TIME Television

Fake It When You Make It: The Sad Sex of The Americans

How FX's espionage drama is upending the sexy-spy-fantasy cliché.

Spoilers for The Americans, “Salang Pass,” below:

From its beginning, The Americans both fit into the tradition of sexy spies and and pushed against it. On the one hand, Elizabeth and Philip’s tradecraft always involved plenty of bedcraft: they teased, screwed and, in Philip’s case, even married targets to get favors and information. They could each rock a good-looking wig and a pair of ’80s jeans.

On the other hand, the show has always been careful not to use sex simply for glamor and wish-fulfillment. (Nor for one-sided male fantasy: Philip has to trade his body for secrets as much as Elizabeth does, and last season’s striking 69 scene between them emphasized how sexually egalitarian the show is.) And as suburban parents, the duo have much more prosaic lives than Emma Peel or James Bond.

From the get-go, it’s been clear that sex in the line of duty is work–both for him and her–and messy, complicated work at that. Targets are used sexually, killed and packed into suitcases. In the pilot, we see that Elizabeth’s initiation into the program included her brutal rape by a KGB superior. Their own marriage begins as a sexual and romantic sham, one that isn’t entirely free of acting even as they’ve grown close to each other. Sex here comes with entanglement and suspicion–as in the second season, when a jealous Elizabeth asked Philip to have sex with her the way he does with his deceived wife Martha.

But none of this approaches this season’s storyline in which Philip is expected to “cultivate” Kimberly, a 15-year-old fan of weed and Yaz whose father is a valuable CIA target. It’s disturbing, to us and to him, not just because Kimberly is underage and vulnerable, but specifically because she so recalls daughter Paige, whom the KGB also wants to develop as an operative. When he scrupled at seducing her in last week’s “Dimebag,” saying “We’ve never used someone this young before,” the double meaning was not lost on anyone.

There’s an air of corruption around the whole operation, of youth being exploited cynically by the old. (And not just by spies or the Soviets; “Dimebag” included an actual Love’s Baby Soft ad, debuted in the 1970s, that depicted a woman as a “baby that grew up sexy,” sucking a lollipop and staring vacantly at the camera. If the KGB doesn’t get the kids, capitalism will!) As Gabriel (Frank Langella) advises/cautions him, Philip has a conscience; but he must never forget that the people he deals with (has sex with, considers adopting children with…) are secondary to the mission.

With that setup, Philip’s “date” with Kimberly in “Salang Pass” is one of the most unsettling sequences so far, in a season that has already included the aforementioned suitcase-packing and a DIY tooth extraction. It’s unsettling as much for what doesn’t happen as for what almost does, if the two weren’t interrupted by someone coming home. Hanging out in front of the TV, trading bites of rocky road ice cream, having a Jiffy Pop fight in the kitchen, they could be father and daughter having fun on a weekend night.

They could, that is, be Philip and Paige. (Even Kimberly, who in her adolescent confidence is sure she knows what she wants from “James,” transparently yearns for a father, someone to hold the big rake.) Philip carrying a stoned Kimberly up to her bedroom is a positively paternal sight, until she wakes up and kisses him. And he kisses her back.

It’s disturbing. It should be. It’s disturbing because of they way she’s being used, of course, but also–even though he’s the adult here–for the way he is, by his homeland. All this is underlined later when Philip comes home to Elizabeth and brings up their “training”–specifically, in faking sexual pleasure, “making it real”–and flashes back to coupling in a spare room with women, young and old, and a man. “It’s probably different for a man,” Elizabeth says. And probably it is–we still remember her rape at the beginning of the series.

But still, “Salang Pass” shows, the strain of keeping up multiple lies–each of which involves a convincing emotional investment–has utterly drained Philip, who walks through the episode like a zombie, aching at the faint memory of authentic life. Philip and Elizabeth both have given themselves to their country. All of themselves: their bodies, their emotions, their sexual volition. And with it, they’ve given up a sense of identity, even in their most private intimate moments. “Do you have to make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks. “Sometimes,” he admits. “Not now.”

If it weren’t already clear, The Americans is no shagadelic spy fantasy. In bed or out, there is always the awareness, as Gabriel says, that the person is secondary to the mission. When the mission is done with them, will any of the person be left?

TIME

The Americans Showrunners on That Shocking Death From Season 3’s Premiere

Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg on why the reaction to the graphic scene reminded them of their responsibility as writers

Spoilers for the Season 3 premiere ahead

The Americans returned with a bang on FX last night. The first episode of the third season ended with Russian operative Annalise being strangled to death while having sex with Yousaf, a foreign intelligence operative, and her target. Fellow spy Philip enters the room too late to save her but then begins brokering a deal with Yousaf to cover up the incident. It was a reminder to audiences that the plot about Russian spies hiding in 1980s America continues to pack a punch. But it was also a reminder to the writers of the real impact of their fictional show.

Before the premiere, several secret screenings of the episode were held around the country. Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg monitored the reaction to these events on Twitter and noticed that several people were tweeting about a certain screening where a few men in the audience began laughing during the horrific death scene. The inappropriate reaction ruined the screening for many.

“Then a couple people tweeted that after the screening, some women in the audience really took the guys to task for laughing during that scene,” Weisberg explains to TIME. “It was a really interesting reminder to us as writers of what powerful material we’re trafficking in. People have reactions after watching it—maybe some of those people aren’t mature enough to watch it. I’m not trying to shame the guys who were laughing, but maybe because someone told them off, it was a chance for them to learn from that experience.”

In short, he concludes: “These aren’t just dumb TV shows. It means something to people.”

Fields added that they look at sex and violence on the show as a way to reveal something about their characters and deepen their stories, not as a ploy. “The greatest surprise in that scene is what develops between Philip and Yousaf when Philip comes into that room,” Fields says. “They both brought such pain and realism to that loss that they were both responsible for.”

The creators say Philip and Elizabeth will continue to face even stickier situations this season. That’s bad news for the Russian spies, but great news for viewers.

Read Next: The Americans Puts Mother (and Father) Russia to the Test

TIME Television

Why The Americans Still Resonates Decades After the Cold War

THE AMERICANS -- "EST Men" Episode 301 -- Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Michael Parmelee/FX
Michael Parmelee—FX Keri Russell stars as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans

The FX drama, which returns Wednesday night, is one of a growing number of shows to smartly address identity and assimilation in America

In the second season of The Americans, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) pulls into his driveway in a brand new Camaro Z-28, rock and roll blasting through the open windows. His wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) looks on, incredulous. The car was an unnecessary splurge, given that their previous ride ran just fine, and Elizabeth expresses her dismay later that night.

“Don’t you enjoy any of this?” Philip asks, admitting that despite his commitment to Communism, a touch of capitalist excess here and there isn’t so bad. “That’s not why I’m here,” she says, and walks out.

The Americans, which returns for a third season Wednesday night, is about a lot of things: loyalty and deception, ideology and sacrifice, marriage and, increasingly, parenthood. But at its core, the show is about identity — the tension between the false identity on display and the true identity within. The name of the show, itself, is a play on this tension: “The Americans” are who Philip and Elizabeth pretend to be, but not who they really are. Their struggle to conceal themselves without fundamentally changing themselves — hence Elizabeth’s side-eye at the new car — is what propels the drama forward.

For those who haven’t been following along: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are KGB operatives living undercover in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., in 1981. They’ve been stateside for 20 years, in a professionally-arranged but not loveless marriage that produced two children. The Jenningses’ ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the motherland hinges on their blending in seamlessly with their neighbors — any hint of an accent, or a too-enthusiastic reaction to a taste of Beluga caviar, and their cover could be blown.

The tension between their real and fake identities plays out most dramatically in their relationships with each other and their children. It’s palpable in Elizabeth’s disapproval of Philip’s assimilation, her fear that his fitting in so well isn’t just a professional strategy, but a weakening of will. And it’s apparent in both parents’ regret that their children — unaware of their own Soviet heritage — are growing up with the exact system of values Philip and Elizabeth risk their lives daily to topple. Having children was, initially, just one more item on their checklist of playing a believable American family. The result, though, was an actual American family.

What makes this show so resonant today, despite the fact that the Cold War has been over for as long as Taylor Swift has been alive, is the framework it provides for the issues of identity and assimilation that have only intensified in the intervening years. There’s something universal about the way Philip and Elizabeth maintain public and private personas, struggling to hold onto their ideals in a hostile environment. Participation in many of this country’s institutions requires assimilation; assimilation requires compromises some people are unwilling to make. When these quandaries extend to raising children, who are more susceptible to the influence of peers and advertisers than their own parents, the stakes only get higher.

