The Americans, Season 3, Episode 1: “EST Men”
Written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
Directed by Daniel Sackheim
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
Throughout its two season run, one of the most remarkable things about The Americans has been the show’s understatement. Despite the somewhat far-fetched premise (Phillip and Elizabeth just happen to live next to Stan), the series has maintained an impressive level of self-restraint. Much of the show appears to be content to depict the overall tedium of its characters’ lives, using the time to develop their relationships with one another and set the stage for the climactic moments that never feel too delayed.
Thus, the beginning of the third season premiere, “EST Men,” comes off as a bit of a surprise, but not in any way an unwelcome one. The impressively tense teaser finds Phillip and Elizabeth, as they often are (perhaps always), attempting to fool people and take advantage of them. His “mission” leads him to the relatively benign setting of a self-help conference with Stan, whereas she hopes to obtain names of potential targets from a bitter CIA agent. The woman’s near-destruction of Elizabeth’s cover sets off a gripping and appropriately brutal fight sequence with Frank and his partner. The motorcycle crash that allows her to get away feels a bit too perfectly timed to be believable, but the sequence leading up to it works so effectively that it doesn’t matter too much. Not only does the scene function as a thrilling moment of suspense, but Elizabeth’s target’s ambivalence towards her country provides a beautiful foil to Elizabeth’s relationship with the USSR. Although she’s not always successful, she often tries to convince herself that nothing matters to her as much as her mission, and the other woman’s self-doubt emphasizes just how hard Elizabeth’s standard for herself can be to achieve.
Her attempts at callousness are tested most severely by her relationship with Paige, which continues to be among the most fascinating elements of the series. “EST Men” finds her continuing to embrace Christianity, and Elizabeth appears to be content to attempt to support her. As is often the case in this show of double-crossing and confused identities, it’s hard to know who’s being their true self and when, and the ambiguity makes the drama all the more fascinating. Does Elizabeth just want Paige to be happy? Is she only helping Paige to win her trust and eventually be able to reveal the truth without destroying their relationship? Is Paige’s affection just another battleground for her to attempt to top Phillip? The episode raises all of these questions without offering definitive answers to any of them, and the drama is all the more compelling for it. No matter what the truth is, the fact remains that all of the characters do reprehensible things on a regular basis, and the show succeeds in part due to its consistent refusal to condone or demonize anyone’s actions. By questioning the abhorrent acts committed by both sides, The Americans takes aim at the war itself, rather than the individuals affected by it.
The show uses the individuals for much more interesting purposes: to create great drama. In one particularly moving scene, Elizabeth listens to a tape of her mother speaking in Russian. The always-excellent Keri Russell shines in this scene, showing how much how she can express without needing to use words or requiring the viewer to understand what she’s reacting to. Matthew Rhys pulls off something similar in an earlier scene with the new KGB handler Gabriel (Frank Langella), registering his disgust with Elizabeth’s willingness to acquiesce to the Center with only his silent reactions to her words. The Americans has depicted the intricacies of their relationship in a multitude of ways, ranging from sex to violence to bitter arguments, but their silent exchange of glances speaks just as loudly as the others.
As much excitement as The Americans has to offer, it’s quiet moments like these that make the show into the wonderfully complex series that it is. Although it doesn’t skimp out on violence, the action only registers to the extent it does thanks to the attention to character detail that hooks the viewer in. “EST Men” showcases how seamlessly the series can go between scenes of high and low energy, all while make them feel equally important to the drama as a whole.