The Americans has long been one of the best shows on television, but Wednesday’s fourth season premiere proves that the FX drama is better than ever. “Glanders” is a terrifying new chapter in the Cold War spy saga – one that combines our biggest fears with some edge of your seat character development to keep the series on the razor’s edge. If this is chapter one, by the end of the season we’ll be having a heart attack.
We begin with Philip, poor emotionally tortured Philip, thinking back to a moment from his childhood in which he killed another boy who had been giving him grief. It’s one of many bodies that are on his conscience, though because he’s a man he tells Elizabeth that he’s okay. He does resolve to tell Martha about the staged suicide from last season’s finale before the FBI does it for him. So he lets himself into Martha’s place in the dead of night and interrupts her sleep to drop the Gene bomb.
“In the next day or two, you’re going to get some disturbing news at work,” he tells her before admitting that Gene is dead and that he set up the other man in order to keep Martha from being exposed as a mole. Naturally, Martha does not take this news well. “I didn’t agree to this. I don’t want this. How could you do that?” she demands before quickly moving from shock into self-loathing. The real lesson here: Nothing good ever happens when someone wakes you up at 3 a.m.
And now, what we’ve all been waiting for and arguing about for months: Paige (Holly Taylor) dealing with the aftereffects of learning about her parents’ true occupation. Elizabeth just wants to have coffee and make breakfast like a normal person but nothing is normal to Paige anymore. That would put her in the same boat with Martha, who slept on her couch after flipping out and is kind of cheesed that Philip is still there. He tells her that he won’t ever be able to come back to her apartment after this because Stan’s getting too suspicious, “but it won’t change anything between us.”
But Stan (Noah Emmerich) is trying to enjoy a semi-normal morning with Tori (hey, look, it’s the awesome Callie Thorne!). We say “trying” because he can’t help talking about how he thinks he rubs people at the FBI office the wrong way. Tori does her best to be encouraging here even though she knows nothing about office politics. We love you, Tori. Don’t ever change.
Once Paige is off to school, Philip and Elizabeth meet with Gabriel and discuss how little he agrees with their recent decision-making and how he’ll take his ball and go home if they keep putting him between themselves and The Center. Properly chagrined, our heroes tell him that they want him to stay (at least, Elizabeth does; Philip just nods) before he introduces them to the world of biological weapons. He tells them of an Illegal named William who’s been getting samples of American pathogens and that they need to meet the guy, but because they’re dealing with viruses, they need to be vaccinated first. Cue ominous shot of needle with warnings about how much trouble they’d be in if they handle this stuff incorrectly.
You know who we haven’t accounted for yet? Nina (Annet Mahendru), who remains in Russia still befriending Anton (Michael Aronov). He has started to open up since we saw them last, admitting to her that he was a terrible husband who cheated on his wife and how that affair was what led to his abduction. But he’s pulled back before she can say much to him in return.
Paige is regretting her decision to confide her parents’ secret in Pastor Tim. He somehow thinks Philip and Elizabeth might want to come in for a sit-down, because yeah, they’re totally going to have coffee and cookies and discuss their espionage activities with a guy they don’t even like. When Paige nixes that idea he asks if she can get her parents to tell her more about what they do. He claims it’s for her to better understand, but you know at least part of that is him wanting to use her to obtain more information.
Back to the spy game. Philip, his ridiculous fake beard and Elizabeth pretend to be having dinner while waiting for William (Dylan Baker, best known for his recurring role as over-the-top client Colin Sweeney on The Good Wife). But shortly after they spot him Philip believes he’s got a bad feeling about this and he calls off the meet. So our heroes return to where they’ve stashed their car, where Elizabeth is skeptical of her husband’s gut instinct. “You okay?” she asks him for the second time this episode, and he again insists that he’s fine.
The next day at EST he reiterates the flashback story that we saw parts of in the teaser, so we can once again cringe at the sounds of someone’s skull being crushed in. He stops short of admitting that he killed the kid, and it gets awkward when he’s asked if he’s ever spoken to his bully about it. Why not? Well, he moved away. If you mean moved away onto another plane of existence.
It’s not surprising at all that Philip needs someone to talk to after that and he goes to have drinks with Sandra (Susan Misner), who encourages him to confide in Elizabeth about what he’s struggling with. “There’s a limit to how much progress you can make if you’re not honest,” she tells him. But in one of those weird TV moments, Tori is out at the same place they are and notices that her boyfriend’s ex-wife is spending time with someone new. Guess how long it’s going to take that information to get back to Stan?
All the various pieces start moving about. At the FBI office Gaad wants an immediate meeting with Walter Taffet, at the Rezidentura Arkady is getting ticked off that Tatiana is openly flouting his authority, and at the Jennings house Elizabeth wonders about how different Paige has become before the two try meeting with William one more time. Seriously, Philip in that beard looks like the cousin of Bob Ross. But this time it’s his wife who spots a potential tail and balks.