The Americans isn’t the only show on TV right now honing in on the complicated nature of layered and conflicting identities. Blackish, Transparent and Fresh Off the Boat are just three recent (and, in the case of the latter, forthcoming) shows that place identity — not identity politics, but the thorny web of actual lived American identity — at their centers.

There is no singular process by which the characters on these shows attempt to reconcile their identities. In Blackish, patriarch Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) redirects his frustration at being commodified at work — named vice president of his advertising firm’s “Urban Division” because he is perceived, despite his affluent suburban lifestyle, as “urban” — into an overzealous attempt to steer his son away from traditionally non-black pursuits like field hockey.

In Transparent, Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) conceals his true identity as a woman until he finds the courage to reveal it to his children, beginning to match his outward appearance with his inner life. As Maura, Tambor’s character trades the privilege of her former maleness for the freedom of true self-expression. She achieves a more harmonious relationship between the once-clashing dual identities of physical appearance and gender, but the reaction of the outside world is not unanimously kind.

How Fresh Off the Boat will tackle its young protagonist’s identity as the Taiwanese-Chinese-American son of immigrant parents remains to be seen, as the show doesn’t premiere until Feb. 5. But based on tidbits from Eddie Huang, on whose memoir the show is based, it will, among other things, depict the ways in which the dominant culture made a young Huang feel “almost shamed into assimilation.”

The crucial difference between these shows and The Americans, of course, is that Philip and Elizabeth are white and cisgender; the very identity they assume, even if it causes them distress, is one that affords them great privilege. Unlike Andre or Eddie or Maura, the identity they present to the world isn’t met with racism, commodification or bewilderment. It is not subjected to pressure to assimilate, because it already is assimilated.

Still, Philip and Elizabeth struggle with their identity, because they look — and act and dress and eat — exactly like their white, middle-class neighbors. Where Eddie and Andre want desperately to be seen as they are, Philip and Elizabeth are trying desperately to keep it concealed. And unlike the characters in those shows, the Jenningses’ double lives are ones that they chose. There’s an out for them, even if it means giving up everything and moving to Lichtenstein. Their ideology and national allegiance might feel as much a part of them as the color of their skin, but ultimately, it’s not immutable.

The Americans isn’t about assimilation in the same way that those other shows are, but they all reflect a growing desire among viewers to engage with the question of what it means to be American: how many different ways there are to be American; how we transmit these to future generations; how many questions there are to ask ourselves about what we’re willing to do for a sense of belonging, and what we expect in return.

The dualities of our lives — whether we choose or inherit them, confront or ignore them, benefit or suffer from them — are a huge, and universal, part of the human experience. It’s no coincidence they make for great TV.

TIME Television

Review: The Americans Puts Mother (and Father) Russia to the Test

One of TV's best dramas returns, focusing on an unusual parenting challenge.

Throughout its spectacular second season, The Americans (FX, Wednesdays) built on its theme of marriage as a working partnership, and as work. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, KGB agents posing as a travel-agency-owning couple in 1980s Virginia, just happen to have a more challenging family business than most.

In that season’s gut-punch of a finale, the Jenningses handlers proposed expanding the family business. They were interested, as part of a larger KGB operation, in recruiting daughter Paige as a “second-generation illegal”: new agents, born as citizens in the United States to operatives, who could pass in the country with even greater ease and less suspicion.

Beyond the initial shock of the state claiming a child like the god of Abraham, the proposal drove into a long-existing fault line between Elizabeth and Philip. She, the more ideologically dedicated of the two, thought the idea was worth considering–after all, Paige was already becoming politically active on her own. He, the more assimilated, wanted Paige kept safe and separate from her parents’ bloody work (and any knowledge of it).

As season 3 debuts, it becomes plain that the question is not going to go away–not least because the KGB won’t let it. In the season premiere, the Jenningses meet with KGB handler Gabriel (Frank Langella, stepping into the space left by Margo Martindale), an avuncular old friend who assures them he understands their concerns–but that “this is time to start laying the ground work” anyway.

As the pressure rises, The Americans, already one of TV’s most astute shows about marriage, also becomes more and more a show about parenting and how parents invest themselves in their children. Yes, there’s still a split between Philip and Elizabeth, which gets more intense as he begins to suspect her of being secretly eager to recruit Paige, and she suspects him of insufficient committment.

