America is still a young country in global terms. An adolescent, if you will. So we ought to be forgiven our youthful indiscretions: Our fervor for sweet treats, like apple pie. Our childlike optimism about the future and our place in it. And, of course, our national obsession with honesty.
From George Washington and his precious cherry tree — a lie, by the way — through the modern spectacle of the mea culpa press conference, projecting an air of all-encompassing forthrightness is a bedrock of the American character, whether it’s earned or not. Honesty, we say, is the best policy — even though it rarely is. Liars never prosper, we insist, even though they very often do.
This must all seem quite quaint from the outside, if not downright naive. The Russians, for example, have a much more nuanced set of proverbs on the same topic. “With lies,” they say, “you may go ahead in the world. But you can never go back.” Or, more simply, “Ври, да помни,” which translates to, “Lie, but remember.” (Contrast that with the famous Abraham Lincoln line “No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” Whatever happened to our can-do spirit?) Dissembling, in other words, isn’t always easy or advisable. But it is inevitable. This is a worldview that’s a lot more realistic about the world as it is, not as it might be one day when all houses are glass and all wrongs reversed, from sea to shining sea.
Because the truth about the truth is that it’s not a safe haven. Honesty — real, radical, confessional honesty — can quite often be a weapon, one that can scorch anyone who comes in contact with it. It takes a healthy ego and a certain strain of exceptionalism to believe that unburdening yourself to someone without invitation does anything other than transfer the burden. Americans often group lying, cheating, and stealing into an unholy trinity of untoward behavior. But the truth is that honesty alone can cheat and steal: It can trick people into intimacy; it can rob them of their happiness. Seen through this scuffed lens, the last honest man is less a saint and more a pariah. Coming clean has a nasty tendency to make everything dirty.
It’s an irony that defined the tough and brilliant third season of The Americans. A show that once delighted in dancing over tripwires of deception went ahead this year and blew nearly everything up — albeit in typically meticulous, Siberian-chilled fashion. The immaculate disguises used by Philip and Elizabeth Jennings began to slip long before last night’s finale or even the breathtaking crescendo from the previous week, in which Clark unfastened his fake hairpiece in full view of Martha, his equally phony wife. In the earliest part of the season, Philip couldn’t help but share his anxieties about his very real daughter with Kimmy, a teenager he was ordered to seduce. And later, when confronted with a maternal figure she would ultimately have to murder, Elizabeth took the opportunity to vent about her actual mother, half a world away. The Jenningses’ real selves, held in check for so long, had begun spilling out in all directions at once. The Americans is never undisciplined: Shots are lined up just so, and scenes are more likely to end in icy silence than hotheaded aggression. But, for the first time, its characters were messy.
Perhaps this is why when Philip and Elizabeth, at long last, revealed their identities to Paige, it felt more like a willing leap than an unfortunate push. Part of this is good training: Within seconds of being confronted, the two spies assessed the scene, ran the variables concerning teenage mood swings, and, after exchanging a look, acknowledged their limited options. But at the same time, they were seduced as easily as any one of their marks. From sex lessons to un-mussable mustaches, the KGB can do a lot of things. But even it is not capable of breeding out the human need for connection. In the heat of a desperate moment, the sharing of secrets is the fastest way to establish intimacy. By admitting everything, Philip and Elizabeth drew Paige closer to them — even though they live inside a sinking ship.
This was about what the Center wanted, yes, and it was about maintaining the sanctity of the mission. But it was also about a very familiar kind of vanity: to have our children know us, recognize our struggles, and validate our imperfections. Elizabeth truly seems to believe that confessing to Paige was an act of kindness when it was really an act of monstrous egoism and cruelty. Inside that linoleum-lined kitchen, it was maybe possible to imagine the moment as another in a long line of simmering domestic struggles. But through our screens and through the scrim of history, we could see it for what it truly was: two cold warriors pulling the pin on a grenade and handing it to a 16-year-old girl.