Back in Russia Anton tells Nina what he has been working on: a stealth wing for Russian aircraft. He’s convinced that if he fails to deliver he’ll be sent to a camp, and he’s probably not wrong. She tries again to lift his spirits, but it’s still not working. “I’m already just a memory to my son,” he tells her. “Maybe not a good one.” He’s pretty much resigned to a sad fate, as is Martha, who tells Philip that news of Gene’s death has made it to the FBI before she admits that she’s glad that he told her. “I have to know everything,” she decides, “even if it’s hard.” She may eat those words soon enough.
But she does provide a source for Philip to confide in. While he doesn’t give her details, he says he keeps thinking back to his childhood and wonders if she’s ever had a moment like he’s having now, where he wonders if that’s why he acts this way or why he turned out the way he did. Although it’s nice that they have this moment, he then asks her if she can get reports and assignments for a particular surveillance team. It always comes back to business.
She thus sneaks through files while Stan seems to be the only person not gossiping about Gene’s death. He appears beside her as she’s photocopying said reports and it’s clear he’s still suspicious of her activities, even while trying to relay his condolences. “I guess you really never know a person, do you?” she tells him, and they share an awkward look.
It’s time for Arkady to lay down a little law with his subordinates. That starts with Oleg, who is totally not just having tea with his boss. Arkady wants to know about his relationship with Tatiana. Are they friends? Can he talk to Oleg in confidence without him telling her what gets said? And seriously, what the hell is she up to? Oleg agrees to speak up if he notices anything. He’d better, because we don’t need to sic Agent X on him…oh wait, that’s the wrong show. Sorry. Anyway, Arkady has discovered that Tatiana works for Department 12, which also has its hand in the bioweapon pool, but she refuses to give him any details.
Philip tells Elizabeth that the purloined surveillance reports confirm that the FBI was tailing William the last time. She notes that there’s no planned team on him that evening and the three finally meet. He hands them a vial from Fort Dietrich that causes the glanders disease, and tells them to get it to Gabriel within 48 hours, because you do not want it. “Gabriel and his friends at The Center have been waiting my whole goddamn life for this,” he laughs before he leaves.
Stan is waiting for them when they get home, but it’s not about where they’ve been. He’s heard from Tori about Sandra and demands to know – quite physically – if Philip is cheating on Elizabeth with Sandra. He’s offended that his best friend failed to mention that he’s become friends with his ex-wife, and leaves the garage with a “Screw you,” which is a bit of an overreaction here but Stan’s always had relationship issues. Luckily for Philip, the vial he was carrying hasn’t burst its bubble wrap, or this would be a really short season.
“Glanders” has now reached the pinnacle of the scary spy concepts mountain. There’s a bit of a hierarchy in terms of threat levels that seems to happen on a lot of shows that deal with crime and punishment. It’s garden variety stuff, then nuclear weapons, then biological warfare. Something about the idea of a bio weapon, of something that is inside of us or the ones we love, is the most uncomfortable concept to think about. Just ask everyone who’s watching The Strain.
The Americans does a wonderful job of taking this scary concept and conveying how frightening it really is in ways that are more subtle than any other show would attempt. There’s no need to constantly remind us of the potential for infection and/or death. No blatantly showing us pictures of the virus or someone’s dead body. Instead, there are these little moments that keep the fear in the back of your mind. If you weren’t freaking out when Stan grabbed Philip and slammed him against the wall not knowing that little vial was in there, you really need to get your pulse checked. It’s one of the scariest moments of the show to date and yet it’s not obvious at all.
It raises the question of just how far we can go with this. Once you’ve tackled biological warfare it’s hard to think of something that’s more intimidating to write about. If we spend the whole season chasing viruses, what’s Season 5 – and there should darn well be a Season 5 if this is what we get in Season 4 – going to look like? But then again, this is the show that wasn’t afraid to light a guy on fire, so surely Joel Fields, Joe Weisman and company will still find a way to make us squirm.
That’s one of the small things that’s always been great about this show. It seems morbid to say, but The Americans has always been very tasteful in how it handles its violence, or any uncomfortable subjects for that matter. It does not feel the need to show us every graphic moment and be “edgy” like so many other shows. TV sort of has this misconception that it’s showing the act that’s intense or scary. But that’s not true. This show has startled us but not made us want to throw up. It gets its point across with sound more than anything else, as evidenced by the teaser, or last season’s tooth extraction, or on and on. It only “goes there” when it matters, and it does so with restraint.
