“Thank you for telling me that,” Martha breathes to Clark, in the most stirring moment of the pilot of The Americans’ fourth season. “It’s better, you’ll see.” Her reaction isn’t so much the fact that Philip/Clark/Mischa has just been open with her (well, as much as he ever is) about the circumstances of his grisly framejob and murder of Gene, the FBI’s computer expert. It’s a reaction to an allusion he makes to traumatic childhood memories that have been keeping him up at night. A flashback opens the episode, showing Philip dodging bullies; later, we see and hear him, in a stomach-turning moment, beating one of their faces into a bloody pancake. This is a more fragile, destabilized Philip; he, like most of the other primary characters in The Americans has become something of a liability — an island unto himself psychologically, vulnerable, a potentially loose cannon. In the first or second season, he would have taken someone like himself out.
The veracity of Martha’s statement that it “will be better” is unclear; is it just something she and Philip are telling themselves? It echoes the rhetorical question of this new, messier Americans universe: Will honesty save the Jennings, or destroy them? One can imagine this saga ending up like Hamlet, or at least Breaking Bad, for lack of anything better to do: with a lot of bodies stacked up and the only victories being obscure, cosmic ones. The spy game isn’t one characters usually emerge from unscathed, and things are tending toward one or all of the Jennings attempting to do that. Once enough codes of conduct have been broken, something has to give; Philip and Elizabeth can’t just keep “doing their job” anymore.
The tension in the new Americans universe is based not in inaction, not the usual fast-paced intrigue. Paige tells Pastor Tim that “everything isn’t about talking” with her parents, but in the end that all Philip and Elizabeth seem to able to do. They talk to Martha, to Gabriel, to Paige, to Stan — who Philip stands down from fighting with — at EST, and miraculously, to each other. Their sensitive mission at the moment — involving a lethal vial and gaunt, sarcastic scientist (Dylan Baker, naturally) — feels like a distraction from their Cold War with Paige they are going through, and they are unable to be effective even with that.
Following the flurry of desperate, brutal activity at the end of Season 3, things have settled into a curious, dissatisfying stalemate; this applies to both the world of the show and our relationship with it as viewers. Even Stan, Nina and Arkady are shown rendered more or less powerless in their respective sphere, and their storylines, for now, feel just as impotent. The episode ends with Philip holding the Glanders vial aloft, peering at it in the light; the danger is so close we can see it, but we can’t feel it yet. Perhaps it will begin with Stan seeing Martha and Clark together, Philip blowing up at Gabriel, Pastor Tim making a rash move, Sandra figuring something out about Philip’s past… who can say, exactly? In our re-introduction to The Americans, vacuity and suspense are hard to distinguish from one another, or at least, they’re working hand-in-hand.