I spend every episode of The Americans with my fingers over my eyes, wracked with anguish and despair, dreading whatever horrors will next be revealed. There are plenty of shows that would depict a secret agent murdering his lover when she reveals she’s working as a spy. But how many would then bring in its central characters to snap the spy’s bones one by one and slide her pretzeled corpse into a suitcase?
The Americans, which finished its brilliant third season on Wednesday, delivers a steady stream of these kinds of scenes, obsessively dwelling on the disturbing consequences of its cold-blooded spy games. A typical episode takes us on a log flume, patiently leading us through each step of an espionage mission before plunging us into the agony of death and deception. And season three brought us to newfound heights of intrigue before, in Wednesday’s finale, sending us on a stomach-churning plummet.
Although every season of the show is built around one central mission—this year, our antiheroes Philip and Elizabeth were tasked with sabotaging American aid to the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War—this overarching plotline is really a MacGuffin. The real action in The Americans lies in Philip and Elizabeth’s fairly episodic tasks, like bugging a mail robot or kidnapping an enemy agent. Because the show is preoccupied by morality, most of these missions lead Philip or Elizabeth to commit some heinous transgression: This season, Philip seduced a 15-year-old and hanged a manchild, while Elizabeth executed an innocent and forced a grandmother to kill herself. In another show, these missions might be thrilling. In The Americans, they’re wrenching exercises in righteousness gone awry.
Philip and Elizabeth, of course, can usually find a way to convince themselves that their evils are necessary and, in the long term, moral. (Their certitude began to flag toward the end of this season, as their new handler, a criminally underused Frank Langella, pushes them into ever more gruesome tasks.)
The big question this season has been if, and how, Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter Paige would be let in on her parents’ secret. Paige, a born-again Christian (much to her parents’ displeasure), spent the latter part of this season asking her parents whether everything about her childhood was a lie. Their jobs? Their relatives? Their filial affection? It turns out that, despite their mastery of espionage, Philip and Elizabeth aren’t very good at indoctrinating their daughter. At the end of Wednesday’s finale, a sobbing Paige picks up the phone and confesses her parents’ secret to her beloved Pastor Tim. Her parents asked her to choose lies. She chooses the truth. So the finale overall set up the big question for next season: whether Paige still has a chance at salvation.
The brilliance of this plot line is that it functions as both text and subtext. The Americans doesn’t force us to think: Growing up and discovering your parents’ imperfections is just like learning they’re spies! The Paige plot works on a very literal (and nail-biting) level, but also begs for a more metaphorical, universal interpretation. The same is true of Philip and Elizabeth’s (arranged, spurious) marriage, which begs us to draw comparisons with our own intimate relationships—and ask whether they’re really all that different.
Wednesday’s finale doesn’t even try to tie up all of the season’s loose ends; Philip’s pseudo-wife Martha, an FBI secretary, is conspicuously absent, although her character arc seems to lead inexorably to some tragic doom. But Paige’s confession introduces a ghastly new moral dilemma. Philip and Elizabeth would normally kill anyone who divulges their secret. What the hell are they supposed to do when Judas is their own daughter? The Americans may be the only show on TV that could answer that question in a satisfying way.
Disclosure: The Americans was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of The Slate Group's editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg.