The headlines after every other episode of The Americans on FX are frequently something to the effect, “The best episode of the best season of the best show on television,” the kind of hed that makes avid television watchers who aren’t caught up with series anxious, as though they are missing something monumental.
They are. They’re missing the most subtle drama on television, a series that works harder than any other to lay the groundwork, to develop the characters, and then to pay it off not in explosive ways, but in subversively realistic ways. The Americans does not aim to shock. It aims to tell an honest story about two Russian spies living as a loving, married American couple trying to raise children in a country with which they have mixed feelings, while cultivating relationships and developing intel for another country with which they have mixed feelings.
The Americans is not my favorite show on television, because I crave warmth and The Americans offers none. But it is the series I respect the most, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who suggests that it is the best show on TV (as my colleague Josh Kurp often does over on Uproxx). Ultimately, however, it’s probably not going to be the kind of series that many in the critical community hope it will become: A Breaking Bad slow burn that slowly collects viewers between seasons until it hits critical mass as the show approaches the end. The Americans doesn’t possess any of the meme-generating kind of moments that Breaking Bad did, or any iconic lines delivered with Shakespearean authority. There are no capers or revenge subplots. There is no “Science, Yeah! Bitch!”
The Americans is not a fiery, volatile series, but it is an intense one that operates at a rolling boil that occasionally threatens to bubble over. There are deaths, and sometimes they are shocking, but they’re not exploited for their shock value. They’re shocking for how matter-of-fact they are. They’re just another part of the job, but eventually those losses take their toll, as it did in this week’s phenomenal episode.
Poor Martha, God bless her, managed to survive the Martha Death Watch (again), subverting all of our expectations. As far as we know, she’s in Moscow now, grieving over her lost love and searching, doe-eyed, for another someone who will love her. She bloody well deserves it, too. Do they have puppies in Moscow, because Martha needs a puppy.
Though she was technically an asset, Philip developed feelings for her, as one would after a years-long relationship that included two or three nights of lovemaking a week and a sham marriage. Martha was a good person, and Philip couldn’t help but to feel something for her. The loss naturally hurt. He sought to reconcile his feelings over the loss with another EST seminar, which Elizabeth decided to give a shot herself, what with dealing with the pressure of a defiant daughter reluctant to maintain a relationship that would keep their family together, and also murdering an asset out of frustration (Mondays, amirite?)
Philip and Elizabeth eventually blew up at each other, having a necessary argument that’s been seven episodes in the making. Ostensibly, it was about EST, but it was really about hurt feelings: Elizabeth feeling betrayed by her husband’s affections, platonic though they may have been, for Martha, which provoked Philip to bring up Gregory, which was a low blow, Philip. GOD! It’s not easy to send the love of your life out to his death via suicide-by-cop, especially when he looks like Derek Luke.
Fortunately, Gabriel was there to witness the argument and decided that Philip and Elizabeth needed a break from the spy-game. They got to enjoy a seven-month vacation together, reconnect with themselves and their children, and catch up on some much needed sleep, leaving poor Paige to continue all that effort (gah, effort!) with Father Tim.
Last night’s episode ended with a more relaxed Jennings family, save for the huffy Paige. However, if you’re expecting fireworks when the series returns next week, you haven’t been paying enough attention to The Americans. It’s not that kind of show. Things nearly bubble over, so Joe Weisberg is turning the heat back down. He doesn’t want to scorch the main course, because The Americans is always about making perfect, evenly-cooked meals.