It's the highest possible compliment to The Americans that its spy missions have become what's probably the least interesting part of the show. For a series that's been evolving every year, it has finally reached its peak with a third season that's the best one yet, and has now ascended to become one of the very best and most underrated shows on television, with incredible acting assisting the compelling, realistic and thoughtful human stories of spies whose personal lives are constantly intersecting and affecting the actual work that they are forced to do. There's no other series that takes its characters to such real, emotional places within the context of a supposed action plot, and to the credit of the producers, they know exactly what the show is really about, and action is the least of it. If anything it's a distraction from the true drama.
This season, things become even more complicated for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the Cold War era Russian spies posing as Americans, who continue to carry out periodic missions in their duty to provide information to the Soviet Union, but the toll it's taking on them is now coming to a head. We continue to see the painstaking, quiet activity that is actual spycraft, with long hours simply put into the listening of conversations pulled from recording devices, following a tail placed on CIA members, and most importantly, the false relationships they must develop with new and existing assets, some of which are now revealed to be less false than we thought. It's 1983 and the Soviet Union is involved in the Afghanistan war, so Philip and Elizabeth's new missions involve gaining access to the CIA, but as usual, that becomes a longer running subplot as the real drama plays out with new developments among the often separate personal lives of each spouse.
Elizabeth finds herself finally having to resume a new affair with a hotel manager and having conflicting feelings about it, while Philip is pushed to the breaking point by the guilt and discomfort weighing on him as he must seduce a teenager the same age as his daughter, along with the dismay he feels by the reports of his long lost son from a former relationship fighting in the Afghan-Russian war. Matthew Rhys is incredible this season as he carries the emotional weight of a guilty conscience consistently growing worse since his crisis from last year, as he also continues to push back on the Centre's plans for his daughter Paige, against Elizabeth's desire to recruit her, and finally, his evolved feelings for his longstanding other "wife" Martha, who wants them to have children, and almost manages to make him cave.
That is before the big reveal of course, one of several. Relatively speaking, The Americans is light on big revelations and major plot developments, preferring to arc out its storylines in ongoing threads that slowly and naturally play themselves out, but this season a couple of earthshaking, long gestating twists finally bubbled up to the surface. First, with the discovery of the bug Martha had planted in the FBI's office, which forces Philip to reveal himself to her, and then the demand of the long suffering Paige to finally be let in on the truth about her parents, which they decide to actually tell her in an incredible and emotionally honest sequence late in the season. Both developments immediately change the pathway of the story, as Martha and Paige react in very different ways to the truth, which in turn will dictate how Philip and Elizabeth must respond to the situation. Both scenarios are fraught with peril and raise the stakes, rendering huge, unpredictable circumstances- in my opinion, this can only be leading to a defection storyline, because Paige especially, as she copes with the astounding loss of her old life and the acceptance of who her parents really are, ultimately and fairly quickly shows herself unable to handle it and impossible to be "turned," as her mother had hoped.
Paige's new involvement is handled sensitively and with enormous respect for the character, as Holly Taylor must play a deeply troubled and sincere teen who has never felt close to her parents, and for whom betrayal of them actually seems more of a plausible option than trust, which neither parent had realized as they refused to let their children in on their reality- for the kid's safety, but now ultimately maybe not for their own. The rest of the cast is typically handled with grace this year as well, with Stan (Noah Emmerich) getting used to his newly divorced status as he slowly moves on from Sandra (who re-enters the season in a surprising new capacity in the finale), and forges an odd couple secret alliance with Oleg (Costa Ronin, now made a regular), as the two attempt to hatch a plan to bring Nina (Annet Mahendru) back to the United States, after she was sent to Russia as a prisoner at the end of last season. Nina's arc this year was separate from the core of the show, since if we're to keep the character alive, she has to slowly make her way from a Russian prison to being of use to the government, to eventually, presumably, the U.S. again, but we're not there yet, as that's a jump that will understandably take some time. The furthest she gets, as the spy whom you can never believe is 100% on anyone's side but her own, is to a new friendship (possibly, but it's NIna, so you can never really tell) with Anton, as she's sent to get inside his head and betray him to the Soviet officials, but she may be wavering in her resolve by season's end.
Every single character on this show is fascinating to watch, even the new ones brought in- this year the addition was Frank Langella as Gabriel, a figure from Philip and Elizabeth's past who becomes their new handler, and he sees that they may be facing trouble from Philip as well, who doesn't trust his advice, while Elizabeth remains as firmly in the grip of the Soviet Union as ever. The season ends with a shocking slip from Paige as she decides to betray her parents, and the Jennings' are at odds with each other again, as Elizabeth's resolve stiffens while listening to Ronald Reagan's famous 1983 "evil empire" speech, and Philip drifts further and further away from his duties as he desires to save Paige from a life that he despises and make real connections with the people he feels less and less that he's "pretending" with- Martha, Stan, Paige, and now maybe Sandra. I sense a defection coming, guys, and a war between the Jennings'. I cannot wait to see the natural progression of it come next January.