But it becomes clear it’s about more than that: Paige is a teenager now, she’ll be an adult soon, and each parent is concerned about losing her, not just physically but emotionally. Paige is growing and becoming her own person–she’s still involved in her church group, which neither parent likes–and both Philip and Elizabeth are going through the uncomfortable process of seeing themselves in her while also seeing what she chooses to keep and reject of them. As the new episodes unfold, they’re jockeying for influence–her appealing to Paige’s idealism, he to Paige’s Americanness–but they’re not competing with each other so much as each is simply fighting not to lose her.

Indeed, as the new plots and subplots unfold–the season’s larger thriller story involves the increasingly disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan–The Americans keeps its story complex by showing that it’s not becoming an Elizabeth-vs.-Philip story. They disagree, yes, but as partners and colleagues, and they’re also fiercely dedicated to each other. (There’s a scene in episode 3 in which Philip has to give Elizabeth an improvised medical treatment, and it’s both gruesome and deeply, even romantically intimate.)

That’s one irony of the Jenningses’ double life: as dangerous, compromised, and ruthless as it is, the side effect is that it gives them one of the most intensely connected marriages on TV. Even Paige picks up on this, noting that, unlike many parents (on TV and real life) their relationship hasn’t become solely about their kids. ““You guys look out for each other, you and dad. More than us,” she says, and when Elizabeth looks stricken at this, Paige reassures her: “It’s a good thing.”

A good thing, maybe, but a hard thing too. As in The Americans‘ earlier seasons, the conflict here is a heightened version of one in many families: being torn between wanting your child to be secure and wanting her to fulfill her identity, which may not be the same thing. This comes out as the two argue in the second new episode: “What do you want, Philip?” Elizabeth asks. “A guarantee that life’s always going to be easy?” “For my daughter?” he replies. “Yeah.”

It’s an easy comeback, but The Americans suggests there’s no easy answer here; both parents believe they’re acting in Paige’s best interest. For Elizabeth in particular, the decision brings up difficult memories of her own mother, who lived through the WWII era of Soviet sacrifice and encouraged Elizabeth to go into service, not only out of duty but out of love. (The early episodes of this season focus more on Elizabeth’s history than Philip’s–maybe because his resistance to a dangerous KGB life for his daughter is more naturally sympathetic to an American audience.)

As the season unfolds, the tension in the Jennings household echoes in the espionage stories, which in various ways also involve parents and children, the choice between security and idealism, between loyalty to family and loyalty to the larger cause. In its melancholy way, The Americans seems to be speaking to today’s America and its generation of helicopter parents, who often find out that as hard as it is to take care of children, it can be even harder to let them find their own way.

So it is across generations, across oceans, across ideologies. “Parents are always trying to understand our children better, to do what’s best for them,” a new character says in the second episode. “It’s our great misfortune.”

TIME Television

Americans Producers on Russian Spy Ring Bust: ‘They Must’ve Been Watching’

speaks onstage during the 'The Americans' panel discussion at the FX Networks portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at Langham Hotel on January 18, 2015 in Pasadena, California.
Frederick M. Brown—Getty Images Creator/executive producer/writer Joe Weisberg and Executive producer/writer Joel Fields speak onstage during the 'The Americans' panel discussion at the FX Networks portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at on Jan. 18 in California.

The timing of the arrest could help the FX show's ratings

Life imitates art, which imitates life.

“Truthfully, our first question [after Buryakov’s arrest] was, we wonder if they were watching the show,” Americans executive producer Joel Fields tells EW. Adds the show’s creator Joe Weisberg: “They must’ve been watching the show. They had to be.”

The series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as undercover Russian operatives living in the United States, though the show takes place in the ’80s during the height of the Cold War. The timing, the producers say, couldn’t be better for the arrest.

“Are those guys, in their cell, saying, ‘Look, Wednesday night, we have one request’?” Fields jokes, implying that Buryakov hopes to watch the season 3 premiere. “That’s what’s going to get them to talk, I think. Maybe that was why they arrested them before the premiere, because they knew they’d have that leverage over them.”

In truth, the timing of the arrest could help the FX drama in the ratings. The acclaimed series debuted to 3.22 million viewers back in 2013, but subsequently dropped below 2 million viewers throughout its first and second seasons. Its season 2 finale drew a modest 1.29 million viewers and a 0.5 in the coveted 18-49 demographic.

