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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews The Americans Season Three!

I loved season one and season two of The Americans, so of course I had to continue ahead with season three.  I am thrilled to have caught up with this great show in advance of the start of season four, which begins soon!

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One of my favorite story-lines from the end of season two was the suggestion that The Centre wanted Philip and Elizabeth to bring their daughter Paige in on their work as spies.  That gave the final episodes of season two a wonderful tension, and I was thrilled that this continued as a major story-line in season three.  With Elizabeth in favor of the idea and Phillip horrified at the notion, this provided a great, natural source of tension between Philip and Elizabeth throughout this season.  It was also nice to see a spotlight shine on Paige (Holly Taylor, who has grown into a terrific young actress).  (Poor Henry didn’t have much to do yet again this season — other than play Strat-O-Matic football with Stan and look at a secret hidden photo of Sandra Beeman — but I’m OK with that.)

When the moment finally arrives late in the season (in the episode “Stingers”) that Paige learns the truth about her parents, it’s a shocking moment, a thrilling turning-point that gave the show with an extra boost of narrative energy that shot it right through to the finale and the delicious cliffhanger with Paige on the phone with Pastor Tim.  The only bit of weirdness that jumped out at me in those final episodes was that I wondered why we never saw Philip or Elizabeth actually take the time to sit with Paige and explain WHY they are spies (that is, why they think the Soviet Union is a better country with a better system than the capitalist United States) and to answer the million questions she seems to have.  Wouldn’t have have been more effective than letting her just stew and wonder on her own?  (It reminded me in a not-great way of Lost, in which the show constantly prevented the characters from taking a minute to have the normal conversation that any rational person would have in those moments, just because they wanted to keep information away from certain characters and the audience.)  But I love that we are now deep enough into the life of The Americans that we can start to see the show upending some of its status quo, most notably the dramatic revelations this season to Paige and Martha.

We’ve seen Elizabeth and Philip do some nasty, nasty things in this series so far, but that didn’t make Philip’s assignment to seduce young Kimmie (the daughter of the head of the CIA’s Afghan group) any less unpleasant.  What a wonderfully horrific new twist to add to things this season.  This was also an interesting parallel to Elizabeth & Philip’s season-long debate about Paige, as Philip (and we the audience) had to wonder if this was the life he wanted for his daughter.  (How twisted was in when, in “Dimebag,” Philip buys Paige an album that Kimmie had recommended to him?)  I was somewhat surprised that the Kimmie story-line dropped off the radar in the latter half of the season.  I expect there will be more twists and turns to this story in season four.

Speaking of nasty things, just when I thought Philip’s seduction of a fifteen year old girl was the most nausea-inducing thing we’d see these spies do this season, we got Elizabeth’s murder of the kindly old lady Betty in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”  The Americans has found a wonderful tension, ever since the beginning, in getting the audience to root for characters who we should think of as villains.  This episode reminds us just who Philip and Elizabeth really are.  When Elizabeth tells Betty that she believes that her (Betty’s) murder will make the world a better place, Betty replies simply: “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.”

With Nina Sergeevna deported back to Russia at the end of season two, I’d feared that her character was being written off the show.  And so I was quite pleasantly surprised that Nina continued to be a part of the show here in season three, as we followed her life in prison.  At first I was worried this would feel like a stretch, narratively, keeping Nina involved in the show, but I was delighted by how important her scenes felt, and how well-integrated her story was into everything else that was going on.  I loved the twist in the second half of the season, pairing her with Refusenik scientist Anton (kidnapped by Philip last season and forced back to Russia).  And how about her gloriously uncomfortable reunion with Vassily (in “Divestment”), the original head of the Residentura who she’d manipulated out of his job back in season one!  That was phenomenal.

I loved the introduction of the great Frank Langella as Gregory, Elizabeth and Philip’s new handler.  Mr. Langella is a magnificent actor and he is dynamite on the show, providing a very different type of handler for Elizabeth and Philip than they’ve had before.  (It’s also a nice bit of continuity, as I am pretty sure that Gregory was mentioned back in season one as having been their previous handler.)  This character brings a great new dynamic to the show.

I also liked the introduction of FBI agent Aderholt and Tatiana, replacing Nina at the Residentura.  Both characters were mostly in the background this season, so I’m eager to see how they develop in season four.

This season introduced a lot of new challenges and new schemes for Elizabeth and Philip.  At times they were running so many different scams with so many different people that my head was spinning.  As has been the case since the first season, one of my only complaints about the show is how I just don’t buy that they are able to run so many long-term ops at the same time without raising anyone’s eyebrows at the extensive time one or both of them spends away from their travel office day-job or their home with their kids at night, or accidentally running into someone who knows one of their other identities.  (Though I guess Paige did start questioning all their time away from home.)  But this season really piled things on.  On top of Philips’ long-running fake marriage to Martha (which must consume a huge amount of his time), we see Philip’s long-running seduction of young Kimmie; Elizabeth and her spy-in-training Hans, which leads to all that business with the South Africans in the middle of the season; Elizabeth’s long-con with Lisa and the complications that emerge at the end of the year when her estranged husband steps back into the picture; Philip’s operation with Yousaf and investigation into the Afghanistan situation; Elizabeth’s seduction of the hotel manager, and on and on.  It just seemed like more than any two people could actually accomplish while still maintaining their cover in their normal full-time jobs at the travel agency and of course their lives at home in the suburbs with their kids.

The Martha story-line, which has been my least-favorite aspect of the show since the beginning, took some interesting twists in the latter half of the season.  I loved the long-in-the-waiting moment in “Walter Taffet” in which the bug in Agent Gaad’s office was discovered and Martha’s whole world came crashing down around her ears as she realized that her husband Clark was not at all who he’d said he was.  Suddenly the Martha story-line went from my least-favorite story on the show to one of the most nail-biting and compelling.  I am VERY curious to see where this story goes in season four.  The season three finale left me uncertain as to exactly Martha’s status.  (I’m not sure if this was intentional or an oversight by the show-runners.)

I was intrigued by Stan’s story this season with the Russian defector Zinaida, and how that led to his temporary alliance with Oleg.  Back in season two I would never have predicted those two characters would be working together!

Other thoughts on season three:

* Boy, Annelise met an unfortunate end in the premiere.  And that sequence in episode two, “Baggage”, of Elizabeth and Philip and Yousaf cutting up and twisting around her dead, naked body, so it would fit in their baggage?  Gruesome!  Not something I am going to soon forget.

* Also gruesome: the extraction of Elizabeth’s tooth in “Open House.”  Yikes.  (I like the reality this show gives us by showing that characters don’t miraculously heal after being injured.  It’s nice that Elizabeth’s damaged jaw was a thing for the whole first part of the season.)

* This was a rough season for Agent Gaad.  He got his ass kicked by Elizabeth in the premiere, and by the finale it looked like he was on his way out.

* I loved the moment in which Philip and Elizabeth get high together, leaning out their window, in “Born Again.”  It was a rare light moment for that couple and this show.  The Americans wrings a lot of drama out of putting Philip and Elizabeth at odds with one another, but I love the moments when we see them aligned, as a team.  (I also really liked the emotional moment in the following episode, “Walter Taffet,” in which Philip tells Elizabeth, in bed, about his son in Afghanistan.  After a half-season of the two of them at bitter odds with one another over Paige, it’s a lovely, intimate moment of connection between the two.)

* I thought there was a particularly interesting moment in “Stingers” in which we see Elizabeth and Philip waiting at a hotel, hoping for a female hotel employee to arrive so that Philip can take the seduction assignment rather than Elizabeth.  Last season Elizabeth bristled when Philip tried to protect her from this sort of honey pot assignment, but here they seem to be on the same page.

* Philip’s coaching Martha on making it through an interview with Philip Taffet reminds me of Oleg’s coaching Nina Sergeevna on how to beat a lie detector back in season two.

* I loved the quiet scene in the diner between Gabriel and Claudia in “I am Abassin Zadran,” the season’s penultimate episode.  Nice to see that there’s a friendship between those two old handlers.

* I am very interested to see how Philip’s surprise encounter with Sandra Beeman at an EST sex seminar in the season finale will play out next season…!

* Another fascinating question from the finale: does Paige’s phone call signal the death knell for Pastor Tim…?

I’m delighted to at last be caught up with this incredible show.  I can’t wait for season four!

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