In the weeks following the revelation, Paige appeared to have struck an uneasy détente with her parents. The moments in which the weight of her new circumstance threatened to overwhelm her were balanced by pockets of what appeared to be real connection.1
1. There was something sickening about the quid pro quo of last week, in which Paige offered up her own secret — how, on a childhood camping trip, Henry had been afraid of bears (if he only knew!) — in exchange for a few moments of warmth with her father.
But it all came to a head last night in an efficient and devastating finale. Seemingly curious, Paige accompanied her mother on a furtive trip to Europe for a chance to meet her dying grandmother. But come on. As any kid who’s been yanked away from home for the privilege of meeting an elderly stranger knows, this wasn’t a gift. It was an obligation. The real opportunity was to see her mother up close, and what she saw — a paranoid workaholic who moves to shake a tail before taking her daughter’s hand — wasn’t very attractive.
In dragging Paige halfway around the world, Elizabeth wasn’t thinking of her child at all. She was thinking of herself, specifically the broken part of her that’s still Nadezhda, a scared girl whose mother let her walk off a cliff into adulthood when she wasn’t ready. I was moved when I saw the image of three generations of women holding hands and weeping in a German hotel. But I was slapped back to reality by the ensuing scene in which Paige, seated on the toilet, bowed her head and prayed — not for her grandmother but, as she says to Elizabeth, “for your mother.” Elizabeth, usually the strongest person in any room, is reduced to a helpless bystander. She can’t share this moment with her daughter, and her time with her own mother has passed. There’s nothing physical or real to bind these three women together— not anymore. And, unlike Paige, Elizabeth doesn’t even have the gift of faith to fall back on.
This sudden vulnerability struck me as a rookie mistake for such an accomplished operative. Every good spy knows that personal relationships can’t simply be declared, like contraband in luggage: “This is your grandmother! Those aren’t your cousins! Aunt Helen? She’s a trained assassin.” Vital connections have to be forged, and that requires time — something Philip and Elizabeth always seem to lack. Worse, they demand perspective. “You can’t see 10 feet in front of you,” is how Gabriel admonished Philip. But it’s Elizabeth who can’t stop looking in the mirror. “Everybody lies, Paige. It’s part of life,” she told her daughter when they were back on American soil. “But we’re telling each other the truth now. That’s what’s important.” As if talking were the same thing as parenting. As if doubts could be traversed as easily as an ocean.
The episode ended with a beautifully staged montage of breakdowns. The loudest message, louder than the Gipper declaring the USSR an evil empire, was Paige passing the honesty bomb along to Pastor Tim, a development that was as crushing as it was foreseeable. (After all, if Philip can find something genuine in his fake marriage to Martha, what’s to stop Paige from aligning herself with another kind of family? And, come to think of it, isn’t Henry spending an awful lot of time with Stan Beeman? Strat-O-Matic football seems to have replaced ice hockey as his game of choice.) The Americans never stops moving for a second — each operation bends almost impossibly into the next. This is very much by design. By never allowing themselves a chance to stop and confront the explosives packed away inside their heads and hearts, the characters remain trapped within a tragedy. Rather than fight to get out, they struggle to bring others in. Their pain is transitive. Paige’s problem belongs to Pastor Tim now, and I bet she feels the same cool breeze of relief that her parents felt when they passed it along to her. And now the doomsday clock begins ticking for him.
Still, I was struck more by Philip’s own slow-motion collapse. The season began and ended with his engagement with EST, a ’70s and early-’80s phenomenon that used strict group therapy sessions to encourage an evolution from a survival mind-set — here are the things I endure every day in order to exist — to one that prioritizes personal satisfaction and pleasure. For all the cheating he’s done, state-sanctioned and otherwise, Philip has never strayed emotionally as he appeared to do with Sandra Beeman at the episode’s end. And for all the justifications and cover stories he’s shared with assets, nothing was ever as simple or as true as what he told Yousaf: “I feel like shit all the time.” Gabriel claims Philip is acting out like a child. But what if, at long last, he isn’t acting at all?
