'The Americans' Season 4: TV Review

The Americans Still  - H 2016
Courtesy of FX
Another great season.

Season four of FX's superb spy-marital drama — one of the very best shows on TV — amps up the tension and starts plotting an endgame.

It’s a good thing that viewers can’t immediately binge-watch FX’s The Americans, arguably the best ongoing series on television, because there are moments in the first four episodes where it feels like there’s a vice tightening on your chest. And there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for that feeling: The first four episodes (that’s how many were made available to critics) are among the best the series has ever done.

It’s quite a start to the fourth season and, no doubt, the seasonal trumpeting (and grumping) by critics about how not enough people are watching this show, or how in the world the Emmys could be ignoring it, will begin again in earnest. And while it’s true those phenomena are annoying, the brilliance of the achievement is the only reward The Americans really needs.

When the show ends — and current guesses are after a fifth or possibly sixth season — it will have a well-earned legacy (and of course FX should continue to get plaudits for keeping it on the air, despite the Emmy snubs, since awards recognition usually fuels a channel’s loyalty to a gem with low ratings).

The heart-pounding (and wounding) elements in play for season four suggest an impending end to the story. That there’s a heightened, body-tightening sense of pace even in the first four of the 13 episodes hints that The Americans can see that end and is not afraid to race toward the fallout of its high-stakes spy game. That’s what great series do. They don’t worry about lasting forever; they worry about telling the story as it was meant to be told.

It will be interesting to see what creator-writer-executive producer Joe Weisberg and executive producer-writer Joel Fields do for the rest of the season, but if the first four episodes are any indication, they fear not where they go. And if you’re looking to handicap what might happen going forward, major revelations and perhaps a cliff-hanger in this season would open the door to season five dealing with the emotional toll of all that's come before. It’s hard to imagine, at this pace, that a sixth season would even be helpful or necessary.

Season four picks up where, arguably, it fumbled the third-season finale. While we had the ongoing marital and spy-devotion struggle between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) — and for that matter the dissolution of FBI neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich) and wife Sandra (Susan Misner) -— there was no resolution for the major bombshell in the penultimate episode about Martha (Alison Wright) finding out she didn’t marry the man she thought she did (in fact, Martha wasn’t even in the finale, nor was Kimmy, whose storyline was dropped completely).

Martha’s situation is complicated in that Philip is getting excellent access to FBI secrets and so killing her is not the first option — even though Philip knows Stan is snooping around (and you can bet he’ll continue to do so this season). Yes, the choice to leave Martha out of last season’s finale seemed a bad one, as Weisberg and Fields instead serviced the big reveal that was daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) being told by her American parents that they’re really Russian spies (and Paige in turn doing the one thing she couldn’t do, which was to tell that to Pastor Tim).

But what season three did very well was get even more granular than past seasons as it explored what it means to be arranged-marriage spies struggling with conflicting emotions, and what it meant to be loving parents to two American kids, one of whom was going to figure out any day what was going on.

The Americans has always worked on those separate planes: that of the spy world and that of the marriage/parent world — it’s the magic combination that elevated the series from a good idea on paper to a great idea onscreen. Anyone who watched The Americans last season no doubt thought, “Oh my God, you can’t tell Paige” while also realizing that as both parents and spies they absolutely had to tell her.

That tension — and it was never more intense than in the finale — is only part of what coils and uncoils and reverberates in season four.

What Weisberg and Fields planted in the first season — that Philip is less invested than Elizabeth in the spy game, partly because his jadedness about what they do is coupled with a begrudging appreciation of life in America, as well as his desire to never let the kids do what he does — has driven each season and culminated perfectly in the EST movement. More shockingly, a major plotline in season four — biochemicals — could nudge Elizabeth in the same direction, especially as Paige’s situation threatens the Jennings like never before.

That stake-raising — the fact that Elizabeth can’t deny the fact “we’re in trouble” — is a fantastic one to explore because The Americans has always made her harder than Philip; she's frequently the one who has to explain to her handlers (the fantastic duo of Frank Langella as Gabriel and Margo Martindale as Claudia) why Philip is pushing back against Moscow.

The Americans has always wanted its characters to think about consequences, always wanted the mundane world of cooking dinner or walking around town to smack up against the spy conceit; it has always been deft at contrasting what a person does on the surface and the secrets and lies beneath. Imagine, then, what it will have to work with now that events are not turning out as expected for Elizabeth and Philip at home and at work.

One intriguing narrative strand in this new season is the hunt for bio secrets and how that’s paying off dramatically inside the Russian Rezidentura, but especially in the expanded role that Dylan Baker will have as an American scientist who’s been aiding the Russians for years. Baker is excellent. And when you look at what this series does with actors like Langella and Martindale, and now Baker, it's no wonder why they are kept around. The acting, across the board, is remarkable.

And if the whole Kimmy storyline seemed like an unnecessary detour, it’s only fair to note that Weisberg and Fields have done an extraordinary job of parsing out good stories and camera time for actors like Wright, Annet Mahendru, Lev Gorn as Arkady, Costa Ronin as Oleg and Richard Thomas as Frank Gaad. There are a lot of plates spinning on this series — and when you’ve got everything from the casting to the cinematography rising to the level of the writing and acting, a kind of startling quality emerges, even if the viewers are fewer than desired and the Emmy voters are as blind as expected.

The series itself, as the first four episodes of season four can attest, just continues to be grand.

Cast: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Alison Wright, Holly Taylor, Frank Langella, Margo MartindaleAnnet Mahendru

Created by: Joe Weisberg

Executive producer: Joel Fields

Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine