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The first season of The Americans was flashy in all the wrong ways.

It tried to sensationalize the morally murky plight of Soviet spies working in early ’80s D.C. with rather obvious gasp moments, ho-hum missions and tawdry basic-cable sleaze.

Last year’s second season was better — flashy in the right ways — with a bloody murder mystery just one of several well-handled arcs. But it still felt messy and rough around the edges — it had more passion in its execution than its planning.

The third season of The Americans, however, isn’t flashy at all. It’s smart, sad, patient and quickly becoming winter’s least-missable offering. Sure, they have fight scenes, sex scenes, even the occasional car chase, but those aren’t the most memorable parts. Highlights from two weeks ago, all of them heartbreaking, included the window-shopping of some foster kids, a monologue about a dead woman’s garden, and a flashback montage to Intercourse for Espionage 101.

the-americans

“Do you think about when we learned to do this?” Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), stoned on Afghan weed, asks his wife and partner in crime, Elizabeth (Keri Russell, defending a fortress in each eye), as the screen cuts back 20 years and 5,000 miles to young Phillip learning the soul-killing work of fucking for country.

They’ve been discussing Kimberly, a CIA officer’s 15-year-old daughter, whom Phillip has been seducing in order to gain access to her father’s office and agency work. Watching Kim and Phillip have a popcorn fight is enough to turn your stomach (he’s more than twice her age), but the show doesn’t take the situation lightly — it twists the classic TV scenario of “will they or won’t they?” into a hugely important test for Phillip, who always shows viewers his corroded heart, even while actively in the process of corroding.

Last week, the show took a highly Christian dodge on the issue. Phillip played the religion card and got young Kimmy praying with him, but she doesn’t seem like the young woman to be distracted for long by men in the sky when she’d prefer one in her bed. God help us all.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, is trying to steel their own daughter for the harsh reality that her parents work for Mother Russia, and she’s battling both Phillip and the Church for young Paige’s attention. Last Wednesday’s episode ended with Elizabeth juuuuuust starting to dip Paige’s toe into the idea that Mom ‘n Pop aren’t quite the law-abiding squares she imagines them to be.

A prediction: Moscow Centre’s efforts to recruit young Paige will come crashing down when she (mistakenly) reveals to Elizabeth and Phillip that she couldn’t be prouder that they are spies … for the CIA. I can’t wait to watch Russell’s face fall like Jericho.

This and other season 3 plot lines (such as the dalliance with EST) are proving better than you might think, whereas in season 1, stories didn’t pan out quite as creatively as one might hope. This is what it looks like as a series hits its prime. And the preview of tonight’s ep makes it look like a whopper.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhAjJYNP6iA

The show also deserves applause for its light touch with early ’80s culture. The cars and costumes aren’t likely to inspire Mad Men-style throwbacks, but the music is magic. A twofer from Yazoo in one episode? Yes, please.

Informed in equal parts by John Le Carré and Tom Clancy, The Americans is a spy thriller for TV viewers who don’t need their hands held or their morals placated. There are ONLY dirty decisions, ONLY drastic calls. It dances on the edge of the knife, and ooh, but it’s got some moves.

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