Philip and Elizabeth’s union, arranged years ago by the KGB, has always offered a twist on the stereotypical ’80s nuclear family, where a husband and wife married too young, got wedged into a dull suburban routine, and stayed together for the sake of their kids. Last season, their loyalties and their union were tested as the Soviet Union demanded they groom their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), as a next-generation sleeper agent—an idea that appealed more to Elizabeth (who desires to share more with her daughter) than Philip (who wants for her to have a normal life). Paige now understands that her parents are spies, but has only been given a sanitized version of what they do. The tension over this deception ratchets up quickly this season as the family’s internal battles continue.
Meanwhile, the Cold War intensifies, with grave consequences for most characters. The biological weapon given to the spies by a disgruntled informant played by the great character actor Dylan Baker (who’s long excelled at portraying grumpy grey functionaries nursing dark secrets) suggests that the KGB’s tactics will grow increasingly desperate as the Iron Curtain begins to crumble. This isn’t just plot context: It raises the stakes of the battles in Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. Even if Paige isn’t in the hands of Soviet monolith that brought them to the United States, she will doubtless face a very uncertain future.
That uncertainty is what drives the fourth season to be as consistently compelling as the previous three. Viewers presumably won’t wonder about what will happen to the Berlin Wall or Mikhail Gorbachev so much as whether Philip and Elizabeth can throw off the weight of their evil acts, or at least help their children escape them. The fourth season premiere, “Glanders” (named after the deadly virus handed over by Baker’s character), begins with a flashback to Philip’s youth and the first murder he committed, a memory he’s trying to unburden himself of. He still attends the Est self-help seminar (one of the many ’80s fads that litters the show’s margins) to try and deal with his guilt, but is unable to discuss his sins in public. He also lets his sham wife Martha (Alison Wright) learn more about his deception than she ever has before, a decision that should have major repercussions.
The virus Philip has to hold onto makes for a powerful, if obvious, metaphor for the greater evil he’s burdened with. As the nations he’s caught between escalate their tactics, he and his victims pay the human cost. Meanwhile, Paige is asking more and more questions about what her parents do at night; Elizabeth replies by insisting that her work revolves around getting people to trust her in order to help build a more cooperative future in a world racked with conflict. The tidy, idealistic picture is clearly meant to appeal to a teenager who campaigns for nuclear disarmament and follows a friendly youth pastor preaching for world peace. The audience knows the truth, but The Americans’s showrunner, Joe Weisberg, mines exquisite drama from the intricacies of each lie being told, as all of the show’s alliances continue to teeter on the brink of disaster.