.
One of the things I love about The Americans is that the show is always building tension around what the audience knows versus what the characters know. And what we ultimately recognize is that the Jennings have an unyielding loyalty is to a country that soon will no longer exist.
For the avid watchers and uninitiated alike, here are the six things to keep in mind from where last season left off (spoiler warning):
The timing. The show left off on March 8, 1983, and not only is that the title of the Season Three finale, but the date signifies President Ronald Reagan's evil empire speech. The show closes with Philip and Elizabeth glaring at the TV as Reagan trashes their country. Meanwhile, the Soviet-Afghan war is ever present throughout the series. For season four, I predict that the historical milemarkers will include the launching of Star Wars, Samantha Smith's voyage to the USSR, and Eastern Block boycotting of the 1984 Summer Olympics. And maybe even a glimpse of Michael Jackson debuting the moonwalk!
Paige tells her pastor about her parents' secret lives. Season Three left with a cliffhanger - while Phillip and Elizabeth scowl at Reagan's speech, their daughter, Paige, telling Pastor Tim that her parents are Soviet spies. During the season, Paige had found the perfect form of teenage rebellion against her atheist Soviet parents - religion. When her parents told her of their double lives, she began questioning the veracity of every family member, photograph and memory, buckling under the pressure of holding up a world as it came crashing down around her. She realized she could no longer lie on behalf of her parents and called Pastor Tim for help. Now Paige is turning into more of a wild card than expected, and Pastor Tim is a threat to their secret lives. The weight of the first and second worlds is upon her shoulders, and the Center has designs to make her a next-generation KGB spy (a program called Directorate S). But will she become more of a liability, so much that the Center views her as a traitor?
Phillip is losing the battle with his conscience. While Elizabeth is a steely, unwavering servant to the cause, Phillip has always been ambivalent, with his increasingly guilty conscience and torn loyalties simmering throughout the show. The last season ended with him attending EST seminars about sexuality and intimacy, and then trying to talk through his troubles with Elizabeth. From the self-loathing looks in the mirror after his latest murder, to the inability to become intimate with a 15-year-old daughter of a CIA member, he's less and less able to keep a psychic distance from his crimes. Though he's still a murdering, seducing liar, his conscience renders him a good guy compared to Elizabeth, who will watch a man be burned alive and still have supper ready by seven o'clock. We always feel like he's on the brink of throwing in his disguises and defecting to the U.S.
Martha narrowly escapes the FBI discovering she planted the bugged pen. Martha's the FBI secretary who's also secretly married to Clark (who is actually Phillip in disguise "working her"). She goes along with the secret marriage because she thinks that Clark works for the FBI, and fraternizing is a big no-no. Last season, Phillip/Clark had convinced her to put a bugged pen into her boss's office, only to have the device discovered. While the office is being interrogated to determine who put the bug in the office, Martha almost has a nervous breakdown about the mess that's become of her work and sham marriage. To soothe her, Phillip/Clark removes his wig and somehow untangles her from his KGB intrigue gone wrong. However, she's only still alive because Phillip/Clark has feelings for her... and the Center still sees her as an asset. How long until she's no longer useful?
FBI Agent Stan Beeman has carte blanche to pursue KGB. Stan (also Phillip and Elizabeth's neighbor) has clearance from the FBI to forego any unnecessary red tape that would prevent him from finding KGB spies (even working with Oleg Burov, the KGB head of science and technology). Stan's been the sad guy of the series, an overall absentee husband whose wife left him after he had an affair with Nina (see below). Being partially responsible for Nina's imprisonment in Moscow, he's compelled to find a way to catch more KGB and make a trade. But now with a virtual carte blanche from the FBI to go KGB-hunting, it'll be even easier to find the spies living amongst Wonder Bread Americans (hint: they're across the street). For Breaking Bad fans, this cat and mouse game is similar to Hank vs. Walter White.
Nina is still a prisoner in Moscow. We left off with Nina still serving time in Moscow for treason. Her ticket to freedom is manipulating Anton Baklanov to work harder and faster on his top secret project. Baklanov is the premier nuclear scientist who had defected to the U.S., only to have the Jennings capture and return him to Mother Russia. Since his imprisonment, he's been reporting that progress on his project is slow, but the Soviets suspect that he's stalling. The show left off with Nina no longer wanting to play by the Soviet's rules, and Baklanov coaching her on personal defiance.
That's where we are for the premiere. With a teenage daughter unable to keep up the charade and an FBI neighbor on the hunt for them, the Jennings can only stay hidden in plain site for so long.