Keeping things as spoiler-free as I can (stop reading if you’re already anxious), I’ll just note approvingly that the story has shifted forward a few crucial years, to the fall of 1987. What do we miss, really, by skipping over 1985 and 1986 — besides “We Are the World,” the Challenger explosion and my (and Paige Jennings’s) high school graduations? Oh, sure, there’s the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader — on which the ending of “The Americans” and its many characters and subplots will probably and symbolically hinge. Perestroika is already upending their world.
After being granted a reprieve by KGB superiors from the hardcore assignments that he used to undertake with his wife, Philip (Matthew Rhys), has spent the past few years building up the couple’s cover business, Dupont Circle Travel, into a bigger agency with snazzy new offices. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) dutifully continues to work solo, night and day, on increasingly dangerous missions, precipitated by faraway factions within the Kremlin. An imminent Reagan-Gorbachev summit has set back channels abuzz with activity and agents working at cross purposes.
In some of her work, Elizabeth is getting an assist from her daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who finds time to spy between classes at George Washington University, where she has been taking very good notes on what one of her professors has to say about Soviet weapon capabilities and the upcoming summit. (The Jennings’s son, Henry, played by Keidrich Sellati, is a hockey star at boarding school, still blissfully unaware that his parents and now his sister are Soviet spies — although some of us still hold out hope that Henry has known all along.)
There’s much more to not tell you about the next few episodes ahead — about the friendly next-door-FBI-agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), about Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), about where this all might be headed. But, once again, it’s always worth taking the advice of the show’s creators, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, and come at “The Americans” in its purest form, as a story about a marriage and a family in crisis (Crowded House’s 1987 hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over” provides a sonorous and apt soundtrack), rather than as a show about international relations and Cold War espionage.
That’s getting harder and harder to do as current events can’t help but ping off some of the nostalgic spook lore that informs “The Americans.” The show, which Weisberg and Fields have so far resolutely kept to its own historical time frame, triggers all sorts of thoughts about the long game — Vladimir Putin, election interference and political culture-jamming. Some fans would dearly love for “The Americans” to finish in 2016, with a grown-up Henry Jennings ensconced at Facebook, covertly manipulating an army of propaganda bots.
Fantasize all you like, but I’m sticking with the love story, which has never seemed more in peril. On her latest mission, Elizabeth has been sworn to a frightening level of secrecy. For the first time, she is unable to confide anything to her life partner, Philip, the fellow spy who was trained from a young age to be her mate, so that they could pose as married suburbanite Americans. Not so long ago we witnessed their secret wedding ceremony with a Russian Orthodox priest, intended to seal their love beyond their assigned civil arrangement. Now they are terribly distant and working opposite ends of the game.
“Elizabeth, look at you,” Philip says, waiting up late for her to drag in from another incognito trip. “You smell like cigarettes all the time, your whole way of being seems off. These past few months it feels like it’s just getting worse and worse. . . . It is finally getting to you, after all these years.”
In a way they are having the fight that every couple has, about who contributes more to the household and the relationship. About who stuck with the plan and who didn’t. “If you knew how tired I am,” she tells him, “You wouldn’t still be talking. . . . I don’t need another one of your speeches, Philip. I need sleep.”
With only a few hundred other TV shows needing my attention, I’ve spent an arguably disproportionate amount of time worrying about two people who probably aren’t getting out of this mess in any happy or satisfying way — if they even get out alive. It might be the coldest show ever made, which is why it works so well. Whatever’s in store, I only want them to be together.
The Americans (one hour) returns Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.