The Cold War was waged not with bullets and bombs but with escalation and bluster. Every action taken by the Soviet Union — diplomatic, militaristic, or otherwise — was met with an often disproportionate reaction from the United States. And vice versa.
You bang a shoe? We’ll invade Cuba. You build a super plane? We’lll build an invisible super plane. Anything you can coup, we can coup better. By the time the Berlin Wall finally crumbled, the combined nuclear arsenals of the USSR and the USA were large enough to destroy the world dozens of times over — never mind that it would only ever be the first time that mattered.
This history lesson is relevant to any discussion of FX’s superb The Americans, which returns for a third season tonight at 10 p.m. But before getting into that, the Cold War can also serve as a helpful primer on the current state of television dramas. A few years removed from the Golden Age, we’ve entered a drastic, escalating gold rush, one that has left the reputation of the hour-long cable drama — once the crowning achievement of the small screen — in considerable peril. Consider the circumstance in which we now find ourselves: A handful of flush, global superpowers have declared battle, with original content serving as live ammunition. As the number of scripted series in development has risen, so, too, have the expectations placed upon them. New series must outrate zombies, outslug Oscar winners, and outdo the previous, celebrated generation of transgressive story lines. As such, a decade of difficult men has given way to a glut of near-impossible premises. The stakes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad once seemed higher than Jesse Pinkman. Now that ante has been ludicrously upped. Forget about the foibles of individual people. Recent cable dramas have concerned themselves with the birth of countries, the spread of monsters (plausible and otherwise), and the total destruction of the world. The scourge of stubbornly relatable antiheroes has been replaced by the dull, omnipotent swagger of superheroes.
This arms race for groundbreaking dramas has become entirely insupportable. There simply aren’t enough good actors available to humanize these gargantuan stories; not even the best writers in the industry are skilled enough to spin every attention-grabbing idea into an attention-sustaining series. Amazon recently unveiled its latest pilot season premieres with great fanfare, but it’s possible to view the offerings as a tepid reveille for the failings of this tsunami era of content. The potential series are stuffed to the gills with shocking twists and noisy turns — the kale-eating liberal forced to save his gun-manufacturing family! The Civil War–era Southerners who hate slavery but love the Confederacy!1 — but make no emotional case for their existence or survival. The cable drama is now required to be so many different things to so many different people that it seems impossible for it to be much of anything at all. Is it any wonder that creatives and executives alike are taking refuge in other formats?2 The best talent is locking into anthology series like True Detective and Fargo, projects that, by their very nature, prioritize burning brightly over fading away. And the best ideas are now percolating in half hours like Transparent and Togetherness, where the helium of humor allows for the exploration of all sorts of unglamorous darkness.
In 2015, drama development across all platforms appears headed toward a mutually assured destruction. Only one series offers a blissful détente between the pleasures of the previous decade of cable excellence and the impractical demands of the current moment. The Americans is freighted with precisely the sort of hook that makes network executives salivate: Its central characters, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), are deep-cover KGB spies posing as normcore travel agents in the anodyne beigeness of ’80s suburbia. Yet rather than treat this precarious circumstance as a Sisyphean hill to be repeatedly climbed, the show confidently parks itself on the highest, most treacherous peak. From such an extreme vantage point, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are able to consider the sort of quotidian concerns that have fallen out of most TV dramas — the limits of family, the value of work, the yawning disconnect between the good people we claim to be and the terrible things we actually do — and elevate them to DEFCON 1 levels of tension. The Americans is itself a double agent. Its extremity is thrilling until you realize you’re gasping with recognition, not awe.
I named the second season of The Americans the best thing I saw on television in 2014, and I stand by it. Nothing else was so relentless and so sharp, nothing else cut so deep. The brilliance of the season lay in the way it artfully inverted the dynamic of the show’s first year. In the B-story, Stan Beeman, the Dudley Do-Right fed played so expertly by Noah Emmerich, was suddenly doing nothing but wrong. Betraying both his wife and his country with the alluring Nina (Annet Mahendru), Stan tiptoed to the edge of treason before winding up with only his gun and his badge for comfort. His wife was gone to live with another man; Nina was shipped back to Moscow for trial and, likely, execution. (Don’t worry, Mahendru is back for Season 3, though in radically changed circumstances.) The heroic, crusading lawman on any other show, here Stan was a tragic loner. The harder he chased after the truth, the more he chased everyone who mattered away.
And, in the foreground, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings’s once-tempestuous sham marriage came within spitting distance of passing for the real thing. United at home, the two racked up an increasingly horrific body count in the field as they attempted to disrupt the Iran-Contra training program, purloin the Pentagon’s nascent stealth technology, and, above all, root out the mysterious killer of their friends and fellow Directorate S operatives, Emmett and Leanne. At season’s end, the murderer was revealed to be Emmett and Leanne’s son, Jared. Eager for a new generation of American spooks, the KGB had approached Jared without the consent of his parents, puffing him up with delusions of patriotic grandeur until he popped.
This revelation was as devastating to Phillip and Elizabeth as it was surprising. Like all immigrants, the Jenningses have broken their backs to make sure their children will never have to do the same. Unlike most immigrants, they’ve also literally broken other people’s backs. In the season finale, before Jared’s body was even cold, they were informed that Paige, their teenage daughter currently rebelling in the most anti-Bolshevik way possible — she’s fallen hard for Jesus — was next on the list to be turned. The admission drove deep fissures of doubt into the Jennings home (she’s for it; he’s wildly against) and, indeed, into The Americans’ entire, precarious project. Do we want our children to respect us or to know us? Is absolute truth a gift or a punishment? And if the cover stories of our lives are blown, how and why do we go on living?
