There’s historical significance to the title of “March 8, 1983”: It’s the date on which Ronald Reagan made the most inflammatory remarks of his presidency, arguing that the United States should increase its nuclear arsenal in order to protect itself from the “evil empire” of the USSR. But from The Americans’ perspective—which uses American history as context rather than content—March 8, 1983 is a date that will go down in infamy because it’s the day Paige gave away her parents’ biggest secret.
The Americans’ third season was set up as The One About Paige. In truth, it’s more like The One Around Paige, placing her personal arc at the center of a constellation comprising renewed family drama, systems of belief, tenuous alliances, interdepartmental strife, geopolitical affairs, ’80s self-help trends, and Henry Jennings’ love affair with a handheld football game. The most important of those arcs reflected who Paige is, who she once thought she was, and how’s she’s tried to reconcile those two identities since learning the truth about her parents. That struggle forces Paige to pick up the phone and call Pastor Tim, a development the season finale doesn’t take lightly. As Reagan states his case to the National Association of Evangelicals (one enemy of the Jennings addressing dozens more), his words are juxtaposed with Paige’s similarly loaded confession.
The phone call is a major cliffhanger, but it’s the closest thing “March 8, 1983” has to a conventional season-finale moment. Contrast this with the big confession from season two’s final episode—Jared admitting to his family’s murder—and “March 8, 1983” starts to feel more like a middle chapter than a final one. So many of the stories that made season three great are left unresolved: The Mujahideen helped Philip finish his business with the CIA-Afghan group, but Kimberly’s presumably still out there, making mixtapes for a guy who’s nothing more than a wig and some sunglasses. Gaad and Aderholt still don’t know the identity of their assailant from “EST Men.” Philip’s actions in Gene’s apartment put a possible end to the Taffet investigation, but with no sight of Martha (“She’s absorbing everything right now,” Philip says) it’s presumed she’s found a very good hiding place after meeting the real Clark.
These are all bold moves from showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, whose “March 8, 1983” script dims some lights in the season-three constellation to isolate the show’s most prominent characters: Elizabeth, Paige, Philip, and Stan. In three separate-but-overlapping storylines, The Americans’ key figures confront changes in their personal narratives, all grounded in the two words Gabriel smacks Philip with in the middle of the episode: “Grow up.”
Growing up means accepting harsh truths. Growing up means taking responsibility for your actions. Growing up means hopping off the track the Mail Robot technicians laid out for you and forging your own path. All this applies to Paige, but it also applies to three adults who, given the global ramifications of their work, ought to act a little more worldly.
The trip to West Germany is an emotional journey for both Elizabeth and Paige, an attempt at connection that only breeds complication. It’s a vacation of tragic irony, as each successive attempt to connect mother and daughter puts more and more distance between them. A crash course in surveillance, the meeting with a relative who can only communicate with one of them—it all exaggerates Paige’s dissociation from both halves of Elizabeth’s identity. Lost and confused, she returns to the things that make her feel less lost and confused, praying to God on her grandmother’s behalf. After Elizabeth’s mother departs from the hotel room, Elizabeth slumps onto the bathroom floor, alone and helpless. Holly Taylor folds herself in petition, while Keri Russell glances skyward, seeking the belief, faith, and hope Taylor’s character appears so sure of in this tableau.
For Elizabeth, this farewell is her farewell to being the daughter of an individual. She is now only a spiritual child of Mother Russia, and when Ronald Reagan tells the Cold War’s nastiest “Yo Momma” joke, her grief-stricken anger is given a focal point. Elizabeth has always been the Jennings with the deepest commitment to the cause, and her mother’s decline and Reagan’s speech combine to intensify that commitment. During her tearful reunion with her mother, Elizabeth is told “I had to let you go. Everything was at stake.” Even though Aleksandra Myrna performs the scene from a wheelchair, it’s framed in a way that makes her appear taller than Russell. They are mother and daughter reunited, regressing to the roles they left behind many years ago. When the president of the United States threatens her homeland, this is what Elizabeth sees being threatened. Everything is at stake.
If Elizabeth’s belief in her work has never been stronger, then Philip’s satisfaction with it has never been lower. “I feel like shit all the time,” he tells Yousaf, the type of honest exposure Philip fails to muster in Elizabeth’s presence. The levels of intimacy between Philip and Elizabeth wax and wane throughout every season, but their most sensitive information is always divulged to other people. For spouses, this is the height of emotional immaturity, the sort of dishonesty that ate away at the Beeman marriage and pushed Sandra toward the open arms of the EST movement. Being himself drove the other woman in his life to tears last week; this week, Philip goes to an EST workshop on the topic of sex—the largest group of strangers he can spill his guts in front of, one where the word “guts” comes up a lot—and runs into Sandra Beeman. When the Jennings are being the most real with each other in season three—when Philip is pulling Elizabeth’s tooth, or when he’s trying to express himself at the end of “March 8”—there are no words. But in the presence of his friend’s ex-wife, there is an outlet.
There’s certainly not an outlet in his work. In the most suspenseful sequence of the finale, Matthew Rhys affects a fascinating despondence. He separates his feelings from his work in ways that even The Centre couldn’t envision: Killing Gene, planting evidence, staging a hanging, and forging a suicide note as if he’s just going through the motions. Reminding us that “Hey, don’t forget that somebody’s about to die here,” the sequence counters Philip’s apathy with some impressively active direction. Through camera movements and blocking, the scene alternates between Gene’s routine and Philip’s routine, building to the fatal moment where they both intersect. Using Luke Robertson’s body to obscure Rhys for just long enough, Daniel Sackheim maintains the surprise of Philip’s attack. Then the episode jumps forward in time, magnifying the impression that each move in the elaborate frame job is just another mundane item on Philip’s to-do list.
