Midway through this season of The Americans, the undercover KGB agents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) faced their umpteenth moral crisis: whether to kill their daughter’s youth pastor Tim—who’d discovered their double lives due to her indiscretion—and risk traumatizing her forever. They unsurprisingly opted to spare him in the hope he’d keep his mouth shut, a decision their Soviet handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) warned would feel like “living in a burning house.” “What else is new?” was Philip’s dour reply.
What was new in this season of The Americans, though, was the sense that Philip and Elizabeth’s story is winding to a close, that their secret crusade for the motherland is a doomed cause riddled with ethical holes, and that their daughter Paige’s (Holly Taylor) future might be the only thing worth saving. The fourth year of the critically appreciated, under-seen, and under-awarded FX drama (which airs its finale Wednesday night) was the show’s most existential and least action-packed to date, as it continued to test the audience’s allegiance to the lead characters as their ideological crusade grew more gruesome and pointless. The season was, overall, a grim triumph—one that was at times painful to stick with. But the news that the show now has a firm end date in mind should be heartening for fans eager to see the series build to a conclusion with its last two seasons.
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.
Paige may still mostly be in the dark, but the body count in season four was astronomical, a reflection of the chaos Philip and Elizabeth have left behind over the years. Most brutal was the execution of Nina (Annet Mahendru), a fellow KGB officer who lost her life in a Soviet prison after giving information to the FBI. But almost as wrenching was the show’s goodbye to Martha (Alison Wright), a State Department employee who Philip wooed and eventually fake-married as part of a long con to extract security information from her office. When the ruse was discovered this year, Philip had to pack her off to Russia simply to keep her alive, shattering her illusion of a happy marriage and robbing her of everything she held dear in life simply for access to a governmental fax machine. In an effort to clean up the mess, KGB agents eventually killed the FBI boss Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas) as well, a move that has only intensified the Bureau’s efforts to sniff out the sleeper agents.
Though so much of season four was internal—with Philip and Elizabeth’s shifting mindsets making up the main emotional narrative of the show—the spate of character deaths and Paige’s growing self-awareness suggest more explosive material awaits in the show’s final seasons. The fourth-season finale offers a few shocking plot twists, but more than anything, it hones in on the show’s essential message, one crystallized in a speech by Gaad midway through the year as he surveyed the wreckage of Martha’s life after her disappearance. “Whatever comes up—feelings, sympathy, friendship, whatever—you can’t lose sight of who these people are,” he said. What makes The Americans so superb is that, over its four years on TV, it never has.