If the second season added a chain of question marks to The Americans’ finely drawn hammer and sickle, the first four hours of the third are exclamation points. A show given to great leaps forward — to mix Communist metaphors — has done it again. The episodes I’ve seen are excruciating in the best way possible. The spy business is more ruthless than ever (you’ll never think of suitcases the same way again) and the family drama considerably more wrenching. Yet what had clearly occurred behind the scenes of these episodes impressed me nearly as much as what’s onscreen.
Showrunners, like politicians, campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The emotional wallops of The Americans would be nothing without the cerebral calculations that laid the groundwork for them. And so, right from the start, it’s clear that Weisberg and Fields had been unflinching in their assessment of their series’ few flaws. Chief among them was the second season’s unfortunate tendency to segregate story lines. With Stan adrift in one plot and the Jennings in another, the ornate Rezidentura never crossing over into the drab hallways of the J. Edgar Hoover building, The Americans sometimes felt like the best shows on television — plural — not a unified socialist republic. Year 3 begins with Stan and Phillip deepening their friendship by attending meetings for EST, a loopy self-help movement that demanded absolute honesty and presence in every facet of life — a tricky proposition for men who lie and hide for a living. And Elizabeth makes an unexpected impression on Richard Thomas’s wry Agent Gaad — a man she’s never met before and hopes never to see again.
The ensemble is not only blended more successfully in Season 3, it’s also expanded in similarly smart ways. Lev Gorn and and Costa Ronin — so strong as the stolid Arkady and the new wave hot dog, Oleg — have been upped to the regular cast. (Not nearly enough is made of the fact that a good third of The Americans is performed in Russian. How do you render “Emmy” in Cyrillic?) And with Margo Martindale unavailable when production began (a situation, I should note, that has since changed), Weisberg and Fields were once again without a veteran handler. The decision to hire Frank Langella, that magnificent ibérico, to fill that role was inspired. But even wiser was the way Langella’s Gabriel is differentiated from Martindale’s devious Claudia. Gabriel is an old friend of Phillip and Elizabeth, a warm paternal presence. That they love and trust him makes Gabriel’s intentions even more unsettling. He’s not there to help Phillip stop the KGB from getting their hands on Paige — he’s there to help Elizabeth facilitate the process. In the premiere, Langella palms a quart of Frusen Glädjé — era-specific details are delicious — heavily, as if it were Yorick’s skull. The sweetness can’t mask what’s in store.
The early going is full of references to the Soviet struggle in Afghanistan and timely reminders that quagmires and on-camera Islamist executions have never exactly gone out of style. This is clever and plenty diverting — Phillip and Elizabeth’s proxy war is now running hotter than far more public conflicts — but the real engines of the show remain the smaller skirmishes of family life. The first seasons played with the idea of marriage as a mutable construct, not a sacred institution. The occasional honeypot scheme or, in Phillip’s case, an entirely separate second marriage under yet another fake name (yes, Alison Wright is back as the snookered Martha and, yes, she’s fantastic) can’t delegitimize a union. All that matters is that both partners are on the same page. Betrayal isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker if it’s happening in plain sight.
Parenting, however, is another story entirely, and it’s now the only story line that matters. Unlike spouses, kids aren’t willing co-conspirators; their agency is nearly nil. For a long time Phillip and Elizabeth believed that Paige and Henry were as essential to their cover as the lockbox full of wigs — and nearly as malleable. Now the hopelessness of their situation has been laid bare. You don’t get a do-over with children. Like good KGB apparatchiks, they notice everything. And what they see informs every bit of who they are and every choice they make. (Elizabeth spends the early part of the season training a new agent to be hyper-aware of his surroundings and react accordingly. That is not necessary for adolescents!) All the long nights spent out of the house, fucking sources or fucking over governments, add up. The absence leaves a permanent mark. “You guys look out for each other,” Paige says to her mother at one point with a shrug. “More than us.”
Rhys and Russell play this friction masterfully; his face is the crown of a volcano, hers is the tip of an iceberg. When Elizabeth goes to church with Paige, Phillip erupts: “You’re assessing her!” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Elizabeth replies. “She’s my daughter.” You’ll forgive me if I don’t see the distinction. Every household is as complicated as a country, rife with hazardous fault lines and fragile, shifting alliances. The Americans remains the best show on TV about family — and, you know, the best show on TV — because it is both tender and unflinching in its examinations of lies big and small, “good” and bad. Phillip wants credit for his intentions with Paige — and goes in search of it in some uncomfortable places — while Elizabeth wants recognition for her sacrifices. Neither is willing to wrestle with the reality of their daughter, even as it threatens to upend them all.
The Americans has won no Emmys, its ratings have broken no records. And yet, in its insistent, understated way, the show has proven that cable dramas, like spies, don’t need to be loud to be great. It’s far more important to pay attention to the smallest detail, to exploit every fatal weakness. The Americans transports you to another place and time only to reveal, with quiet desperation, that you really haven’t traveled anywhere at all. What is a sleeper agent anyway but someone with powerful, unsettling desires hiding in plain sight? And what is an American but someone who believes, deeply and truly, in the right to live out private contradictions in public? We are as we’ve always been: one nation, undercover.