Debriefing Elizabeth on his activities later in the episode, Philip lingers on Gene’s toy collection. “This guy, today, his apartment, had all this kids’ stuff. Games, you know, stuff Henry plays with. It was hard.” Paige had an in-the-field analog in Kimberly, and now Henry gets one in Gene—but the specific type of toy that Gene collected is more significant than these parallels.
Before the FBI’s most unfortunate IT guy meets his fate, Rhys stares down one of Gene’s robots as if Philip is bonding with the plaything. It’s been a recurring theme throughout season three, and “March 8, 1983” really drives it home: Philip sees a little bit of himself in the robot. His interactions with Gabriel make him feel like a child, but they also make him feel like a machine. As emotion and self-awareness continually override his training, Philip recognizes—and is terrified by—his lack of free will. He’s empowered by EST because it’s grounded in the double-edged American ideal of purging the contents of your heart and mind whenever, wherever, and however you feel. It’s naïve to think that such radical honesty will make Philip feel any better (it hasn’t done the trick for his daughter), but wanting to speak more openly isn’t an unreasonable demand to make.
And just like their daughter, the Jennings have found small ways to push back and disobey orders. After learning about Elizabeth and Paige’s travel itinerary in “March 8, 1983,” Gabriel sternly responds “This is not how we do things.” Going rogue has advantages beyond familial goodbyes and European sightseeing: It can keep the John-Boy Walton-sized monkey off your back, too. At first, “March 8, 1983” plays it like Stan’s cooperation with Oleg will be the end of his career—until someone with a higher clearance level than Agent Gaad emerges and congratulates Stan on exposing Zinaida as a double agent.
For the purposes of suspense, the Taffet investigation placed the most pressure on Martha, so there’s still a shock in hearing Gaad use the bug as leverage with Stan. Seeing how strongly the Soviets regard chain of command, it’s an even bigger surprise to watch as Stan is told by the deputy attorney general to continue his work with Oleg, a new assignment born of one he’d previously created himself. Noah Emmerich spends all of “March 8, 1983” with his head on the chopping block, but old-fashioned American ingenuity wins him a stay of execution. On March 8, 1983, Stan Beeman will lose on the field of Strat-O-Matic Football (another instance of a grown man playing with a children’s toy), but he wins in the halls of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The boldness of “March 8, 1983” goes beyond its characters’ actions. The Americans isn’t watched by many—and their numbers do not include the people who hand out major television awards—so a fourth season of the show was far from guaranteed. A season finale like “March 8, 1983” is a leap of faith. Fields and Weisberg invite us to watch as they conclude some stories, then ask us to trust that they’ll conclude other stories when (no longer “if,” fortunately) they have the real estate to do so. In a reflection of its characters and themes, “March 8, 1983” is confident, if not a little bit reckless.
But that’s not to suggest that the series has any maturing to do. In a season shaped by parent-child relationships, in a finale defined by the words “Grow up,” The Americans demonstrated that it’s already come of age. And that makes one more reason to commit the date March 8, 1983 to memory.
- And that’s a wrap on The Americans, season three. Thanks for reading along all season and for keeping the conversation going in the comments. Now let’s all synchronize our watches and rendezvous in this spot around the same time next winter. (And if you’re in the mood for more Americans content, check out Zack Handlen’s excellent overview of season three, and watch for a “March 8, 1983” edition of DVR Club tomorrow morning.)
- Nina and Anton are also in this episode, but theirs is the storyline that carries the heaviest “Don’t worry about this now, we’ll sort it out next season” vibe. Anton’s advice that “You don’t have to do it their way” gives these scenes some thematic relevance, but their lack of urgency holds the episode back from being all it can be.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week 13: B. For some of his dirtiest dealings to date, Philip dons the skeeziest look in his wardrobe. Lounging on the couch, he looks like a two-sixers-in Rust Cohle who’s traded can men for toy robots.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week 13: N/A. Still grateful for season three’s renewed emphasis on the soundtrack, though. I’ll take no songs in the finale over a new Pete Townshend commission any day of the week.
- Was there any Mail Robot? Depends. Is this Mail Robot?
- No, that is not Mail Robot. What about these guys: Is there a Mail Robot among them?
- Surely you jest. Based on their markings and placement, these robots are designed for the purpose of guarding personal belongings. None of those robots are the robot designated Mail Robot. But how about these two?
- The robot on the left is the first robot you confused for Mail Robot. The second is the robot referenced in the main review. Just move along and admit that there was no Mail Robot in “March 8, 1983.” Fine.
- Did anyone mention Mail Robot? Oh c’mon!
- Elizabeth, when asked if she could let her daughter leave on a secret mission and “say goodbye” forever: “You would never have to do anything like that.” If we follow her words to the letter, sure: If Paige was inducted into the KGB, she wouldn’t have to leave the country or say goodbye to her parents forever. But given the way Russell delivers the line, and considering The Americans’ twisty nature, I think Paige summed it all back a while ago: “How can I believe anything you say?”