The return of The Americans is just another boon for a consistently strong lineup of programming on FX, currently grounded by The People v. O.J. Simpson and the inventive, hilarious, and unsettling Baskets with Zach Galifianakis.
However, there’s certainly cause for worry; there is precedent to keep in mind. It’s inevitable that shows this far into their run dip south in quality a bit; almost every great show has suffered it. Some, like The Sopranos and The Wire, have just gotten way, way darker, forcing one to take breaks in the service of one’s mental health. Often, shows’ writing staff integrate outlandish storylines in transparently desperate attempts to one-up themselves. These frequently backfire, however, ruining the stakes: It’s hard to make an audience care about a totally new element late in the game. Increasingly, to reconcile a lot of different plot lines and extreme circumstances from previous seasons, your favorite characters’ logic and motivations will suddenly become a bit more specious.
Luckily, the fourth season of The Americans, though it does take bigger risks with believability and outlandish scenarios, has its main conflicts left to still resolve. Even as it integrates a couple of new plotlines — which you may or may not feel at all invested in — it’s intent on preserving the throughline of tension.
Despite the immediate question of Paige and her confession to Pastor Tim — which threatens to throw the Jennings’ entire world into disarray — the show also focuses on Stan’s incidental steps closer to tripping over Philip and Elizabeth’s dirty secret. Martha remains a suspect in his mind, even despite Philip’s brutal frame job on the FBI IT consultant in the penultimate episode of last season, which would appear to have absolved her. His suspicions, incidentally, grow during a time when he and Philip are, for independent reasons, on the outs. Stan’s open animosity makes the tension more palpable, and darkens the tone of the show.
Quickly, Paige has a crisis of conscience and reveals to Elizabeth that she has passed on her very vague intel about Philip and Elizabeth to Pastor Tim. In early seasons of The Americans, the more ruthless Philip and Elizabeth would have, doubtless, categorically taken Tim out immediately. Given the attempt to recruit Paige — which is still vaguely in the offing in the Center’s mind — and the fact that she would certainly assume her parents were behind his sudden death, the situation instantly becomes more complicated. One of the possible consequences, no doubt, is complete avoidance: Philip, Elizabeth, and the family will have to run, or be relocated out of the country, if the Center agrees to stand by them. But this seems like, at this point, the last thing the agents want. They defend Russia, but do they really want to live there again?
But there are other professional concerns to which Philip and Elizabeth have to attend in the midst of this situation — another one which they have only the most tenuous control over. There is some new dangerous U.S. science which the Russians desire, and the bundle in question has to be smuggled out with the Jennings’ help. But the controlled substance has a life of its own; the worry is not just whether it gets in the wrong hands, but if it can be contained in a way that is not disastrous. No, I’m not talking about a nuke. You’ll see in the first episode.
Meanwhile, Martha grapples with Clark’s real identity — or her vague idea of it — and the viewer is left on the outside, struggling to figure out what’s going through her mind. Is she a timebomb waiting to go off, or Philip’s greatest asset? What is “love,” when it comes to these two? Nina continues her struggle for freedom or, at least, autonomy in prison, and finds control slipping out of her grasp.
What’s being pushed to the absolute limit in this season, with almost every character, is how they choose to define their moral boundaries. When they get caught up in something — and there seems to be no turning back — these are certainly thrown into flux. We already know that Philip, especially, has felt this vicious cycle: Every assignment means breaking another personal rule, and the assignments never end, and build on each other. The only way of drawing a line is running away from everything: throwing everything the Jennings have built away, both the good and the bad. Is that what the Jennings will be forced to do to solve the Pastor Tim problem? Will Martha create a second crisis, one that is even more painful than the first for Philip?
It’s serious cause for worry — and all the time, we’re wondering at what point during this catastrophic mess, Stan will cross paths with them, finally. Season 4 of The Americans is destined to be its tensest and messiest season yet, but judging by first returns, the chaos will be to its benefit.
Need to remember what happened in Season 3 to prepare? Check out Inverse’s own personal CliffNotes here.
Also, check out our compendium of conspiracy theories about the action to come.