The Americans returns Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

This article originally appeared on EW.com.

TIME Television

Watch Keri Russell Crush Jimmy Fallon at Flip Cup While Wearing Giant Inflatable Suits

The talk show host does not mess around when it comes to games

Jimmy Fallon never takes it easy on the celebrities that stop by The Tonight Show. Whatever game he has put together — be it arm-wrestling with Liam Neeson, playing Catch Phrase with Jennifer Lopez, waging a Water War against Chris Hemsworth or squaring off against Emma Stone in a Lip Sync Battle— Fallon is in it to win it.

It was no different last night when Keri Russell stopped by to talk about The Americans, her FX show that begins its new season Jan. 28 . Fallon challenged the actress to a round of frat house favorite game flip cup, but there was a twist. The two faced off over a row of beer-filled party props while wearing inflatable suits, leaving nothing but tears and a trail of flipped cups in their wake.

Russell was determined, but Fallon has a competitive streak.

TIME Television

Here Are the 10 Best TV Shows of 2014 (So Far)

HBO

The shows that already made a big impression in 2014 (by June, at least)

Correction appended June 3, 1:20 p.m.

Every year, I keep a running list of shows that amuse me, amaze me, impress me or depress me (in a good way). At the end of the year, I whittle that list down to 10, and I have my best-TV-of-the-year list. But it’s tough. I have to leave out a lot of really good stuff. And why should arguing over subjective choices come only once a year?

In that spirit, I give you my very provisional list of The Best TV of 2014 (So Far). But first, a few notes:

  • This list is only in alphabetical order, because I only rank lists if my editor makes me. (That said, I’m glad The Americans begins with ‘A.’)
  • I kept this list to 10 items, because you have to stop somewhere or you’ve got an “everything I like” list. There are a few others that came very close. I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that’s the road to madness.
  • That said, I reserve the right to put shows on my year-end list that I omitted here, because I changed my mind / considered new arguments / saw later episodes / suffered a blow to the head.
  • This may go without saying, but criticism is a snapshot: several of these series are currently airing, so they can always get better or worse.
  • I’ve seen six episodes of Orange Is the New Black, the entire season which will be live on Netflix June 6, and I would have put it on the list on the basis of those episodes except for the timing. If the rest of the season holds up, it’s a good candidate for my year-end list again.
  • There are many other shows critics adore but I somehow don’t connect with (Hannibal). There are shows that I love but just got crowded out at the moment (Bob’s Burgers). And there is one show that is obviously the best thing on TV now, maybe ever, and I just left it off because I am a biased idiot who should be fired (Your Favorite Show Here). Please, tell us about it in the comments!

And now, the Best TV Shows of 2014, as of very early June, according to some guy from TIME:

THE AMERICANS - Pictured: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Frank Ockenfels/
FX

The Americans (FX)
And you think you have work-life balance problems? KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings tried to find the secrets of the Stealth program, their children struggled to find themselves, and this ’80s drama found a new gear.

Comedy Central

Broad City (Comedy Central)
Meet your new favorite two broke girls. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson deliver the contact buzz of laughter in the weirdest, freshest, funkiest new comedy of the season.

COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY: More than three decades after the debut of
Fox

Cosmos (Fox)
Neil DeGrasse Tyson picked up his mentor Carl Sagan’s work (with the help of Seth MacFarlane), breathing new life into the ancient universe and making a passionate argument against the forces of anti-science.

FARGO -- Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo -- CR: /Matthias Clamer
FX

Fargo (FX)
This miniseries isn’t a remake of the Coen Brothers’ movie so much as an extended jazz cover of it — in an improvisatory yet deeply original string of riffs. It’s a bloody yet playful examination of the seduction of evil and the hard cold road of good.

HBO

Game of Thrones (HBO)
Like Daenerys’ dragons, this fantasy epic in its fourth season continues to grow in scale and confidence. But what makes it great is that it handles small conversational duels as well as its epic battles.

The Good Wife
CBS/Getty Images

The Good Wife (CBS)
For five years running, this sharp-witted legal drama has offered more pleasure per season than anything out there. Taking on love, politics, technology and (spoiler) death, it shows no sign of adjourning.

