One of the reasons fans and critics alike are so adamant non-viewers start watching "The Americans" is that the show simply has to be seen to be believed. It’s one thing to throw out alluring descriptive phrases like "thrilling, moving [and] clever," "spy vs. spy" and "downright Shakespearean," but it’s another to actually sit through a few episodes. The experience is key. Even for current addicts, it’s continuously surprising to see what the show is capable of every week, season and combination of seasons. Which is why, if someone had told me three months ago that the episodes leading up to the Season 3 finale would surpass the enormously high stakes set prior to Season 2’s ending, I may have believed them. But only because we’re talking about "The Americans."
Last year at this time, fans were fretting over Andrew Larrick’s pending attack on the Jennings family, as well as Paige discovering who her parents really are — if she even lived that long. Now, with Larrick dead and Paige very much in the know, the stakes are even higher. Using the revelation that Jared killed his own family — turning on them after failing to be indoctrinated via Russia’s Second Generation Illegals’ program — executive producers Weisberg and Fields have built an even more weighted thriller in Season 3. How? Religion, sex and family all played their role in what’s lead up to Wednesday night’s finale.
Religion and Indoctrination
Paige’s interest in religion began with her search for answers. Frustrated by parents who acted like everything was normal when clearly something was amiss, Paige went in search of answers from her Aunt Helen. Instead, she ended up with more questions, and turned to a friend she met on the trip for support. She began attending Kelli’s church youth group and developed an interest in Christianity. This curiosity was only emboldened by her parent’s hatred of it, as Paige wanted to have something that was her own. If her parents didn’t have to share everything, why should she?
All of this (and more) happened in Season 2, but it wasn’t until this year that Paige’s choices truly began to matter to the whole family. Her beliefs were harmless when it came to her parents’ mission, until she became the mission. Season 3 saw Elizabeth commit to making her daughter a Second Generation Illegal, and thus attempting to control her indoctrination. Rather than let Paige and her church make all the decisions (an idea Elizabeth was never comfortable with anyway), she wanted to slowly let her daughter know what the family stood for and how that should affect her thinking.
For the most part, that decision went about as well as could be expected. Aside from the surprise baptism request on her birthday, Elizabeth’s closeness to Paige helped her control how the secret came out. She shared a bit with Paige on a park bench in the old neighborhood, telling her about Gregory and how she and Philip used to be activists. Paige needed more, though, which lead to the difficult but well-handled dinner table conversation that’s dictated every episode since it happened. By showing Paige her parents’ true selves, their honest beliefs and everyday mission, Elizabeth and Philip have involved her in the spy trade like never before. Now, not only does she know what’s happening around her, she’s also officially in training. Whether or not she continues is up to her, but that decision — and whether or not it’s handled with an emotional or physical destruction, akin to Jared’s — adds a heightened suspense for the finale.
Fake Relationships, Real Emotion
Philip has been put through the emotional wringer in Season 3. Not only did he battle Elizabeth over how far Paige should be brought into the family business, but his day-to-day missions became all the more demanding. It started with the brutal murder of Annelise, an asset he’d been asked to fall in love with in Season 2. He basically traded her in for information on Yousaf, but had no idea she would meet such a grisly fate. Her death marked the first break in Philip’s ever-more-fragile psyche.
Break two came when Elizabeth openly told Philip she would be moving ahead with Paige "with or without you." A father rendered helpless in protecting his daughter is a heartbreaking concept, and we saw Philip deal with it for nearly 10 episodes. The strain placed on him at this point in immeasurable, and then he was ordered to seduce a girl his daughter’s age. Kimberly may have disappeared in recent episodes, but her impact on Philip was enormous. It showed that even a man trained to do the awful things shown in his flashback to KGB sex-ed was capable of drawing a line.
To top it all off, Martha — the one constant in his life of espionage; a woman of utter kindness, warmth and infinite understanding — became suspicious and ultimately learned the truth about the so-called "Clark." Last week, "The Americans" left us with the image of Clark repaying years of honesty, loyalty and trust from Martha by showing her his true face. Philip may be wearing disguises with all these women, but the emotions he feels toward them are real. Even Elizabeth began as his fake wife and then became real in Season 1. How much more can he take, and what will come of his confession to Martha? The tension isn’t just killing him.
A Family in Danger
Season 3 began with a distinct message: you’re not as safe as you think. Though Season 1 teased the idea of Stan catching his neighbors, Season 2 focused on the physical risks of the job itself. When Elizabeth was assaulted and nearly captured by Agent Gaad in the Season 3 premiere, we saw how the two ideas could come together for even greater effect. In the third episode, Elizabeth and Philip were spotted leaving the house of a CIA agent, leading to a thrilling chase that almost got both of them photographed, identified and thrown in prison (or worse).
It was the closest the couple has come to being caught by the American authorities since the end of Season 1, and their greatest concern was keeping their pursuers from coming home with them. Surely, that would have lead to them being found out, but it also would have exposed their children. The threat to the family has been amplified this year. Paige’s predicament is the most evident example, but it’s not the only one. Everything has been building to family crisis, and we may just get one in the finale.
Elizabeth has been tortured with the decision to visit her mother in Russia before the sick woman passes away. Last week, at Philip’s urging, she finally decided to do so and to take Paige with her. How will she make the journey? How can she reach her homeland during a Cold War without raising in red flags, especially with her daughter in tow? The amount of questions stacking up for Wednesday night’s final hour speak to the intensity crafted by its preceding entries. Whether or not it can satisfactorily address them all isn’t a concern — without knowing how, we know it will. We just can’t wait to see it to believe it.
"The Americans" Season 3 finale airs Wednesday at 10pm on FX.