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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Four

While there are many shows that take a while to find themselves, The Americans was strong right out of the gate.  I was hooked very quickly in the first season, and the show has continued to develop and deepen.  The recently concluded fourth season was superb, very possibly the show’s strongest season ever!  (It’s hard to say for sure, because in this era of Peak TV — a term popularized by Hitfix’s amazing television critic Alan Sepinwall — there is so much great TV out there that it is incredibly rare that I have a chance to watch anything twice.  This makes it a lot harder for me to compare and contrast different seasons of shows, because without having an opportunity to re-watch things, it’s harder to remember the specific details of individual episodes or seasons.  Ahh, the curse of too much great TV!)

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For those of you looking to be kept completely spoiler-free, let me just say that this was a terrific season of a terrific show.  If you’re looking for a new dramatic series to watch, I highly recommend The Americans.  For everyone who is looking to dive into my analysis of The Americans season four: onward!

Last year’s terrific third season of The Americans focused on Paige and the question of when/how Philip and Elizabeth would reveal the truth to her about their identities, and if/when they did, whether they would permit the Centre to begin to develop her as an agent.  I expected that story — and the repercussions of the season three cliffhanger in which Paige spilled the beans to Pastor Tim — to be the main driving story-line of season four.  And so I was surprised — though very pleasantly so! — that, instead, the first half of season four focused on the endgame of Philip’s long relationship with Martha.

Back in season one, the Philip/Martha story-line was my least favorite aspect of the show, mainly because I felt it stretched the boundaries of my plausible belief in the show beyond what I was comfortable with.  I just didn’t understand why Philip and Elizabeth’s kids didn’t question why their dad didn’t come home for multiple nights every week.  As the show developed, and in particular as I was won over by Alison Wright’s tremendous work as poor Martha, I engaged more fully with this story and with Martha’s plight.  Back in season one, I had expected Martha to get killed off or written off fairly quickly, because how long could this story possibly sustain?  But by now, I had been lulled into believing that this status quo would continue until the show’s end.  That, plus the season three Pastor Tim cliffhanger (which made him the main focus of my worry), allowed me to be completely taken by surprise by the first half of season four.  Bravo to showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields for being able to so totally surprise me as a viewer.  While I noted above that I was uncertain as to whether this was the show’s best season ever, I can say without question that the first half of season four, right up until the time jump, was my favorite run of episodes the show had ever done.  The show has never been more thrilling and intense.  I have to particularly praise Ms. Wright’s work as Martha, which was wrenching and emotionally affecting as Martha saw the noose closing in around her neck.

Midway through this fourth season it was announced that The Americans would have two additional seasons before ending.  That’s still a lot of TV real-estate, but there was a definite feeling in season four that we had entered the home-stretch of the show.  Throughout the season, it felt as if the screws were being turned on all the characters in the show, as everyone was backed into more and more of a corner.  This made for riveting television.

The show was shockingly ruthless with its characters in season four, as many central characters had their stories abruptly ended this year.  Just as I had not expected Martha to make it out of season one, so too had I believed that Nina would be a goner by the end of that first season.  But Annet Mahendru was so good, and so integral a part of that first season, that I was thrilled that they were able to keep her around, and I was impressed that they were able to find a way to do so without feeling like her character was trapped forever in an implausible status quo (a sin that many TV shows commit with their characters).  And so I had stopped worrying about Nina, which of course is why this season’s shocking developments were so powerful.  I couldn’t believe it when her story came to an end in that lonely hallway.  (But how great was her scene two episodes earlier, in “Pastor Tim,” in which she was asked why she’d done what she’d done, and she said simply: “I am not who I was.”  What an arc this character went through.  Tremendous writing and a stellar performance by Ms. Mahendru.)

The Americans is a show that has never pulled its punches, and it makes sense that, as the show enters its final years, that it would have to bid farewell to some of its characters.  This dramatically increases the tension, as this is a show on which no one is safe.  I love it for that.  (My goodness, I would never in a million years have predicted that Pastor Tim would be alive at the end of the season, but Nina and Gaad would not be!!)

One of the great contradictions inherent in this show is that we are asked to, if not root for, then at least to invest in, two characters who are, from an American point of view, the bad guys.  The Americans has always dared us to confront the reality of Philip and Elizabeth’s often unpalatable actions.  But I have never come as close to rejecting the characters entirely as I did late this season with Elizabeth’s despicable actions towards Young-Hee and her husband Don. Those scenes towards the end of the season were wrenching, which I guess means the show was successful in creating an emotional response in its audience, though on the other hand I think they might have made a slight tonal miscalculation with that twist, in that I found it to be so actively unpleasant to watch that, for the first time in a long while, I found myself not very eager to watch the next episode of the show.

Other thoughts about season four:

For the most part, the show was very effective in the way it camouflaged Keri Russell’s pregnancy, though that dry-cleaning bag she was holding up in front of herself in the series finale was rather amusing to me.