HBO

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
The Daily Show alum’s blistering comedy-cast is very new, but it’s the most welcome addition in a year of late-night change. Reorienting the fake-news format toward world events and commercial culture, it’s becoming the go-to chaser to the stiff drink of Sunday-night TV.

LOUIE: Episode 8: "Elevator Part 5" (Airs Monday, May 26, 10:30 pm e/p). Pictured: Louis C.K. as Louie. CR: KC Bailey/
FX

Louie (FX)
The only predictable things about Louis CK’s show are that it will be unpredictable and that it will linger with you long after you watch. From philosophy to sex-toy jokes, vignettes to the equivalent of a full-length movie, this is TV that can be whatever it wants to.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Betty Francis (January Jones), Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - Mad Men _ Season 7, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/
AMC

Mad Men (AMC)
We’ll see if the back half of the final season can close the deal next year, but this was a fine start. In seven often-haunting episodes, the age of Aquarius met the age of IBM, and it left us with a song.

's
HBO

True Detective (HBO)
Few shows have inspired so much obsession so quickly, and it wasn’t just The Yellow King’s magic. This one-season story (rebooting next year) dripped talent, from Harrelson and McConaughey’s testosterone-drunk performances to Nic Pizzolatto’s dirty poetry to Cary Fukunaga’s direction, in which you could practically see ghosts come alive in the postindustrial bayou air.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the name of a character on The Americans. It is Philip Jennings.

TIME Television

RECAP: The Americans Watch: Something Greater Than Yourself

Patrick Harbron/FX

Mother Russia asks Elizabeth and Philip to make the supreme sacrifice, in an outstanding finale to what has been the best season on TV so far this year.

Spoilers for the season 2 finale of The Americans follow:

“Paige is your daughter, but she’s not just yours. She belongs to the cause and to the world. We all do. You haven’t forgotten that, have you?”

It’s not exactly rocket science–or stealth-airplane science–to say that a drama about covert agents is going to involve questions of loyalty. But a major concern of “Echo,” and really much of the fantastic second season of The Americans, is the bigger, moral/social question that “loyalty” implies: Whom do you belong to? To your loved ones? Your country? Your ideals? Your god? Or only to yourself? And what does that mean beyond feel-good words: if you belong to something larger than yourself, what does that person, that community, that institution have the right to demand?

This was the stark question that Claudia (welcome back, Granny!) sprung on Philip and Elizabeth in the season finale’s gut-punch of a closing twist. (At least I didn’t see it coming–though I started to wonder, with Paige’s increasing fervor, if Elizabeth might be tempted to bring her in on her parents’ true identities.) But it was also a hard-to-miss theme in the episode overall. It was the heart of Paige’s Christian activism: Jesus “was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.” It was the story of poor Fred, find some meaning by dying for the sake of the Cause and a paint sample. It was Elizabeth’s attempt to comfort Jared about his parents’ deaths: “They believed in something greater than themselves.” And it was, horribly, Jared’s justification as he gargled out his confession to their murder: “I had to protect my cover. What we do, it’s for something greater than ourselves.”

Recognizing that something is greater than yourself may be a noble thing, but it’s also deeply dangerous. Once you are willing to accept that you don’t belong to you, it opens the door for a lot of parties to claim you, for a lot of purposes. When a cause becomes convinced it has a righteous claim on its followers, it’s only a short step to claiming their children.

And that claim strikes to the heart of Philip and Elizabeth’s double life. Their children, after all, are not simply the kids they go home to after work; they are literally a product of the job, conceived as part of their cover. That the state should claim them–Paige, at least, for now–as “second-generation illegal” agents is ghastly, but seen through the lens of state ideology, the cause is simply claiming its due. Paige would not exist without Soviet matchmaking; her third parent, truly, is Mother Russia.

On a lesser show, Granny’s order would be one more external problem to solve–neutralized, as it seems at first to be, by Philip’s threatening visit to Arkady. Stay away from my daughter, problem solved, danger averted. But because this is The Americans, the big conflict is within the marriage. Philip is a dedicated agent, but as a father, he’s adopted the immigrant ideal, believing he’s truly raising his children to have a life different–safer, more comfortable–than his own. Given that his job is to bring down the system in which they live, there’s a bit of a contradiction there, and Elizabeth calls him on it. “It would destroy her,” he says. “To be like us?” she answers.

