“Glanders” is the curious name of the first episode of the fourth season of FX’s The Americans. Look it up and you’ll see that it’s a disease that occurs mostly in horses. Because it is the name of an episode of The Americans, that disease is, of course, fatal. And here, it’s been genetically altered to infect humans.
And because this is The Americans, this plague-ier-than-the-plague disease is currently residing in a vial in the Jenningses’ (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) suburban nuclear home — continuing the series’ emphasis on the double meaning of the term. (There have, of course, been plots involving actual nukes.) When the vial gets jostled in your standard, non-geopolitical, jealousy-based suburban fight, we worry not only about the familial ramifications of this violence, but also about the geopolitical ramifications of the vial breaking.
The nuclear family is often depicted on TV as the center of a small, self-contained world. But on The Americans, because this family is literally at the center of the Cold War, each of its moves has always carried the potential weight of world crisis, and the world now seems to be in particularly shaky hands. Weirdly, though, with bigger global threats introduced, the stakes for the family itself seem to be higher than ever. It’s a result of and testament to how much the show makes us privilege our care for the Jenningses over our fears about the abstract threats they pose. It’s also a result of the way actual history hovers over and shapes our understanding of the show.
This is the brutal allure of The Americans: we can feel the outside world’s vulnerability to the Jenningses’ clandestine endeavors, but ultimately we know what happens. By 1991, the Soviet Union will cease to exist; capitalism-gone-awry wins over communism-gone-awry. And so we have a sinking feeling — the whole show, really, is a sustained sinking feeling — that the Jenningses will crumble alongside the government they support, as Reagan’s America prevails. (That, or they’ll be subsumed by Americanism, which the more dogmatically pro-CPSU Elizabeth would see as akin to death.)
Beyond glanders (and “Glanders”), the season, as anticipated, deals with the aftermath of the teenage Paige’s (Holly Taylor) decision to tell her pastor pal that her parents are Russian spies. Whether the pastor will meet the usual fate of those unlucky enough to find out the identities of spies (a fate a random airport security guard meets in an at-once hilarious and horrifying murder at the back of a moving bus, set to “Tainted Love”) is one lingering question this season presents. And that question is important because its answer will both determine Paige’s relationship with her parents — which could either tighten or shatter through crisis — and affect the whole family’s safety.
Meanwhile, the awkward, well-intentioned Martha becomes aware of the homicidal tendencies of her fake husband and his fake hairdo, and Alison Wright reaches new heights as her character’s morality conflicts with the lovely illusion she’s built. Stan is a consistently necessary force, as the symbol of the consistent threat that hangs over the Jenningses’ home. Hilariously, he’s now suspicious of Martha for espionage, and of Philip Jennings for a personal, apolitical affront.
Stan’s and Martha’s B-plots have always merged well with the goings-on in the Jennings household. But because the show is doing such an impeccable job zooming in even closer on the effects of the Jenningses’ lifestyles on their children (though Paige comes to represent “children” as a whole, with Keidrich Sellati’s Henry remaining naive in the background), some of the other plotlines are starting to seem very superfluous. They now feel more like relics of an ensemble drama trying to creep into and muddle a wonderful, focused five-character play.
Nina, the woebegone survivor of the Soviet and American systems, is still living on a government compound in Russia, and feels even more marginal, despite actress Annet Mahendru’s compelling performance. (It isn’t until the jarring fourth episode that we see why continuing this plotline was worthwhile.) And the events taking place at the Rezidentura at this point seem placed as mere reminders of the exigent world outside the Jennings’ microcosm. Meanwhile, though he may be played by Frank Langella, Gabriel hasn’t proven to be nearly as magnetic a character as Margot Martindale’s Claudia, the Jenningses’ former handler; his amicability is nothing compared to her ruthless task-mastering hidden behind Martindale’s empathic eyes. Perhaps it’ll reveal itself as necessary, but the introduction of the excellent Ruthie Ann Miles as a Mary Kay solicitor Elizabeth is spying on is currently distracting, and reminiscent of brief plots involving other blonde wigs in older episodes.
The reason some of the smaller elements don’t work as well in the first episodes of Season 4 is because the overarching plot is working so spectacularly, with ever-increasing dread. And as the season progresses, the show does start to seem aware that it can shed — and believe me, without mercy — some plots that unnecessarily detract from the explosions potentially caused by the impossible coexistence of murderous nationalism and family.
In Season 4, we see how the Jenningses deal with the fact that their nuclear familial microcosm is more threatened than the world at large: the Cold War will not result in nuclear warfare; it will not result — despite the newly introduced presence of glanders — in USA-overthrowing bioterrorism. The explosions ahead will likely not be national, at least not in the way the Jenningses would hope — they’ll be personal.