On more than one occasion, Philip Jennings has given serious consideration to murdering a priest in cold blood. He’s already slain countless other innocent people, many of whom just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s blackmailed a homosexual Navy officer into betraying his country and manipulated and almost seduced a teen girl so he could spy on her father, and he spends most of his time trying to bring down the United States. He’s by far my favorite character on television.
The Americans, which begins its fourth season tonight on FX, is the story of Philip (played by Matthew Rhys) and his wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), a pair of 1980s Soviet KGB officers pretending to be suburban parents and travel agents. They lie, steal, seduce, murder and manipulate in hopes of bringing down the great American Satan and spreading the workers’ revolution far and wide. I love my country, and I have a working knowledge of recent history, and yet I often find myself rooting for these two terrible people and their doomed mission. I blame the insightful scripts from producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg and the intricate, finely shaded performances from Russell and Rhys for cracking my moral compass.
Though it gets overshadowed by those shows with the zombies and the dragons, The Americans remains the best show on television. And in a gesture that shows a great deal of insight into the emotional needs of the modern TV junkie, it has capably filled the voids left by both Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
Like Mad Men, The Americans is sexy, dryly hilarious and filled with ace period details. (I have to assume that they’ve single-handedly revived interest in the pop-therapy phenomenon est.) But beyond the surface pleasures, it’s also a meditation on identity and projection; the way we see ourselves, the way we want to see ourselves and the way we want others to see us. Philip presents himself to the world as a caring father and kind neighbor. Though he’s done too much at this point to be able to lie to himself anymore, Philip still desperately wants to believe his image could one day be real and that all the carnage he’s caused is worth it. He believes in the grand dream of the country that recruited him as a boy and forced him to become an undercover agent, and that not following along would mean he would lose his family forever. As the episodes progress, Rhys keeps finding new ways to show how Philip’s guilt is wearing him down. Even when he needs to be seductive or menacing, he still looks exhausted.
Like Breaking Bad, The Americans is adept at getting you root for people you know you shouldn’t be rooting for, and perhaps uttering the phrase “yeah but they had no choice” or “they had to do it for their family” even when you’re fully aware that’s crap and you’re just getting off on the adrenaline rush and A Plus acting. It’s also one of the most action-packed hours on television; what it lacks in supernatural creatures, it more than makes up for in Keri Russell beating the crap out of everyone. It takes a special kind of genius to say, “We need someone who looks like they have ice in their veins and can convincingly dropkick a federal agent twice their size. Someone call the star of Felicity.”
The stellar cast also includes Holly Taylor, a preternaturally talented teen actor who brings intelligence and inner turmoil to the teenage daughter Paige; the deliciously understated menace of Frank Langella as the Jennings’s KGB handler Gabriel; and Noah Emmerich’s FBI agent Stan Beeman, a troubled man struggling with the knowledge that his construction of himself as a virtuous family man is as false as his friend Philip’s. (The question of when Stan will discover the truth about his neighbors is the show’s great ticking timebomb.) And then there’s Alison Wright as Martha, the poor FBI secretary with the dual misfortune of becoming one of Philip’s targets for manipulation and a woman he loves too much to let go. She’s one of the most tragic characters television has ever produced, but Wright gives her dignity; it hurts us to watch her want to believe in Philip.
It also needs to be said that there are a lot of amazing wigs on this show. This cannot be overstated.
We’ve never had so many television options at our fingertips, but shows this rich, smart, insightful and all-around fun don’t come along that often. Don’t let this be one you missed the first time around, only to come around after everyone you know badgers you into giving it a shot years after it’s ended.
Dive in now while the vodka is still cold and the intrigue is still hot, comrade. You’ll be glad you did.