As FX’s gripping, magnificent Cold War drama “The Americans” jumps into its fourth season Wednesday night with its usual hypertension, its makers are always quick to remind us that their show is first and foremost about a marriage.
The show is also about a pair of killer Soviet spies in the early 1980s who are so entrenched in their lifelong mission that they’re hiding in plain sight in the Northern Virginia suburbs. With all the excitement, it’s easy to forget that “The Americans” is very much a study in the limits of commitment between two people who were assigned to pose as a couple, even to the extent of having and raising two children together. The secret killings, the treacherous betrayals, the bugged phones, the wigs and other disguises — it’s all just another means to a love story. Or something like love.
In all our talk about the flawed protagonists and violence-prone antiheroes who have defined this lavish era of unlimited good TV, we often overlook how the best shows have reshaped and deepened the storytelling potentials in marriage. No longer sculpted from typical, soapy tribulations (basic adultery, cold silences, attempted murders, expensive divorces), some showrunners and writers of late are fixated on marriages in which darkness and deceit act as a primal bonding agent.
Reading that, you might immediately think of the dirty ascent of Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) on Netflix’s now nearly unwatchable Washington drama “House of Cards,” to which I reply: No, no — the Underwoods are too dark and hammy to be credited with artful subtext.
Think instead of what’s going on between Chuck and Wendy Rhoades on Showtime’s unpredictably good “Billions,” which, among other swerves, presents sadomasochistic sex play as a way the Rhoadeses strengthen their union. Or think of where we left Noah and Helen Solloway (and Cole and Alison Lockhart, for that matter) at the end of Season 2 on Showtime’s “The Affair,” embroiled in a murder coverup and a paternity deception — four people perhaps better suited to their original pairings.
Or, best of all, consider what happens behind closed doors on “The Americans” between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played with an unerring range by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) as they subvert much of what we think we know about being married, whether in practice or in metaphor. Stripped of monogamy and built upon a foundation of necessary lies, Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship takes an old saying to an extreme: Nobody really knows what goes on in a marriage except for the two people who are in it.
Television finds great purpose when it becomes the omniscient means with which to snoop, long-term, on the most fascinating couples we can imagine. The word “vicarious” doesn’t even begin to describe some of the emotions stirred up while watching “The Americans” and other dramas that break down marriage as we conventionally know it and reassemble it as a more powerful union.
Rather than undermine the institution, is it perhaps possible that shows like “The Americans” have a way of broadening it? Is it an accessible form of social experimentation — letting these characters take a walk on the wildest side?
It’s no accident that so many couples in real life now consider a joint commitment to a TV series to be as vital as some of the other promises they’ve made to each other, including the prohibition on cheating — the sin of watching new episodes alone. As the flat screen has supplanted filmgoing as a date-night option, and binge-watching has become the predominate bedtime activity (hidden from the children, naturally), I often wonder what couples learn — even if just subliminally — about their own relationships and family matters from the best of these shows.
(Note: If you haven’t been watching “The Americans” up through Season 3 but intend to get to it “someday,” let me slap you across the face once more and send you on your way, while I openly discuss a few key plot points thus far.)
So far on “The Americans,” we’ve seen Philip and Elizabeth’s most dire secrets creep closer to their ruin. Most notably, their smart teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), finally discovered the truth about her parents last season and demanded answers — some of which she got (a clandestine trip with Elizabeth to East Germany, to visit Elizabeth’s dying mother) and some of which remain out of Paige’s grasp. (Elizabeth keeps assuring her daughter that her and Philip’s work doesn’t involve danger or violence, when it most certainly does.)
Paige is one of television’s rarest creatures: the teenager whose worry is real and whose drama enhances the story rather than detracts from it. Trouble Teens, as I call them, have a long tradition (dating back at least to “24’s” Kim Bauer) of marring otherwise rollicking story lines with their own obstinate, danger-prone nonsense plots. Paige is the exceptional one of these who doesn’t seem like an overwritten, extraneous way to pander to different demographics.
Trusted with Philip and Elizabeth’s bizarre criminal secret, she nevertheless blabbed, much to the horror of loyal viewers, confiding the news that her parents are spies to her warm-fuzzy church minister (Kelly AuCoin as Pastor Tim).
What happens next verges on the unthinkable. Will Philip and Elizabeth have to kill their own child? Send her to the Soviet Union (the ultimate boarding school)? Will they or another agent have to kill Pastor Tim? The Center — the ominous code name for Philip and Elizabeth’s Soviet supervisors — hopes Paige can eventually be coerced to join the family enterprise (Taylor told a group of TV critics earlier this year that she would love nothing more than for her character to become a Soviet spy), but with “The Americans,” nothing ever comes easy.
Paige’s disclosure violates the Jennings household’s insistence on privacy, which has been on red-alert (no pun intended) ever since an FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), moved in with his family next door, back in Season 1.
Philip and Elizabeth desperately need their daughter to put a cork in it, to smarten up and shut up and preserve the illusion of the perfect (but very busy) family. It’s no different than the adults who use Facebook today to present a unified message of family bliss, regardless of what’s really going on behind the scenes. In her teenage wisdom, Paige seems to comprehend this, already running offense when Agent Beeman drops in, protecting the naivete of her little brother, Henry (Keidrich Sellati).
Other crises now threaten the Jennings’s imperfectly perfect marriage. Besides Paige, there is the urgent matter of Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), the FBI secretary whom Philip seduced and married (in the guise of Clark) and tricked into spying for him. The Martha-and-Clark marriage stands in sharp contrast to what Philip and Elizabeth have, because here, the deceit is not mutual. Martha’s marriage to Clark is sustained mainly by her delusion that this infrequent and cagey visitor she calls a husband is still a fantasy come true. Once Clark unmasked (or de-wigged) himself at the end of Season 3, Martha is in a situation that’s eerily similar to Paige’s. Ratting him out seems to be the least of it; preserving the lie has its advantages; participating in the lie seems unthinkable — or does it?
But of all the shocking things that manage to occur in Season 4’s first four episodes (brace yourselves; there are many), perhaps none is more jangling to Elizabeth than Philip’s confession that he’s been going to “est” group meetings (a.k.a. Erhard Seminars Training) on his own, not as a part of the original ruse to spy on Beeman and his ex-wife, but because he finds the meetings helpful. Philip has, in essence, been unfaithful to Elizabeth in ways that transcend sex and intimacy as well as espionage and murder; he has cheated on her with a self-help movement, fooling around with another ideology.
“How many times?” she asks him.
“I’ve done the introductory seminar and . . . another one.”
“I don’t know. There’s something about it. You learn how to deal with things. Life, I guess. Everything.”
My fantasy is that committed couples everywhere will soon catch on to “The Americans,” turning it into the hit show that it has always deserved to be, and that in scenes such as that one they will draw closer, under blankets, sick with worry that this perfect union of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings will soon meet its inevitable and sadly disastrous end.
The Americans (one hour) returns Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.