When Breaking Bad went off the air in September 2013, scores of TV fiends, meth fiends, and fiends of Aaron Paul’s swearing wallowed in their collective hangover. They mourned a show that rolled along quietly in its beginnings, but stealthily picked up speed in the middle and had them holding on tight for the final season’s train ride to hell. It was the rare series that legitimately got better from start to finish, never wasting a moment on anything less than a crucial plot point or strategic pause to appreciate the haunting beauty of Walter White’s desert prison, laboratory, and eventual grave.
Eight months before Walt’s final bow, FX debuted The Americans in similarly humble fashion. The ’80s period drama starred Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two undercover KGB spies pretending to live the American dream. Save for a conveniently inconvenient situation that saw FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) move in across the street, season one of The Americans nailed the challenge of organically establishing high stakes for its central couple. The first 13 episodes expertly portrayed a fragile, necessary marriage hampered by ideological differences and adulterous duties performed in the name of Mother Russia.
Because the series is airing nearly three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, viewers know that Elizabeth and Philip are fighting a losing war. We can even predict with reasonable clarity what the ultimate climax of The Americans will be: when one or both of their identities is compromised. Much like Breaking Bad, an undesirable endgame has more or less been guaranteed for the show’s leads, but we have almost no idea how they’ll get to it. And therein lies the fun.
The Americans’ greatness starts with showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, and how their writing team methodically frays increasingly private tiers inside Elizabeth and Philip’s world. The couple is juggling their mother country’s mission, the dangerous work they have to do in its name, the cover of their family and oblivious American children, their marriage, and their respective beliefs. These layered booby traps build on each other script after script, setting The Americans up for a painstakingly thrilling slow burn through calculated acting, editing, and auditory cues.
Russell and Rhys deserve massive praise for bringing legitimacy to Elizabeth and Philip Jennings. Physically and mentally, they always dig deep, portraying KGB spies posing as Americans who are often dressed up as other fashion-unconscious Americans—all while fighting for their emotional sanity and deep-seated beliefs. The characters approach the spy game with matching levels of expertise, but their commitment to the Soviet Union manifests much differently. These discrepancies are skillfully captured through their subtle facial expressions, pained voices, and use of silence.
The crux of season three is The Centre’s (the KGB’s headquarters in Moscow) order that Elizabeth and Philip recruit their 14-year-old daughter, Paige, as a second-generation KGB spy. With a clean American background, she’s perfectly suited for the job on paper. In practice, she’s a 14-year-old blissfully ignorant American teenager, and her parents couldn’t disagree more about shattering that reality. Philip is viciously against bringing Paige into their dangerous work. Elizabeth, who has always been painted as more invested in their mission, senses from her daughter’s newfound love for Jesus that their cause is exactly what the impressionable girl needs.
In “Walter Taffet,” Philip discovers that Elizabeth has been planting the seeds for Paige’s revelation without consulting him first. When Paige tells him of her walk with her mother to learn of her parents’ “activist” history, Philip’s eyes subtly widen in horror. He storms into the bedroom he shares with his wife and demands to know what Elizabeth is up to. It turns out she’s doing her job by drafting a weekly Paige update for The Centre. In the open adjacent bathroom, Philip rubs his neck in a quiet rage before walking out and asking, “Am I going to come home one day and Paige will just tell me that she knows who we are?” Elizabeth studies him and responds, “I honestly… I don’t know.”
“Walter Taffet” (directed by Beeman himself, Noah Emmerich) is a great case study in how the camerawork and spacing within the Jennings’ most intimate domain creates a specific brand of tension. While at odds with Elizabeth about Paige, Philip is essentially miles away from her, tucked away in the corner of both the set and frame as he paces about the bathroom. Later in the episode, after a failed attempt to spend the night with Martha, an informant, he climbs into bed with Elizabeth, who pulls him close. She apologizes for meddling with Paige behind his back. He responds by telling her about his illegitimate son in Afghanistan. Elizabeth turns around to face him, and the camera pans up from the two as their eyes stare at each other just a few inches apart. When honesty and trust are in play between the Jennings, the tight, literally secret space between them seems impenetrable. When they’re butting heads over their respectively stubborn beliefs, the physical space becomes vast, and their reality seems very fragile. Both are different brands of the same omnipresent pressure they must endure.
Scenes like this are thick with emotion on their own, but how they’re stitched together through seamless editing with the rest of an episode, a season, and the series takes their tension to even greater heights. Earlier in season three, “Open House” finds Elizabeth suffering from pain from a broken tooth sustained in an earlier fight, so Philip takes out his pliers for a little DIY dentist work. What ensues is a sequence performed by Russell and Rhys in almost complete silence—the two lock eyes as Elizabeth braces herself for extreme pain and Philip goes to work, pulling out just a piece at first, then the whole tooth. Intense close-ups throughout the agonizingly slow process make viewers feel as if they’re intruding on something as intimate as sex; frankly, for these two, this is just as much a display of trust and shared understanding as an act of carnal love.
Most shows have periods of calm to balance their more action-packed scenes, but The Americans doesn’t believe in the concept of “downtime.” The aforementioned quiet scenes in both “Open House” and “Walter Taffet” amplify the traditionally strained sequences of violence, not offer a break from them. In the rising action of “Open House,” Philip barrel-rolls out of the couple’s undercover car after they realize they’re being followed, and suddenly a low-speed car chase is on. As the action cuts between Elizabeth driving alone, the FBI and CIA cars tailing her, the FBI office, and the Jennings’ home, the high stakes are conveyed in excruciating fashion until her narrow escape. The Americans then carries this tension directly into the “calmer” scene of impromptu dentistry.
Although the quiet frustration and later warm understanding between Elizabeth and Philip in the “Walter Taffet” bedroom scenes build up to the climactic action sequence chronologically, the episode hosts a consistent high-strung feel throughout. In the final five minutes of the episode, a particularly goth-looking Philip and Elizabeth scoop up a South African target to the tune of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” In this fairly quick progression of events, the crisp editing flies totally in sync with the gently rising vibes of Stevie Nicks and company, resulting in a tightly wound scene that feels much longer than it really is. No show is as good as The Americans at deftly manipulating the laws of time within the television medium, threading an ever-increasing level of stress consistently through every type of scene.
The Americans certainly has its ebbs and flows like any other show, but a slow burn is so named because it’s steadily nibbling away at a fuse regardless of that fuse’s path. Each of the issues that trouble Elizabeth and Philip—the Paige dilemma, Philip’s reluctant seduction of a CIA agent’s daughter, Martha’s doubt of “Clark”—are relentless perils on a one-way road to a likely disastrous end. It’s a ride that cranks up the pressure bit by bit, and like a certain meth kingpin’s journey, there’s little room for second-guessing once you’re on board. The team behind The Americans knows this all too well, which is why they’re using every trick in the book to perfect the art of the slow burn.