When I call The Americans an intimate thriller, this is what I mean. It brings the suspense–the final fight with Larrick, the getaway scene scored to Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”–but the ultimate drama, what makes it great, is about personal choices. Who are you? What are you willing to give up? Is it more terrifying to see your children in danger, or to risk losing them emotionally forever, seeing them become strangers to you? In a minute of downtime, Elizabeth and Philip share stories of their childhood hardship: to her, it’s a better alternative than losing her daughter to kumbaya Christianity, but to Philip, it’s something to save his children from. (It’s a nice touch, by the way, that his story is interrupted, and he never gets to finish it.)

Elizabeth and Philip have survived this life; they’re good at their jobs. But we see that things don’t always work out well for people who give themselves to something greater. Stan has lost his marriage, loses his lover, may lose everything, but he elects to roll the dice rather than betray his country. Which means the end of the line–for now anyway–for Nina, whose composure, resourcefulness, and bravery were not enough to secure Stan’s treason or the state’s mercy. In a heartbreaking image, she looks back at Arkady with the portrait of Lenin, powerful and impassive, over her shoulder. (I hope we haven’t seen the last of her, but Annet Mahendru here reminds us why she’s been the MVP of season 2.)

This finale capped off a season in which not only nearly every move The Americans made went right (I could pick nits but I won’t), but the things that went right worked well together too. Season one had a thrilling cat-and-mouse game with the Jenningses and neighbor Stan, but it posed a danger in the long term: if every season becomes a variation on “Stan almost finds out who they are,” it risks becoming tiresome or making him seem merely incompetent. So this season spun him off into his own crises at work and with Nina, challenging his dedication and enriching the already fascinating internal dynamics of the Rezidentura.

And the kids: wow. Dramas with a family element often struggle with kids’ stories, for instance; they can often seem tacked on or insignificant in comparison to the adult’s storylines. But this season used both Paige and Henry remarkably. The scene in which Henry, caught breaking into a neighbor’s house to play video games, miserably pleads “I’m a good person!” is one of the most wrenching things I’ve seen this year. It shows a kid’s problem, but also conveys that this is really one of the worst things he’s experienced–his confidence in his very nature is shaken–and that in turn echoes Philip and Elizabeth’s moral crises.

Paige’s story, meanwhile, has been an utterly believable journey of self-discovery for a teenage girl in the early ’80s–compounded by the fact that she’s fighting for independence while living in an artificial world created by surveillance professionals. (She, meanwhile, is getting naturally suspicious of all those “business emergencies.”) She sees her parents as denying her individuality; her parents–fighting for a system that’s none too keen on the individual–see her becoming an opiate-of-the-masses addict.

Elizabeth and Philip have saved their family, physically, but only for now. And it’s in jeopardy emotionally, as we see in that fantastic last tableau in the park, the Jenningses sitting together but separate, Paige reading, Mom and Dad staring off separately, Henry flying a kite alone and spinning, spinning, spinning. And unlike last season’s ambiguous season ending, the orders for the Centre promise an impetus that will give season 3 immediate plot and emotional urgency. (Oh, and? Martha. Has. A. Gun.)

I can’t wait. But for now, I’d consider The Americans the best season of TV I’ve seen so far in 2014, and it will take some work for another show to displace it. (Yes, I considered True Detective. Whatever other show you’re thinking about too. We’ll see.) And as for next year–hoo boy. Paige talked about the inspiration of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for the good of humanity, but little does she know that, behind the scenes, this is not the story of Jesus. It’s God telling Abraham to lay his child on the altar.

TIME Television

The Americans Gets Picked Up for a Third Season

THE AMERICANS -- "Behind the Red Door" -- Episode 6 (Airs Wednesday, April 2, 10:00 PM e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings -- CR: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
Craig Blankenhorn—FX (L-R) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

Next year, fans of the spy drama will get even more secrets, more disguises and more wigs

The Cold War espionage is far from over: FX has ordered a third season of The Americans. FX said Wednesday that the hit show would get 13 new episodes airing next year.

“We are so delighted and grateful to continue telling the stories of these characters,” executive producer Joel Fields told Variety.

The critically-acclaimed spy drama set in the 1980s is currently in its second season and has been averaging 3.08 million total viewers. “The Americans” was trending on Twitter within hours of the announcement.

The Americans continues be one of the best shows on television,” FX’s co-president of original programming Eric Schrier said in a statement. “Fans will be blown away by the rest of this season, and we can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.”

[Variety]

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