The Americans, Season 3, Episode 13: “March 8, 1983”
Written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
Directed by Daniel Sackheim
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX
If “The Chain” was the perfect Fleetwood Mac song to accompany the closing montage of “Walter Taffet,” the shocker of a midseason episode which introduced, among other things, Gaad’s discovery of the bug in his office, “March 8, 1983” could’ve ended with “Little Lies.” Although there have been many impressive aspects in the third season of The Americans, one aspect that has been pointed out repeatedly in this space has been the thematic cohesion of its episodes. This season has been remarkably broad in scope, and Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg have consistently used the wide frame, in conjunction with a tight thematic focus, to contrast how characters in different locations react to similar scenarios (i.e. love, death, etc.). Appropriately enough for a show about spying and deception, the finale gives viewers a look at the effects that lies of different varieties and magnitudes have on the liars and those around them.
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More accurately, “March 8, 1983” examines what happens when lies are too big for even the steeliest characters to maintain, beginning right in the teaser. After a relatively lengthy tracking shot (not quite Daredevil-esque, but longer than any other take on the show in recent memory) depicting the Jennings going through an airport, the camera cuts to show Elizabeth and Paige ascending an escalator and preparing for their journey to see Mama Jennings. Although Elizabeth tries to encourage her daughter, the solemn music and skeptical look Paige gives assures viewers, lest people forget, that something is still quite rotten in the Denmark of the Jennings life.
Arriving in their West Berlin destination doesn’t do much for Paige’s feelings either. Elizabeth is constantly looking over her shoulder, worried that she’s being followed, and her paranoia leaves her daughter understandably unsettled. Her question about whether or not Elizabeth is working is one which the show has often posed and left unanswered: Where do we draw the line between work and life? Is there a line? Elizabeth herself doesn’t seem to have a clue in this scene, and her uncertainty doesn’t help Paige feel any better.
Neither does finally meeting her grandmother, although it does allow for some of the most stunning work Keri Russell has done on the show. The role of Elizabeth has been a marvelous showcase for Russell, but there hasn’t been anything quite like her naked display of emotion as she talks to her wheelchair-bound mother for the final time. Elizabeth tends to be a restrained character emotionally, meaning that Russell’s performance tends to require more subtlety than the teary-eyed, eye-shadow smearing bravado she displays here. It’s a showy scene for Russell, and an incredibly effective one.
Unfortunately for Paige, Russell’s acting doesn’t give her the same sort of aesthetic enjoyment, and the encounter leaves her without any recourse other than prayer. Although we know that Elizabeth wishes that her daughter weren’t reacting in this way, she doesn’t have much to say after dragging Paige out to West Berlin. The combination of Paige’s desperation and Elizabeth’s resignation makes for one of the most heartbreaking moments of the season. We see the effect of a lie as big as the one the Jennings have told, and the results are tragic.
As bad as things are in the Jennings’ neck of The Americans’ woods, the situation doesn’t get much better with the Beemans. After the opening credits, Stan and Sandra sort out who will take what from the wreckage of their marital bliss. “I’m kidding,” he says, after claiming to want partial custody of a rocking chair, but his sad grimace, combined with what has been seen of his desperation, shows that his statement is just as much of a lie as what Elizabeth and Phillip have been spoon-feeding their children.
Beyond Stan’s initial appearance, he proves himself to be adept at lying throughout the episode, as he tricks Oleg into confessing the truth about Zunaida. Stan hopes to turn the confession into freedom for his beloved Nina, but he only winds up freeing a CIA agent he didn’t care much for. His lies have only brought him sadness.
Still, Stan’s midlife crisis desperation has nothing on the gut punch of Paige’s utter helplessness. As she weeps on the phone to Pastor Tim, one can’t help but weep with her, even as the audience wonders what her conversation will mean for her parents. Elizabeth’s obliviousness to both her plea and Phillip’s confession of his quandary, shown through an effective use of crosscutting, only gives the scene even more impact.
If the reveal in “Stingers” was the moment of big tension for Paige’s arc this season, it’s this scene which allows us to register the full weight of all she’s been through, which bears a resemblance to “March 8, 1983” as a whole. There have been more tense episodes of The Americans, for sure, but the third season finale makes us feel the suffering of the Jennings, the Beemans, and everyone else in show’s universe to a different extent. It’s been an ambitious season of television for Weisberg and Fields, and one which they’ve brought to a powerful and fitting conclusion.