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Review: ‘The Americans’ Season 3 Asks How Far Is Too Far For Family

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell find their characters pushed to new limits in a season aiming to break one of them, if not both.

“The Americans” has always been a show about questions. In the spy genre, questions arise all the time. Who’s lying? Who’s telling the truth? Why? For what purpose? But creator Joseph Weisberg has also been quite adept at allowing each of his first two seasons to be summed up by a central, thematic question — and then answering them through the most trying of circumstances.

The first season of Weisberg’s “marital drama through spies’ eyes” focused on the not-so-basic concept of how two KGB agents ordered to live together, work together and pretend to love one another (and have kids together) could actually fall in love by traditional romantic standards — in other words, how could such a marriage work? Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) built a sexual tension comparable to the risks taken in the field, vetting the positives of falling in love versus the dangers it could bring to their war against the U.S. Their path to each other was fascinating because, in so many ways, they were already there, but not in the way most important to a successful marriage.

After resolving that the good outweighed the bad — in a rather brilliant example of the “love conquers all” mentality — Season 2 brought about a new challenge for the suddenly authentic couple. What happens to a real family built around falsities? As their children grew older, they were also more exposed to their parents’ secret world. A couple became a family, but what happens to the couple when the family is threatened?

Season 3 takes that threat to its highest level yet. Weisberg has always maintained his series is about a marriage, with the spy games simply creating an exciting allegory for common familial distress. The first two seasons held firm to that metaphor, but Season 3 finds the central marriage in jeopardy as the family’s oldest child is starting to grow up rebellious. While this is none-too-welcome news for most parents, ceding control of her only daughter to anyone not part of the cause is damn near impossible for Elizabeth. Philip is none too happy about it either, but he doesn’t think Paige’s knowledge or involvement in their business life would solve anything. He’s less afraid of the freedoms offered by American culture than Elizabeth, a chink in the duo’s armor all along.

Meanwhile, the couple gets a new handler in the form of their old but previously unseen liaison, Gabriel (played by the perfectly cast Frank Langella). As a trusted friend to both agents, Gabriel appears to be giving them the hands-off attention Claudia (Margo Martindale) would not, no matter how much the couple fought her for it. In the season’s first four episodes, Gabriel plays Scrabble with Philip, provides personal correspondence from Russia to Elizabeth and acts as a confidant to them both, all while remaining as neutral as was demanded regarding Paige’s conversion to a “second generation illegal.”

While Langella’s grandfatherly persona seems too perfect to believe, his integration into the series (after Martindale left to star in the now-canceled CBS sitcom “The Millers”) brings up an idea central to Season 3’s most pertinent question. What’s made “The Americans” one of the most intriguing narrative experiments on television for the past two years is the way it forces an audience uneasy about drawing comparisons between themselves and their former enemies to stare directly in the face of their hypocrisy. The universality of its characters, including the downright hilarious pairing of a KGB spy and FBI agent as not only neighbors but best friends, forces us to analyze our preconceived notions of “us vs. them.” Spies are, after all, still human, no matter what they do or how firmly they hold onto their ideals.

Now the series is bringing its conceit full circle, demanding a decision from its characters in regard to an innocent. Paige doesn’t identify as your typical Cold War-era American. She’s not a disciple of Ronald Reagan and seems more concerned with her personal life — relating to her parents, friends and family — then where the country is headed as a whole (though she’s probably still chanting “No Nukes” at various rallies). She’s not firmly bent toward one ideology or another — not yet — except for her new found faith.

As hinted at in last season’s finale, Elizabeth feels Paige is turning herself over to the church because she doesn’t know who she truly is: a Russian patriot, daughter to spies and, yes, a born (if not bred) communist. Will knowing all this affect her mentality the way her mother hopes, or is Philip’s blanket secrecy regarding his and Elizabeth’s agenda providing a better lifestyle for the developing young woman? Weisberg isn’t afraid to push the issue to multiple extremes, as Season 3 features at least three memorably unsettling scenes within its first four episodes. With each, the grisly elements seem to be emphasizing the increasing instability within the nuclear family, working toward the season’s central question: “What’s off limits when it comes to protecting your family?”

The genius of the question lies within how much it entails. Most parents would say they’d do anything to protect their family, but Elizabeth and Philip have to face that question more often than traditional couples. Paige’s fate is tied to not only the future of both Russia and America, but her parents’ happiness and their marriage’s longevity. As he did for the first two seasons, Weisberg has crafted a scenario requiring a rapid reaction from all the characters involved, upping the stakes and elevating the repercussions, but one that does not diminish the possibility for bountiful returns. Too many series rely on twists so heavily their designs become disposable, resulting in a downgrade in quality after a just a season or two. (Even “Homeland” saw a dip in Season 3.) Not here. “The Americans” is only getting better with age, answering its questions as it builds upon them — even if the solutions don’t come easy.
Grade: A