In their bedroom, reunited after a long time away, Philip tries to be as forthright with Elizabeth, but he stumbles over his suffering. “I almost feel like when I do this stuff, if I don’t — ” he tries, and then, “I guess I just feel like — ” But Elizabeth cuts him off, just as she did with Paige. This isn’t A Few Good Men; Elizabeth knows how hard life can be. But what she can’t handle is his truth. There’s no room for it, not with the wounds of her own existence still marching around, blaring “The Internationale” inside her own head. The first season of The Americans brought the Cold War home to our suburban streets. The second season embedded it in our bedrooms. Now, it seems, the most intractable borders are the ones that exist between the cover stories we present to the world and the true selves we can’t escape.
For all its ambition and emotion, this wasn’t a perfect season of television. The shift from a single, overarching plot and antagonist to a diffuse scattering of minor skirmishes was jarring. At times it felt as if showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields had spent too many hours studying Soviet propaganda tapes — “Workers of industry! Staunchly struggle to increase production of high-quality consumer goods!” — and not enough in the editing suite. In just 13 hours, we zigged from South African freedom fighters to throat-cutting mujahideen while Philip zagged from bugging leather valises to robots. I understand why the amazing Lois Smith was given nearly an entire episode for her cruel dispatch, but I would have loved to have seen more of Jefferson Mays (as the needling Walter Taffet), Brandon J. Dirden (as the watchful Agent Aderholt), and the extraordinary Julia Garner (as the besotted Kimmy Breland). The precarious fates of both Martha and Nina were once again left twisting in the wind; their perpetual uncertainty a knife in the audience’s side.
But maybe this, too, is by design. After two years of gathering dread, The Americans morphed into a perpetual heart attack in its third season. Every scene felt as if it could explode into murder or collapse into dust. But though horrific things do happen — the broken body in the suitcase, the cracked tooth in Elizabeth’s mouth, the burning tire around a dying man’s neck — they rarely result in anything approaching resolution. Clark’s manipulation of Martha continues, as does Nina’s mission to save herself. What’s important to remember is that on The Americans, lying is the status quo. As long as there’s another story to tell or angle to play, life goes on. Or at least a sad, exhausted version of it. Contra Honest Abe, lying doesn’t demand a good memory so much as it demands superhuman endurance. Midway through the season, I began to realize that my anxiety over Martha’s fate had crossed over a sort of moral Checkpoint Charlie. I was no longer relieved when she survived yet another interrogation by Taffet or visit from Clark. The only relief, for Martha, would be the kind that a subtle, cerebral show like The Americans refuses to provide: a dramatic, maybe honorable death. But as Philip demonstrated again last night with the poor computer tech, dying is all too easy. It’s living that’s unbearably hard.
Pledging allegiance to a weekly TV show means becoming a gambler and a con artist. We bet against only ourselves in committing time and enthusiasm to the creative whims of others; we keep coming back for more of what we want even if precious little of it has been on offer. Still, most other major dramas from the past decade have at least floated us a few chips from time to time, to keep us invested and to keep us sweet. Imagining a world in which Walter White escapes with his money and his dignity was possible, up until the final season. Even now, we’re making bargains with ourself that Don Draper can change, though all evidence is pointing in the other direction. The Americans indulges no such fantasy. Just look at Stan Beeman, Boy Scouting his way into believing that he could singlehandedly bring Nina back, and then look in the mirror: A lifetime of watching TV and hoping for the best had me thinking it just might work out, too.
As it heads into a fourth season, The Americans remains the best show on television not just for the artful way it explores the delicate pathways of our innermost selves but for the stark and unflinching manner in which it exposes them. Yet even I can’t help but cover my eyes from time to time — its truth-telling can be overwhelming and traumatic. Call me a hopeless American, but I still want to believe that something good might come of Philip and Elizabeth’s increasingly impossible predicament, that a happy ending might be possible for Paige and Henry. But you don’t need to be a student of history to know how unlikely that would be. You just need to be paying attention. Like a parent soothing a frightened and confused child, I want to tell you that everything will be OK, that it will all work out somehow in the end. But like The Americans, I can’t lie to you.