‘The Americans’ Review: Season 4 May Be Series’ Best Yet

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell offer weekly master classes on one of the best dramas on television

The Americans Matthew Rhys Kerri Russell

As the new season of FX’s “The Americans” picks up where Season 3 left off — Philip has killed an FBI agent to protect the woman he’s married to under an assumed identity; daughter Paige has ratted out her Soviet agent parents to her pastor; son Henry is feeling so abandoned that he’s turned to neighbor (and perpetually suspicious FBI agent Stan) for fatherly guidance; and Elizabeth is as steely and determined as ever — it becomes increasingly clear that for the Jennings family, the center cannot hold.

If every successive season of the Cold War era drama-slash-critical darling moves further away from the action-movie highs of its debut campaign, then Season 4 is when the ruthlessness of Elizabeth and Philip’s exploits is underscored. Not for nothing does the first episode open with an intensely brutal flashback for Philip, whose wavering support for the cause is even wobblier than usual as the realities of his life strike home. Finally, the Jennings are forced to admit that, as their handler says to them in the fourth episode (only the first four were made available to critics), they are living in “a burning house.”

But then, who isn’t, on “The Americans?” From the beginning, the most striking aspect of this series that places two Russian spies deep undercover in Reagan-era D.C. has been its persistent insistence on the failure of the American Dream. Stan (Noah Emmerich) began the series with a wife and child, and a new post at FBI headquarters — now he’s single and alone, pondering the fate of his deported Russian mistress and bonding with someone else’s son in lieu of his own. Martha thought she got everything she wanted when she married Philip’s alter ego Clarke, but now she’s in danger of being exposed as a traitor. Blind patriotism, whether to America or the Soviet Union, can be a dangerous thing, “The Americans” has repeatedly emphasized. And this season, that danger is coming home in unexpected ways — and every character has a startling reaction to it.

This may also be the show’s best season; certainly, the first four episodes sustain dramatic tension in ways that previous seasons didn’t always manage. And even the most problematic aspect of Season 3 — disconnecting double agent Nina (Annet Mahendru) from the central storylines — is brilliantly, swiftly corrected.

Being forced to say the same thing year after year only for it to land on deaf ears is one of the more trying aspects of television criticism, but here goes anyway: The cast of “The Americans” remains television’s most consistently talented (and consistently overlooked). Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are giving weekly master classes in acting, and both are burrowing even deeper into their characters as their cover comes under threat. Russell’s Elizabeth has always been one of TV’s most badass characters, but she’s bringing new layers of vulnerability and doubt to the wife and mother who isn’t hesitant about ordering a hit to protect her family. And Rhys’ Philip is a complicated mess, a staunch Soviet soldier who has been faltering since the show began. His past deeds have taken a toll, and that toll has begun to tell on him.

But Holly Taylor is already this season’s MVP. Railing against her parents for a lifetime of lies, confronting her pastor for his inability to keep a secret, or unexpectedly bonding with her mother, Paige is as realistic a teenager as ever put on screen — even under these very odd circumstances. This is a television show at the very peak of its powers, confident and controlled. The cast and crew have done their part — your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is simply to tune in. You won’t regret it.