The greatest asset of FX’s The Americans is that it has always been less of a spy thriller and more of a compelling family drama. This isn’t to take away from the bloody but brilliant aspects of the inherently engaging story of two KGB agents posing as a married couple during the Cold War. Rather, it’s to praise how deftly this series balances the two vastly different narratives — espionage and family — and rarely misses a connection between them. What’s more, it makes the two narratives seem like two sides of the same coin instead of disparate stories. Season 1 brought together the job and the marriage, Season 2 developed the family as a whole, and now Season 3 has its sights set on indoctrinating 14-year-old Paige Jennings.
In the Season 2 finale of The Americans, it was revealed that The Center has become interested in Paige and wants her to join the family business. She’s a great candidate to become a spy, or at least she would be if not for her recent, enthusiastic interest in religion. Paige’s religious leanings became a major source of conflict between her and her parents in Season 2, and though that conflict has calmed down a bit, it’s still providing loads of tension in the Jennings’ household during the first few episodes of Season 3.
But aside from that, there are still the spy vs. spy aspects that help to keep The Americans gripping from week to week. The third season starts off with a bang, featuring one of those well-choreographed fight scenes that the series is known for, which results in a pretty painful injury for Elizabeth (and leads to a scene a few episodes later that I had to “watch” with my eyes closed because, yikes, The Americans pulls no punches). The Americans has always been skilled at pairing sex and violence and there’s a particularly horrifying moment in Season 3 that combines the two in a shocking — but well-written and necessary — way that actually advances the plot and deepens the overall story. There are plenty of developments happening with Stan Beeman, as well, both in his career (it will never cease to amaze me that he hasn’t yet caught on to the Jenningses’ double lives; maybe this will finally be the season he does?) and in his personal life, as he continues to watch his marriage dissolve.
Yet everything thrilling that’s occurring this season feels very much like it’s just background noise to the loudest question: What to do about Paige? At 14, she has begun to reflect on her existence and debate her future. She doesn’t quite know who she is — both in the sense that she’s a lost teenager, just like all teenagers, but also in the sense that she has literally no idea that her parents are Russian spies and that Paige isn’t exactly as American as she believes herself to be — and so her search has led her to a youth group and a desire to be baptized. This goes directly against Philip and Elizabeth’s beliefs, but they are finding it increasingly hard to explain this to Paige without, well, explaining themselves. Their lie-by-omission has continually, if quietly, backfired against them throughout the series so far, but it promises to come to a head in Season 3, when they will have to decide whether to keep lying or to come clean and tell Paige what the future can hold for her.
While Philip doesn’t want Paige to to have the same kind of life as their parents, Elizabeth is leaning toward the idea that Paige should become a second-generation KGB agent. Elizabeth doesn’t see much of herself in Paige, but Paige joining the cause will certainly fix that. But that’s not the only reason: Elizabeth has always been the spouse who is more dedicated to the Motherland, whose career has dictated more of her identity, who is more willing to die for her country and less ready to assimilate into American culture (as Philip does, with his cars and country music).
Philip and Elizabeth’s conflict is only heightened by their new handler Gabriel (Frank Langella, taking over for Margo Martindale, who jumped ship to the now-canceled CBS sitcom The Millers). His conversations with both Jenningses are quietly clever, almost manipulative at points, providing Elizabeth with private (but important) correspondence from home and giving Philip a worthy Scrabble partner, all while gently questioning them about Paige but refusing to sway them one way or the other. This hands-off approach is what ignites Philip and Elizabeth, prompting them to keep arguing about what’s best for their daughter.
The missing piece in all of this is, of course, Paige herself. She is in the dark — though she suspects Philip is still having an affair — while busying herself with youth group obligations, a close friendship with Pastor Tim, and an obvious crush on one of her fellow group members. There is no telling how she will react if (when!) her parents reveal the truth, but no matter what, it’s sure to cause the Jennings family to implode.