DVD Review– The Americans: Season 3
The premise of The Americans is certainly attention-grabbing—and disturbing. A seemingly ordinary couple who live outside of Washington, D.C., in the 1980s have a secret. To the world, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are a mild-mannered couple who run a travel agency and have two kids, Paige and Henry (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati). In reality, Philip and Elizabeth are undercover Soviet agents, working to undermine the United States and further the goals of the U.S.S.R.
The first two seasons really need to be viewed before watching the third. In many ways, the third season is the best yet. While the first two series focus on the various missions and false flag operations the pair perform, the third season really starts to critique the central characters’ motivations and actions, giving the show a much deeper and more profound sense of morality and purpose.
As the third season progresses, Philip and Elizabeth are forced to confront nemeses far more relentless and implacable than anything they have ever faced before: their own consciences. In the earlier seasons, viewers who didn’t pay attention to many of the subtler parts of the show might be excused for thinking that, even though the couple are enemies of America, they could be considered to be well-intentioned. Yet as season three unravels, it becomes clearer and clearer that the crimes—and deaths—on their hands are morally unjustifiable. Perhaps the most devastating and impressive moment from the third season comes in the ninth episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” Lois Smith gives a stellar guest performance as an innocent woman unwittingly drawn into the world of espionage. Never before has Elizabeth been compelled to look at herself through a lens tinted with such strong moral clarity. The episode marks a turning point in the series, as both Elizabeth and Philip have to wrestle with the possibility that they might be villains. Elizabeth engages in denial and self-justification, whereas Philip grasps at straws to find something—anything—that he can use to convince himself that he is really a good man, or at least has the potential to be one.
I have purposely refrained from describing the plotlines of the supporting cast because to do so will provide spoilers for the previous seasons. Noah Emmerich continues to do strong work as Stan Beeman, an FBI agent who just happens to be the Jennings family’s neighbor. There’s been a slow burn over the course of the series, as Stan comes to view Philip as his best friend. Stan’s too good an investigator not to find out eventually that his buddy is actually an enemy spy, so the scenes where we see Stan taking a rare break from his work life to hang out with Philip have an added poignancy: every moment of male bonding leads to increased stakes as the viewer realizes that eventually, Stan will uncover the deception. Philip’s espionage is bad enough, but his betrayal of his friend is even more emotionally devastating.
Frank Langella is a very welcome addition to the cast as Gabriel, the Jennings’ handler. The terrific Margo Martindale won an Emmy for her guest performance as their previous handler, after two well-deserved nods for the first two seasons. Martindale only has about two minutes of screen time this season, and her presence, as always, enriches the show, though one wishes she were given much more to do this time around.
The big breakout star this season is Holly Taylor, who comes into her own as the daughter who has always known deep down that her parents have been lying to her for her whole life but has never dreamt that they are spies. For the first time, Philip and Elizabeth are on opposite sides, as Elizabeth secretly seeks to lead her daughter into the “family business,” while Philip wants Paige to have nothing to do with spycraft. Meanwhile, Paige is increasingly religious, a fact that doesn’t sit well with her closet atheist parents. In the end, the heart of the third season is the battle for the soul of Paige Jennings, and the scenes between mother and daughter are all the more disturbing because Elizabeth’s attempts to connect with her daughter are filled with manipulation and lies.
The Americans is a highly entertaining espionage series, but it reaches new heights as a family tragedy.
The Americans: Season 3
20th Century Fox