Patrick Harbon/FX
By James Poniewozik
April 23, 2015

Given the title of The Americans’ season three finale, “March 8, 1983,” it was not a spoiler to anyone with Google that the episode would involve Ronald Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech about the Soviet Union. That this series would use that signal moment in the Cold War isn’t surprising. How it used the speech was more so.

Reagan’s speech was not only a saber-rattling declaration. It was an ethical argument that his audience must choose a side–it cast the Cold War as a moral battle not just between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. but one within the West. Reagan gave the speech not to Congress or some think tank, but–befitting Paige’s spiritual crisis and turn to activist Pastor Tim–to the National Association of Evangelicals. As The Americans has showed, there was a strong pull toward the nuclear-freeze movement among some faithful, who heard a Biblical call for nonviolence and disarmament. Speaking to a more friendly religious group, Reagan made a counterargument:

So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, 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.

I don’t think The Americans is using Reagan’s words to say that he was right or wrong about the arms race. The show has never been very interested in relitigating the ideology of the Cold War, and it’s deeply empathetic with its killer Soviet protagonists (which does not mean it’s sympathetic to their goals or tactics).

But the show uses the speech to underline a more philosophical argument: that every person, weak or powerful, has moral agency and thus moral obligation. It can be tempting to believe otherwise. It’s such a cliché that Philip writes it into the suicide note he dashes off for poor, collateral-damage Gene: “I HAD NO CHOICE… I’M SORRY.”

An overarching theme of “March 8” was: you do have a choice. Maybe not a good one, maybe not an easy one, but a choice. A dependent, frightened teen like Paige has a choice–if maybe a disastrous one–to decide that living a lie is not in her character and to call Pastor Tim. Even prisoners in the gulag have choices within their limited range, as Anton tells Nina when she realizes she’s no longer willing to “keep buying back [her] life”: Turn down the comforts they offer, however hard it may be, and they have no power over you.

It’s not always easy to acknowledge, though. More efficient to get through life saying you’re trapped, or you’ve already made your decisions, or you have a duty. In her last words to her daughter, Elizabeth’s mother reckons with her choice: “I had to let you go. Everything was at stake.” Talking to Paige about her mother’s decision–with the implication hanging over it of possibly recruiting Paige as a spy herself–even Elizabeth, not one to blink at harsh reality, can’t bring herself to confront the choice head-on.

Paige gives her an opening to do it: “Would you let me do that?” But Elizabeth, whether for her sake or Paige’s, won’t accept the premise: “You would never have to do anything like that. OK?” (Not really an answer, Mom!) There is, maybe, an element of Elizabeth believing what she wants to believe about her daughter, as later when she tells Philip that Paige was “really good” on their trip when she’s plainly not doing well at all with carrying the family secret.

But then again, Elizabeth has a job to do, and she has the constant contrast of Philip, who always hopes for a choice–a way to satisfy both his patriotic duty and his conscience–and is tortured by the thought of making the wrong one. Sometimes it leads him to lash out, in a way that Gabriel likens to the rebellion of a petulant teenager: “Grow up.” Sometimes it leads him to turn inward, as when he returns to EST, maybe consoled by its quasi-Colbert emphasis on not overthinking things: “These feelings in your gut are just as important–more important–than all the shit in your head.”

Occasionally, his struggling works, as when he found a way out of committing statutory rape with the babysitter. Mostly, it leaves him morose, making greater-good arguments that don’t even persuade himself. “Yousaf, I feel like shit all the time,” he says, a stunningly simple and accurate summation of his character. By finale’s end, he’s unloading himself to Elizabeth, saying that he needs to start doing the job differently, but he can’t even articulate how–”From now on, I need to be know what I’m doing better so I…”–before he’s interrupted by the Great Communicator, for whom the answers, the right and wrong, seem to come so easily and without self-doubt.

And that’s pretty much it. Very little is final about this finale, by the standards of The Americans or of other dramas. Unlike in seasons one and two, there is no climactic mission, no violent resolution or reveal. (Who else had “Someone gets stranded in Russia” in their betting pool?) Nina started the season in prison–and she’s still there. Various of Philip and Elizabeth’s operations are still hanging out there. Is Martha dead, or a convert? Neither! She’s still processing Philip’s wig-off confessional (the details of which we never get). Stan’s defector sting is settled but only leaves more questions. And what of the mail robot?

After three seasons, The Americans is fully committed to being serial, to telling its story over however many seasons it gets, to build and build tension without releasing it. Its game is long, its pace controlled. The finale set up more business than it settled. (What’s this connection between Philip and Sandra Beeman? Is the FBI pushing Stan’s loyalty too far by sacrificing Nina?)

That’s had great benefits: it has never tipped over into Homeland-style absurdity in an effort to constantly keep things moving. (After season one, for instance, it had the good sense to dial back the cat-and-mouse game with Stan, which would have either become unbelievable or made him seem incompetent had he constantly been one step away from catching them.) It’s allowed the show to treat the characters, however outlandish the premise, with deep emotional realism. But that may alienate viewers who find the resulting slow burn frustrating, cold and without payoff.

But if you love The Americans like I do, it’s because the investment, the building of dread and its effects on the characters, is the payoff. Overall, season three was an improvement even on season two, which Transparent beat out for first place on my Best of 2014 list last year only by a wig-hair. Confident, soulful, rich: it will be quite a mission to dislodge this as best drama of 2015.

And while I say there was little climax or closure, there was a return to a pattern. Every Americans season finale has ended with Paige: alone in the laundry room in season one with her just-blooming doubts; targeted as an agent by the Centre at the end of season two; calling Pastor Tim here. (While young actors are often in a tough spot in very adult dramas like this–again, see Homeland–Holly Taylor makes Paige’s desperation achingly real.) Last year’s finale showed us the Jennings family in tableau, together, but alone in their thoughts. The finale ends strikingly with them each in a series of fade-ins: Henry (the most truly isolated, even if he doesn’t know it) with Stan, Paige huddled on her bedroom floor, Philip hanging his head, Elizabeth watching Reagan with a hawk’s sentinel intensity.

A war has begun. Little do Philip and Elizabeth know it happened right down their own hallway.

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