In the season three premiere of FX’s “The Americans,” Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) goes to church with her teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor). They fold flyers advocating for nuclear disarmament and Paige exchanges furtive glances with her latest crush, but the most potent image may be that of Elizabeth, committed atheist, joining in a hymn. “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,” the lyrics caution, as though to acknowledge the series’ heightened stakes. Combining white-knuckle suspense and family drama, “The Americans” is, now more than ever, a brilliant chronicle of the Cold War at home.
As Elizabeth and her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), Soviet spies posing as an American couple in the environs of Washington, D.C., confront the dilemma of their handlers’ latest command — to recruit Paige as a “second-generation illegal” — the first four episodes of season three see their potential for causing collateral damage soar. Set in 1982, with the USSR reeling from the death of Leonid Brezhnev and an expanding quagmire in Afghanistan, the narrative features escalating tensions on several fronts, but it’s the dovetailing threads of patriotic commitment, marital strife, and parental love that make “The Americans” one of best shows on television.
The Jenningses’ disagreement over Paige’s future — Elizabeth, the ideological hardliner, wants her daughter to embrace the cause, while Philip, once suspected of softening under capitalism, is adamant that it should be her choice — is of grave importance, but the genius of “The Americans” is to approach the matter as a commonplace of childrearing. In particular, Russell’s superb, careful performance suggests the innumerable factors that shape our values. In one flashback, we see her look around to make sure no one is watching before tossing a reluctant Paige unceremoniously into a pool. Elizabeth, the daughter of a war-hardened widow, a rape survivor driven to abandon kith, kin, and her former self for a higher calling, perceives the world in Hobbesian terms: sink or swim.
This entanglement of the personal and the professional lends “The Americans” its intimate charge. While Philip’s tender embrace of Elizabeth’s midsection, as he assures her that they’ll crack the CIA’s Afghan Group, carries the weight of affection, the Jenningses’ neighbor, FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman (the excellent Noah Emmerich), finds himself struggling at work because his own marriage has fallen apart. At the Soviet embassy; in the Russian prison where triple agent Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru) awaits punishment; over lunch with Gabriel (Frank Langella), the Jenningses’ KGB supervisor; and during encounters with informants, defectors, and marks, sentiment threatens to trump strategy. To paraphrase a bit of Cold War rhetoric, “The Americans” features a constant battle of hearts against minds.
Though the series often appears to be running so many ruses, missions, and shell games that the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment, creator Joe Weisberg and his team treat both the tradecraft and the scenes from a marriage with admirable patience. A genuine throwback, “The Americans” shies away from the bravura action sequences and breathless monologues that comprise much of cable drama, but what it lacks in burnished beauty it more than makes up for in earnest attention to detail. (If for no other reason, you need to see season three of “The Americans” for the best use of Yaz, as both narrative device and musical accompaniment, since the British synthpop pair’s 1982 debut. Trust me.)
These gestures at everyday rhythms — a brownie wrapped in paper, a game of Scrabble — ground “The Americans” in its human quotient, an omnipresent reminder that the foot soldiers on both sides experience the Cold War not as an abstraction of dominoes, chess matches, and Iron Curtains but as a bloody, disorienting street fight. As a result, even the most extraordinary occurrences come to reflect marital spats, parental anxieties, and adolescent rebellions. Few other series would take such pains to transform Elizabeth’s jaw injury, sustained in a tussle with the FBI early in the season premiere, into a recurring plot point. Yet the eventual payoff is tremendous, culminating in an extraordinary scene that frames every evasion, every frustration of the Jenningses’ relationship in raw, almost primal, terms.
Though several critics have noted, with an air of surprise, that the series asks us to empathize with Communist spies, the real through-line in “The Americans” is its understanding that an idea, an ambition, a person, can make fools of us all. As Stan tells a coworker who asks how he infiltrated a group of white supremacists, “Tell them what they want to hear, over and over, and over again… People love hearing how right they are.” If this shred of wisdom recalls the forfeited peace and needless pain brought about by both rigid ideologies and domestic disputes, that’s to be expected. “The Americans” brings the war home in more ways than one.
Season three of “The Americans” premieres Wed., January 28 at 10 pm on FX.