By James Poniewozik
January 28, 2015

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.”

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