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The Brutal Despair of The Americans’ Fourth Season

If espionage ever looked fun or exciting, it certainly doesn’t anymore.

Eric Liebowitz/FX

The fourth season of The Americans begins right where season three left off, in March 1983; Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), Russian spies raising their family in a perpetually overcast Washington, don’t know it yet, but the final collapse of the Soviet Union is just eight years away. Soon Gorbachev will be elected, then will come glasnost, perestroika, and “Tear down this wall.” While the show avoids sly winks to the future, the knowledge that the Jennings are fighting a losing battle lingers at the Cold War drama’s edges. The action, even at its most thrilling, is tinged with futility. The show’s stomach-clenching tension comes not from suspense but from an awareness of eventual doom.

This might be why The Americans, despite its rapturous reviews and titillating premise, has remained a hard sell for TV audiences. (Streaming on Amazon Prime instead of the more popular Netflix or Hulu may also have something to do with it.) Yet even as ratings have shrunk from tiny to minuscule, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields don’t seem eager to draw in new viewers with sensational reveals or flashy twists. In fact, The Americans has only grown quieter, slower, and subtler by the year. Tonight’s premiere on FX has no acrobatic sex scenes or cheekily soundtracked car chases. Keri Russell remains fully clothed, and don’t expect any hilarious new wigs. If espionage ever looked fun or exciting, it certainly doesn’t anymore.   

Last season, Philip and Elizabeth revealed to their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) who they were and what they did. (Sort of, at least—when Paige asks if people get hurt because of their work, Elizabeth quickly lies to reassure her.) A secret like that is a burden no 15-year-old could bear, and Paige soon told her pastor, putting both him and her parents in danger. Martha (Alison Wright), an FBI secretary married to “Clark”—Philip in disguise—has also learned a version of the truth: that the man she loves isn’t who she thinks he is. Martha’s story is the show’s most heartbreaking: A lonely working woman becomes involved in treason and murder for the sake of companionship. When she finds out that Philip killed and framed her co-worker to protect her from suspicion, she’s horrified. “What did you do?” she asks, eyes widening, and then with a gulp, “What did I do?” 

It’s a question Philip is beginning to ask himself. Haunted by a childhood act of violence, he continues to attend EST self-help meetings, trying to open up in whatever way an undercover spy can. Philip isn’t alone in his spiritual malaise. Paige waits outside her classroom as her peers recite the pledge of allegiance. Martha watches the rest of her office as though through a screen. Philip and Elizabeth talk at each other, but can’t seem to communicate what matters; in one scene, she asks what’s bothering him as they stand on opposite sides of a wire fence. In a Russian prison camp, Nina, a former triple agent, is able to fully connect with another person for perhaps the first time, but she can only repair her soul by rejecting her drive for self-preservation. This is what it means to live with secrets: alienated from everyone around you, and from yourself.

In the season premiere, Philip and Elizabeth are handed a tiny vial containing an infectious disease, a bio-weapon that the U.S. Army has cultivated that the Soviet Union wants. As with most plot devices in The Americans, it’s a powerful metaphor. Like the pathogen they have been instructed to transport, the Jennings are biological threat agents: easily disguised and highly destructive, putting everything they touch at risk. The show is headed towards its home stretch at this point—there are only two or three more seasons left—and there seems to be little use hoping for a happy ending. Each time a character evades death, it feels like a temporary stay of execution.