Much has been made over the past three years regarding the stubbornly stagnant ratings for “The Americans,” a critically-adored, award-winning, indisputably excellent period thriller that somehow hasn’t been able to crack into the mainstream. And while it’s still a crime punishable by TV exile to not be watching this bar-setting drama, the time has come, with Season 4, to move past berating others and accept what’s in front of us. We are the audience. We are the fans. We are the loyal few. And we’re about to get our reward.
Or is it comeuppance? No matter what you call it, the consequences levied against the Jennings family after years of sliding by largely unscathed are coming. The Season 3 cliffhanger — where Paige (Holly Taylor) shared a secret that’s never before been out in the open before — set up showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to let the dominos fall, and while it’s never quite clear through the first four episodes provided for review exactly where they’ll fall, a more imminent threat than ever hangs over the new season.
A season that, of course, is on the equally stellar level of its predecessors (as if there was ever a doubt). The self-assured nature of the overall production, starting with Season 1, Episode 1, lends a certainty of quality that so perfectly contradicts the mysterious nature of the overarching plot. Things pick up immediately following the events of the finale, but Paige confessing her parents’ secret to her preacher was far from the only open drama left in suspense over the break. Phillip’s (Matthew Rhys) crisis of confidence continues, as he deals with the resurgence of his own deadened empathy. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is still wrestling with how her relationship with Paige parallels her history with her own mother, and Stan (Noah Emmerich) copes with his almost utter isolation in a way that threatens the Jennings more than anything else could — by digging into his work.
To say more would be spoiling a series that works harder than most to make sure its audience doesn’t know what’s coming next, but it’s important to remember that element of surprise isn’t set up in a standard fashion. Thinking back over the first few seasons of “The Americans,” how many of the series’ biggest twists arrived at the very beginning of a season (as a means to hook viewers) or at the very end (in order to tease them until the next season premiered)? How many smaller ones came at episodes’ end? A few, of course, but Weisberg and Fields have set a precedent of unpredictability that’s paying off with each passing season and even each new episode. Viewers not only will have a hard time guessing what happens next, but they can’t even depend on knowing when the surprises might come.
This unconventional timing creates a sense of naturalism for even the most extreme events. Combined with the well-chronicled period setting and everyday struggles of a (would be) typical nuclear family, “The Americans” has subtly become both an intense, engaging thriller and an authentic character study, true to every moment, no matter which aspect it’s intended to amplify. Nothing feels forced. Events don’t feel plotted out on note cards that have been tacked up on the walls of the writers’ room. It’s so masterfully assured, deliberate and connected to its characters that it feels as though the script reacts to the natural flow of its subjects’ lives and not the other way around.
This only makes the impending sense of doom shadowing Season 4 all the more daunting. It’s difficult to say what the theme of the season will be, but after tackling the intimacy of forming a real relationship while on assignment in Season 1, coping with the dangers associated with legitimately loving a staged family in Season 2 and how parents can change when seeing themselves through the eyes of a child in Season 3, Season 4 feels prepared to confront Phillip and Elizabeth with making a real decision about their family’s future. The time for analysis and evaluation is over. It’s time to act, and how this family moves forward remains the most intriguing mystery of all.
“The Americans” airs Wednesdays at 10pm on FX.