There have been times during season three of The Americans when it seemed like the writers, stuck on where to go next, were giving themselves a dare: Figure out what horrible crime Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings haven’t committed, and then add it to the script. Stuff a friend’s corpse into a suitcase? Assist in burning someone alive? Force an old lady to swallow a bottle of pills? Commit—okay, for now, just agree to commit—acts of pedophilia? (That's just the last ten episodes.)
Despicable activities are, of course, staples of the so-called golden age of television, and most of the brutality on The Americans is the same stuff that viewers have cheerfully lapped up on Game of Thrones and The Sopranos. But there’s more reason to be squeamish when The Americans tests its audience's tolerance for discomfort. Every sick thing that happens on this show feels strangely incidental—mere collateral damage in side plots that viewers aren’t all that emotionally invested in. That's because even though it’s a show about spies, the actual spying—the secret maneuverings that have implications for America, South Africa, Russia, Afghanistan, and the like—is secondary. The main action is, of course, in the Jennings’s household.
This isn’t a new observation, and The Americans does seem to understand that it functions best as a domestic drama and psychological study. Which is probably why now, towards the end of its third season—the period that corresponds to when, as Todd VanDerWerff pointed out at Vox, the traditional five-act Shakespearean tragedy really heats up—it has finally let some plot lines that aren’t directly tied to the headlines on the 1983 six-o’clock news move forward. The result isn’t just a renewed sense of energy for the show; it’s a moving demonstration of how being let in on a secret can reshape someone's world.
For so long, Philip and Elizabeth's relationships with key characters have remained static, defined by deception. But a few episodes ago, the blindfold came off Martha, the long-suffering wife of Philip's alter ego Clark. This was followed last week by their daughter Paige—in a moment of writers’-room brilliance—demanding to know whether her parents were aliens or drug dealers or what. This week’s episode "One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov,” reaps the payoff of these revelations: a host of new conspiracies, new relationships, and new concerns for two protagonists who've never been so exposed.
When people talk about The Americans as a domestic drama, they’re talking mostly about Philip and Elizabeth’s marital dynamic. This husband and wife have something in common that almost no other couple on earth has, and that very thing makes it impossible for them to fully trust each other. The implications of this arrangement have been explored thoroughly. But now that Paige knows her parents are spies, the situation changes.
For one thing, Philip and Elizabeth have to adjust their manipulation techniques; the truth, for the first time ever, can be a weapon. To gain Paige’s trust, they start talking. They say their real names, names they’ve barely said aloud in decades. Elizabeth speaks about her real mother, who she hasn’t seen in decades. Philip answers Paige’s question about what her two parents were in the middle of discussing, telling the truth about something he hasn’t been able to talk openly about for years. All of this must be cathartic for the characters. It certainly is for the viewer.
But for Paige, the flood of new candor is frightening, maybe even offensive. She suspects her parents’ gentleness, their sharing, to be calculation. She doesn't want to be called "honey." When her mom tells a lengthy, touching story about her childhood, Paige's only reply is, “How can I ever trust you again?” When she barges into her mom and dad's room to ask what’s up and they respond forthrightly, she leaves and shuts the door. If Paige is, as the showrunners have suggested, going through a Kübler-Ross-style process of grieving for the life she thought she had, right now she’s in the anger stage. Whether she makes it to the acceptance stage, and what she does in the meantime, is a real and novel source of tension for the show.
Martha, having learned the man she thinks is her husband is not who he says he is (though she still doesn't know what he actually is), went from denial to anger to some sort of hybrid of denial and acceptance. She’s now a willing accomplice to Clark, which means viewers get to see something they've rarely seen before: the minting of a new co-conspirer, and Philip imparting some of his KGB training. It was fascinating to see him tenderly teach her how to lie and to see her confidently face down the FBI interrogator. A Martha who's in on the con is, as far as TV-viewing experiences go, far more satisfying than the one who'd been conned for three years.
The dynamics of other plot lines are shifting in intriguing ways as well. When Lisa’s husband confronts Elizabeth and wants payment to sell Northrup secrets, it’s a rare example of a mark realizing he's a mark and wanting to capitalize on it. At the Russian embassy, Oleg and Tatiana being tasked with analyzing the mail-robot’s findings from the FBI makes for yet another circle of illicit trust that has expanded. And if Philip does find a way for Elizabeth to visit her dying mother, it would offer not only a new locale for a main character to operate in, but also a chance for a major epiphany. It all adds up to a bunch of principal players with new roles, which means that, going forward, the show shouldn't have to repeat itself as much as it once did. No one even had to be gruesomely murdered, at least this week, for it to happen.