But “Glanders” is remarkable because it also continues to push the characters forward in ways that are equally compelling. Remember that this is not, at its heart, an action show; it’s a show about a marriage and a community that happens to have action as a parallel. There’s a real one-two punch here as we find all of our main characters again and realize that they have only dug themselves into deeper holes (possibly in part because the writers decided not to do any sort of time jump between the Season 3 finale and the Season 4 premiere – no skating around the fallout!).
Paige is still trying to figure out what to do now that her worldview is skewed, and she may have confided in the wrong person. For all the good Pastor Tim has done for her, the way he looks at this situation is just laughable. It does seem like he’s less interested in Paige getting more information and more closure than just having her find out more so that she can keep telling him. There’s going to come a point where she’s going to have to choose between him and her family, and as much as she looks up to him and her parents drive her crazy, Paige does care about her parents and it would seem impossible that she wouldn’t choose them.
The Paige storyline is to The Americans what the Mike Ross storyline is to Suits. You knew that it was going to happen eventually; it was just a matter of when, and now that the show has matured and is getting into the middle of its run, it needs to be addressed. For all the grief that has been given since the Season 3 finale (and please can we lay off on Holly Taylor?), it would have been equally ridiculous if the show had kept going and the kids hadn’t found out. That would make the kids look really stupid, especially since as Paige points out, their parents do suspiciously keep leaving in the middle of the night after mysterious phone calls. Smart people would’ve asked questions eventually and Paige is smart.
Now how will the show deal with this? Well, that’s another question entirely. Unlike Suits, it can’t have the entire main cast gradually find out about Philip and Elizabeth’s secret. It doesn’t work that way because the main cast members aren’t all on the same team. And from the looks of the Pastor Tim situation he’s not going to let this go. So the real problem isn’t Paige, it’s him – because unlike her, he has no incentive to keep quiet and no interest in doing so – and he’s going to have to be dealt with. And by dealt with, we’re going to say disincentivized, and by disincentivized, we mean he’s probably one of the first if not the first casualty of the new season.
But everybody’s got something to deal with here. The concept of Philip’s emotional distress is not new at all, as we also dove deeply into this last season, and it’s still going to be a component of the season. He continues to have a normal relationship with Martha that he can’t have with Elizabeth, and that too could be an issue. He’s not going to tell her anything he shouldn’t – he knows better than his daughter – but he’s always going to be torn between the two. And he can’t keep protecting Martha forever, no matter how hard he tries. What happens if something terrible happens to her? How much is that going to hurt him? And then how will Elizabeth react to his reaction? There are so many layers.
Then let us move on over to the Rezidentura, which seems like the scene for a new power struggle. Arkady now knows Tatiana has her own orders and her own mission and as we see in “Glanders” he’s not cool with her using his building to do her dirty work. At the same time, it doesn’t seem like there’s much he can do about it. How much is she going to take over? And Oleg is going to be unnecessarily caught in the middle here since both of them have a respect for him. Don’t be surprised if he gets asked to pick sides, and don’t be surprised if he actually doesn’t because he’s plenty smart and ambitious on his own. He’s probably too principled to backstab anybody, but he might just decide he’s not getting involved and also branch out on his own.
One of the things that we’ve discussed time and time again when it comes to The Americans is that there is no real concept of “sides.” Yes, to the viewer there’s Russians and Americans, the FBI and the Illegals, or individual people on sides of different arguments. But this is a lot more complicated than “us” and “them.” Characters are motivated by their own individual morals and loyalties, and those things may change or may put them in positions that they would not choose or be expected to choose. Oleg collaborated with Stan last season to help Nina, for example, or now Stan has a bone to pick with Philip. Every character should be considered individually and that’s what makes the show so exciting. It’s a chess match but it’s really a chess match between all of these people and not just two sides.
We also check in overseas with Nina and Anton, who are almost off on their own story at this point. It’s evolved well past Nina using Anton for information. Now it’s become a story about how she’s trying to help him salvage some sort of a life in Russia, and how he’s giving her different perspective on the life she has and the choices she’s made. Should she get back to the United States – which one would think has to happen eventually because it’s just too much of a loss to the show to not eventually have her back in scenes with the rest of the characters – she’s going to look at the world differently. Of course, for her to get there, the show would have to wrap up the Anton story…and knowing The Americans, it’s not going to have a happy ending. We should just get the Kleenex ready now.
Of course, one could say that about the entirety of this show. The Americans is a series that’s challenging emotionally and intellectually. It always pushes the envelope in every respect possible. We don’t just want to know who’s going to win the Cold War; we’re worried about who’s going to win in life. And any series that can put you in the moment with its characters and have you actually engaged in their struggles is a work of art. This series is a modern classic and it’s just outdone itself again.
The Americans airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. For more on Season 4, read our cast interviews by using the suggested links included below this article.