I can’t remember a show sticking the landing of its finale better than The Americans did in Season 2. Not only did they tie up all the intricate story arcs with a legitimately surprising twist, they did so in a way that organically created an even more disturbing cliffhanger going into Season 3 (and not in a “Wait, we still don’t know who killed Rosie Larson kind of way.”) Revealing that it was Jared, recruited by Kate to become a “second generation illegal,” who killed his family immediately brought the fate of Paige (Holly Taylor) into question. Would she also be forced into the service of Mother Russia, shattering everything she thought she knew about her life and her parents in the process, or would she be allowed to continue with her relatively normal teenage existence, which at the moment mostly involves singing folk songs at her church youth group with a mildly creepy hippy pastor?
The opening scene of the Season 3 premiere, “EST Men,” does not bode well for those hoping that Paige will avoid turning into Elizabeth 2.0. The episode opens with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) recalling the swimming lessons she gave to Paige. While the other mothers at the pool coddled their children with floaties and encouraging words, Elizabeth shoved a nervous and unsuspecting Paige into the deep end. Sink or swim, sweetie. It’s a bit of a heavy handed metaphor, but it also fits with what we know of Elizabeth’s early maternal instincts.
Whether this will be how Elizabeth handles Paige’s initiation into the KGB is still up for grabs, as the rest of “EST Men” offers hope for a different outcome. Not only is Elizabeth visibly shaken by this memory, but Philip (Matthew Rhys), always more ambivalent about their profession than Elizabeth, is adamant that neither of their children will be coerced into becoming spies. What lengths he is willing to go to in order to hold off the Centre, and possibly Elizabeth, promises to be the central question of the Season 3.
“EST Men” takes its name from a seminar that Stan (Noah Emmerich) drags Philip to in an effort to help win back his wife. The seminar preaches becoming “men of action.” Action is not something The Americans has ever lacked, and “EST Men” is no exception. While Philip and Elizabeth argue over the future of Paige (more on that later), they each find time to run multiple operations.
The opening sequence is pure adrenaline-fueled Americans. Elizabeth, all wigged out, of course, has extracted the names of every CIA member involved in the Soviet-Afghan war from a disaffected staffer. Elizabeth, correctly sensing that her asset has changed her mind and set a trap, abruptly leaves the meeting, only to encounter Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) and his partner on the street. Elizabeth goes into full ass-kicking mode, taking out both agents, but not without consequence. In addition to sustaining serious injuries herself, she loses the list of names during the fight. Even worse, Gaad gets a good look at her face before being knocked out, setting up the possibility that his I.D. might result in a sketch that Stan will ultimately recognize.
The loss of the names forces Philip to initiate a Plan B involving Annelise (Gillian Alexy) and her Pakistani ISI lover, Yousaf (Rahul Khanna). Since the end of last season, Annelise has become even more unhinged, falling hard for Yousaf. Philip senses the depth of her feelings and tries to keep her focused, but it’s of no use. After coming on to Philip in the car, she breaks down, declaring that Yousaf “deserves better.” Needless to say, Annelise is not someone who should be the foundation of a high-level counterintelligence mission.
While Philip waits for the meet between Annelise and Yousaf, he finds time for some tantric sex with Martha (Alison Wright). Hold on, let me try that again: he finds time for some TANTRIC SEX WITH MARTHA! Where this seemingly goofy idea came from I have no idea, but kudos to the writers for adding more dimensions to the show’s least plausible and most annoying character, even if so far it’s only being played for comedic purposes. I’d much rather watch a gun toting, Kama Sutra practicing Martha, than the gullible, nagging sycophant she has been.
When Annelise finally does rendezvous with Yousaf, things go south quickly. Annelise, touched by Yousaf’s offer to buy her an apartment in Zurich so they can see each other more often, breaks her cover, causing Yousaf to panic and strangle her. Philip is too late to save Annelise, but he offers to clean up the mess for Yousaf, the cost of his help no doubt being the list of CIA names Elizabeth had lost earlier.
Meanwhile, back at the Rezidentura, tensions are also high. The war in Afghanistan is sputtering, Nina (Annet Mahendru) has been convicted of treason, and a new agent has been sent to the U.S. to bolster their staff (or in Arkady’s (Lev Gorn) view, to spy on them). Oleg (Costa Ronin), unable to help Nina or his brother fighting in the war, is unraveling. He sounds off unwisely at work, while stalking Stan in his off hours to exact revenge for Nina’s conviction (Red-blooded American and Soviet males can breathe easy. Annet Mahendru is still listed in the show’s credits, a sign we that haven’t seen the last of our favorite double-agent yet.)
All of this elaborate plot juggling is handled with the typical acumen we’ve come to expect from The Americans. Where the show took a creative leap in Season 2, and continues with “EST Men,” is in the quieter moments, particularly between Elizabeth and Philip. The question of what will happen with Paige is a prime example. The subject is broached directly when Elizabeth and Philip reunite with their first supervisor, Gabriel (Frank Langella), who has been sent to replace Claudia (Margo Martindale). When Gabriel asks how the process of turning Paige is progressing, Philip shuts him down, telling him that Paige is off-limits. Elizabeth, though, is not so unyielding, telling Gabriel that Paige is ideologically open to the “right way of thinking” but that it will take more time to convert her.
Dramatizing scenes like the marital fallout of this conversation is where The Americans is now pitch perfect. Once alone, Elizabeth, knowing her husband all too well, hurries the inevitable fight along by asking “What?” before Philip can say a word. She explains to Philip that she had to tell Gabriel they were working on Paige because the Centre wouldn’t be satisfied with a lack of effort. Philip calms down, but still harbors doubts that Elizabeth, the true patriot, is “assessing and developing Paige” in order to mold her into what she wants her to be. It’s an argument many parents will find authentically portrayed, even if most couples typically argue about things such as how much screen time to allow their kids, not whether or not to allow them to become trained killers. Even Elizabeth’s peace offering of a leftover brownie rings true (and touching), as does Philip’s empathetic reaction to the news that Elizabeth’s mother is dying.
During the EST seminar, the conference leader barks at the audience that, “Sex and almost getting killed are the two things that jolt us into feeling fully alive.” During Season 1 of The Americans, where Elizabeth and Philip sometimes came off more as comic book heroes than real people, it seemed like that was the show’s only mantra (and generally speaking, it’s not a bad one to follow). But in Season 2, and now at the start of Season 3, they’ve been more willing to take their foot off the gas pedal and allow more introspective moments to take root. The result is a more nuanced, multi-layered show. And if these quieter moments aren’t doing it for you, that’s okay. There’s always the tantric sex with Martha to keep you watching.
Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.