As Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech played on in the season three finale of The Americans, the Jennings family — a unit made up of Russians and Americans, and those who know this fact and those who don’t — truly began to crack. And at the center of the biggest turn of events in “March 8, 1983,” an action that can’t be undone and could have untold consequences, was Paige.
This has been Paige’s season more than anything, with the teenager growing in her faith, political convictions, and unease with and distrust of Philip and Elizabeth. She’d cottoned on to the fact something is different about them a while ago, as she snooped around their house and visited supposed relatives, all in search of something — anything — that felt genuine about her increasingly hard-to-pin-down parents. The truth came out in episode 10, “Stingers,” a revelation that even if somewhat expected felt huge for any TV show and certainly raised the stakes for The Americans. Philip and Elizabeth getting away with their lies is boring; them having to confront them along with Paige adds a level of tenseness and dread that didn’t seem possible in a show filled with disturbing actions and images.
As “March 8, 1983” wound down, Paige and Elizabeth were back home having just returned from West Germany, where at a hotel Elizabeth was able to see her dying mother for the first time in decades. As the three women held hands, a beautiful tableau of their generations and complicated love for each other was created. Another came as Elizabeth watched Paige pray, a look of pain and also something close to acceptance mixed with resignation on her face. They both have strong beliefs; they both love their families; and they both love their countries. But Elizabeth doesn’t know how to talk to Paige about her true life and point of view, having never really planned for it. And Paige doesn’t know how to believe anything Elizabeth says — she didn’t even give her a straight answer when she asked if Elizabeth could or would ever be able to let Paige leave her life for good, as Elizabeth’s mother did. Elizabeth only answers that Paige would never have to do that; that’s not the same thing as saying “Yes” or “No.”
Philip and Elizabeth believed introducing Paige to her grandmother would be a good thing, a step in the direction of her learning to live with this new world, her previous one having been pulled out from under her like a rug. The meeting, while emotional meaningful, only furthered Paige’s sense of unbalance. So she turned to Pastor Tim, the only reliable parental figure in her life. (Theory: What if Tim is also a spy?) Just as Henry, often on his own, is gravitating toward Stan (who himself misses his family) for familial bonding, Paige is looking for guidance wherever she can find it. She’s hurting, she says, and her prayers aren’t helping matters. This, as Reagan’s speech extoling the necessity for a belief in the Judeo-Christian God as a foundation for democracy resounds through a series of vignettes: Philip trying to tell Elizabeth he might be close to breaking; Elizabeth being distracted by Reagan, narrowing her eyes as he calls her kind evil; Stan and Henry laughing and playing a game; Paige crying and spilling her parents’ secret to Pastor Tim: They’re liars, she says, then: They’re Russians.
“Yes, let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness — pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world.”
“March 8, 1983” feels more like a chapter break than a season finale. The series only touched on a few plot points, from Stan’s failed attempt to trade Nina for the Soviet’s undercover spy to Nina’s continued discussions with Anton Baklanov. She’s supposed to seduce him and turn him, but the two are finding a larger commonality in being prisoners. She’s tired of buying back her life, she says, but he encourages her to stay strong. Stan’s neck is saved at work, although now he’s on Agent Gaad’s sh*t list. And thanks to Philip and Elizabeth’s efforts with the Mujahideen, the CIA has moved away from supplying arms to the Afghans.
But what of Martha? She’s the biggest loose end, even as Philip murders Gene, the IT guy at the FBI, and frames him for bugging Gaad’s office to save her. Last we saw Martha, Philip was removing his wig — his façade — and coming clean. She’d already figured out Clark wasn’t who he said he was; now, she’s learned Clark isn’t even Clark. Did Philip’s actions save her, at least for the time being? Not checking in with Martha (or other story lines, such as Kimberly) might frustrate some, but here The Americans is continuing to separate itself from most TV dramas. Its narrative arcs this season were clear, but they aren’t finished. Season Two saw several stories (the Jared kills his family saga; Larrick hunting the Jennings; etc.) that were wrapped up as the finale credits rolled. Now, the series is taking its time as the web Philip and Elizabeth have spun only becomes more intricate. Paige telling the truth about her parents is a cliffhanger, and a damn good one.
“So, I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority. … I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”
The season focused on the notion of dropping one’s façade and if it is ever possible to do so completely. Philip’s is cracking. Hell, he’s willingly going to EST meetings, in search of anything to hold onto. He killed Gene (the slow pan from Philip calmly typing the suicide note to reveal Gene hanging from the ceiling was chilling), but it wasn’t easy, as he tries to tell Elizabeth. Between the two Jennings agents, he’s the only most likely to be turned as a double agent. Elizabeth’s, however, is hardening. She told Paige she’d never be in the situation of having to be separated from her family for good. But Paige’s actions might prove that to be a promise that can’t be kept.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.