'The Americans': How TV's Best Drama Just Got Better

FX's Reagan-era Russian spy show turns into a family affair — and ups the ante

Matthew Rhys and Holly Taylor in the new season of 'The Americans.' Credit: Jeff Neumann/FX

The Americans just keeps getting more intense as it goes along, hitting harder than any drama on television right now. Early on in the excellent new season, there's a moment when suburban mom Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and teenager Paige (Holly Taylor) have one of those mother/daughter talks in the kitchen, except what Elizabeth is explaining is spycraft. "It's what's called a 'source,'" she says soothingly. "It's more about getting people to trust you, to help them understand that you want the same thing that they want, which is to make the world a safer place for everyone. Not everyone sees it that way, so it's all done in secret." Then Mom pauses. "Did you eat? Want me to make some eggs?" It's one of those grimly brilliant domestic scenes only this FX show can do: A trained KGB killer giving the basics of global espionage to her wide-eyed teen daughter as if they're talking maxipads.

It didn't seem possible The Americans could push this far, because so much of it seemed to depend on the basic premise: Two Russian spies embedded in the D.C. suburbs circa 1983, posing as a married American couple who work in a travel agency. But it keeps raising the stakes every season, as it digs deeper into the espionage of everyday life. It's really about the Cold War between kids and parents, between husbands and wives, between lovers and enemies. Matthew Rhys' Phillip and Russell's Elizabeth have a marriage unlike any other on TV — arranged, businesslike, but bonded by history and bloody secrets, along with some genuinely electric sexual friction. (The moment in Season Three when Phillip pulls out Elizabeth's broken tooth has to be the hottest sex scene on the screen in years.) They kill people, they go to bed, they lie to each other, they hide bodies, they argue about their kids ... then they kill people again. And they're the heart of why this is the greatest drama around.

Part of the reason that the show keeps evolving is that Paige has turned into a real character — she's the Sally Draper of this story, the teen daughter who's gotten dangerously wise to the family secrets. She gets religion and becomes fixated on Pastor Tim, her left-wing Christian youth minister, which puts in conflict with her mom's plan (and the KGB's plan) to recruit her into the life. She wears a cross around her neck that never stops bugging the shit out of her parents; Elizabeth's nostrils keep flaring at the sight of it, Dracula-style. The story took a major gamble last season when Elizabeth wagered it was finally time to tell Paige the truth: Mom and dad are Soviet spies. (Entrusting classified geopolitical secrets to a high school girl? Gosh, what could go wrong?) In last season's cliff-hanger twist, Paige decided to spill all to her pastor. This can't go well.

Like everything else on The Americans, the acting is impeccable. As Martha, the sad sack from the FBI office who thinks she's married to a dork named Clark — except he's really Phillip in disguise — Alison Wright gets at all the ways adult loneliness can play tricks on the brain. Noah Emmerich, as the FBI agent next door, always suspects a little more than his fellow agents do, but it's a curse, because he yearns to turn it off and function like a full-fledged human for once. His work obsession has already destroyed his marriage as well as his forbidden love for Soviet agent Nina (Annet Mahendru); he wants a shot at a real private life, even though he's haunted by bloodhound instincts he can't control.

The Americans always makes clever use of Eighties detail — Yaz's "Only You," once a universally beloved synth-pop ditty, will never sound the same after last season, when it served as the soundtrack to Phillip putting the moves on a CIA agent's teen daughter. But it never becomes a cheap gimmick. When one agent explains why it's good to learn how to use a home computer ("It's a life skill these days"), we don't snicker at how primitive they were back then; we shudder because it raises unsettling questions about surveillance and privacy, and makes us realize how close we are to this world in some troublesome ways.

Elizabeth and Phillip have always clashed over their daughter: She wants Paige to follow in their footsteps and serve Mother Russia; Phillip wants her to grow up American, go to college and never find out what a ruthless killer her daddy is. His one dream in life — the hope that kept him going — was to protect his daughter from the life. Now it's too late for that, and you can see new levels of despair in his never-exactly-cheerful eyes. When he goes undercover wearing one of his wigs, he looks disconcertingly like Bob Odenkirk playing Saul Goodman — he's lost in the American dream the same way Saul is, except even more fundamentally hosed. Whether he's going to an EST seminar or planning a murder, he keeps looking at his life and wondering how it could possibly get worse. Then it keeps getting worse.