There’s a moment in the season four premiere of “The Americans” which subtly shows exactly what the show is about. The camera shows a classroom saying the Pledge of Allegiance. It moves back into the hall, where it finds Paige Jennings (newcomer Holly Taylor). She’s waiting for the pledge to finish with a sad look on her face, torn between the identity of her Russian parents and the country she grew up in.
Scenes like this are what make “The Americans” one of the best damn dramas on TV right now. For three seasons now, the show has built its story out of bits like this one. It took its time to lay the groundwork and to build up its characters. Now, as it moves into the series’ fourth season, it’s taking everything it built and running with it. The premiere raises the stakes for the characters and lands some gut punches, all while operating with brilliant and careful visuals.
Season four of “The Americans” picks up where season three left off, showing the ramifications of Paige telling her pastor about her parents being Russian spies, as well as her mom, Elizabeth (Keri Russell, “Felicity”), taking her to East Germany to see her grandmother against orders from the Centre. As a consequence for their actions, their handler (played with gravitas by Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”) forces them onto their most dangerous mission yet: handling a chemical which the Soviets are intending to weaponize.
At the heart of the premiere, though, is Philip (Matthew Rhys, “Brothers & Sisters”). In the premiere, he flashes back to a moment in his childhood where he beat a bully to death with his bare hands, and later struggles with it during the Erhard Seminars Training session he attends. Rhys deserves so much of the credit for making this work. He continues to find ways to layer Philip’s pain as he tries to cover it up in front of his family. When Philip does open up at the seminar, Rhys brings so many emotions to the table that it’s impossible not to feel for him.
Martha (Alison Wright, “Blue Bloods”) has her struggles while dealing with her husband (Philip under another name) killing one of her co-workers in the FBI. Martha has been one of the most tragic figures of the series, having been manipulated and lied to by Philip without any knowledge of what’s happening. Last season, the consequences of her husband’s actions started to catch up to her, and that continued in the premiere. Wright has made her mark as an actress building out this character, and showing her struggles with her husband’s identity.
Everything in the show is deliberately shot by the brilliant television director Thomas Schlamme (“The West Wing”). At this point, the series’ visual aesthetic is so ingrained in its DNA, and the premiere continues this trend. Whether it’s tiny scenes like Paige in the hall or Philip looking up at a possibly broken vial of a poisonous chemical, everything Schlamme does adds so much to a scene that blunt dialogue isn’t necessary.
Few other shows could make a moment like Paige standing outside the classroom land this well. There’s no dialogue, but it still says everything about her character’s arc and how she’s feeling. The drama has put together so many tiny pieces that now it can just play with them, making for some of the best television you’re not watching.