I loved that Frank Langella was back in such a substantial role as the Jennings’ handler Gabriel.  Mr. Langella was absolutely marvelous in the role; I loved every moment that he was on-screen.  This is a far more interesting dynamic than that between the Jennings’ and their first two handlers.  (Though I dearly loved seeing Margot Martindale back for one great scene with Gabriel in “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow.”  How about a spin-off focusing on these two old spies, huh?)

Dylan Baker did tremendous work this season as another Russian spy, William, embedded in the biochemical field.  I love Dylan Baker and it was great getting to see him dig his teeth into this meaty part.  His final scenes in the season finale were heartbreaking.

Pastor Tim and Alice continued to be a wonderful source of tension and irritation for Elizabeth and Philip.  I couldn’t see how they could possibly be long for the show following the season three finale, so I quite enjoyed the way their story developed over the course of the season.  I loved how this story-line continued the spotlight that season three had shown on Paige.  Holly Taylor continued to do terrific work this year as Paige.  I loved that they brought back Matthew Beeman this year.  What a delicious development that he and Paige might start dating!!  This is such a wonderful and terrible new development for all involved!  (Stan’s giddy scene in the season finale, in which he caught Matthew and Paige trying to pretend that they hadn’t just been making out was a high point of the season.)

I’d thought Philip’s budding friendship with Sandra Beeman, and his continued involvement with EST, would be a more major story-line this season.  But the Stan-Philip rift got resolved fairly quickly, and we didn’t see much of Sandra as the season progressed.  Oh well.  (Though I did love the tense scene in “The Magic of David Copperfield” in which EST provoked a major argument between Philip and Elizabeth.)

After getting a lot of focus in season three, I was surprised that Hans didn’t have much if anything to do in season four.  I was glad that we still did get some glimpses of him, to help establish that Philip and Elizabeth do have support on some of their operations.

I was also surprised we didn’t see more of the young girl, Kimmy, with whom Philip had to strike up a relationship in season three.  I didn’t mind that, though, because I found the whole idea of that fake relationship to be very unpleasant, and so I was just fine not seeing any more of that this year.  (I believe we only saw Kimmy one time, in “Munchkins.”)

I did love getting to see a lot more of Agent Aderholt this season.  His awkward faux-date with Martha was a particular high-point.

Oleg was introduced in season two as, if not a villain, certainly as an obstacle to Nina.  It’s lovely how this character has developed into one of the most moral, sympathetic characters on the show.  I did not expect that.  The season finale left his future in doubt, so I hope Oleg returns next season.  (It’ll be very interesting to see if anyone on the Russian side learn of his revelation to Stan in the penultimate episode, “A Roy Rogers in Franconia,” that led to Williams’ capture and death.)

How amazing was the awkward dinner at the Jennings’ house with Pastor Tim, Alice, and Stan Beeman as guests (in the episode “Dinner for Seven”)??  It was a high-point of the run of the show!

Speaking of high points, the episode “The Rat” — in which things really came t0 a boil with Martha, could be my favorite episode of the show so far.  Stan’s realization — “I think Martha’s bad” — was incredibly exciting and heartbreaking.  Equally deserving of TV immortality was Gaad’s reaction: “That’s… that’s crazy.”  So great.  This episode was also particularly rich with drama between the show’s two leads, Philip and Elizabeth, as Philip revealed that he had let Martha see him without his disguise on.  I’ve already praised Alison Wright’s work as Martha, but she deserves to be mentioned again here for how she played her wrenching discovery that Philip was involved with the woman she thought was his sister.

I also have to single out the episode “Chloramphenicol,” which featured the death of Nina.  Her dream of love and freedom with Anton Baklanov was heartbreaking.  (I love how the show found a way to bring Anton back into the story, and to pair him with Nina.  I wonder if we will ever see that character again, now?  I hope so)

The point in the season that I am the most uncertain about was the time-jump in “The Magic of David Copperfield.”  A time-jump was a shocking device when Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica first used it, but in the past number of years it has become a bit of an overplayed TV device.  I can understand why the writers of The Americans wanted to use it here, both to allow them to reset things somewhat following the shocking events of Martha’s departure (not to mention Elizabeth’s heartbreaking murder of Lisa in that same episode), and also to allow the show to be able to intersect with additional real historical events that were a little bit further ahead on the calendar.  But the season’s opening eight episodes were amazing, and after the re-start of the time-jump, I’m not sure the show ever quite regained that level of intensity.  It was an interesting choice that I look forward to considering further.

The season ended with a very strong, tense season finale, “Persona Non Grata.”  Will every character be back in Russia next season???  I’m sure many of the show’s characters will find some way out of their current predicaments, though goodness, in the finale it seemed that only Stan and Tatiana would be remaining in the States for next season…!

I was very excited by getting to meet Philip’s son Mischa in the finale.  I look forward to seeing how that character factors into the story next season.

The Americans is a phenomenal show, and here in season four it was at the height of its story-telling power.  I look forward to the show beginning to draw things together in season five as it heads towards its conclusion.  I am thrilled that this show will be able to end on its own terms.

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