In its early seasons, The Americans was the story of a marriage: The strange, forced bond between Elizabeth and Philip, united by Soviet superiors and ordered to have children in order to strengthen their deep cover while living in Washington D.C. Over the years, that bond has been tested and stretched in every way possible, but once the show brought their daughter Paige to the foreground and had her learn her family’s secret, it discovered a whole new set of stakes, which this fourth season explored in fascinating depth. Elizabeth and Philip were no longer just fighting a Cold War viewers knew they’d lose (the show is set in the 1980s, with this season taking place in 1983); they were also waging an internal battle over whether to impose their beliefs on their daughter (which Elizabeth wanted) or to protect her from their crimes (Philip’s stance).
That’s the “burning house” that the Jennings family lives in, the one that constantly threatens to consume them—especially when Paige makes youthful mistakes like confessing her parents’ secret to her pastor, or when Elizabeth and Philip fear they’re showing symptoms of the deadly American bio-weapon they tried to steal for their country. The specter of mass destruction hovered over The Americans more than ever before this season, from the biological warfare arc (where Philip fears that stealing such advanced weaponry for his motherland could genuinely accelerate the apocalypse) to the fear of a hair-trigger nuclear war.
One of this season’s most powerful episodes centered around the airing of the notorious TV movie The Day After, which dramatized a nuclear attack on America and famously shellshocked even Ronald Reagan, the most fervent Cold Warrior, into pushing for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union. Though The Americans’ early seasons were about Elizabeth and Philip’s romantic tribulations, this year explored the fears parents have about their children’s future. Philip and Paige are both horrified after watching The Day After, and even Elizabeth realizes the devastation that her crusade to obtain bio-weapons for her country could cause.
If the “burning house” has been present since episode one of The Americans, this year many of the exits out of that house started to collapse. The idea that Philip and Elizabeth could just flee to safety in the Soviet Union should their cover be blown seemed all the more ridiculous, especially given Philip’s growing disgust with his home country and their children’s total lack of ideology. Some of season four’s most resonant drama came from the parents’ strained efforts to explain their lives to Paige while leaving out the most gruesome details. That tightrope became even harder to walk after Elizabeth efficiently killed a mugger who attempted to attack her and Paige on the street, giving her daughter a real glimpse of what her parents do for a living.