We always knew The Americans wasn’t going to end well.

When the suburban-espionage drama premiered on FX three years ago, its premise was brimming with bleakness: Set in the Reagan-glazed early-‘80s, the show introduced Elizabeth and Philip (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), two married KGB agents working undercover near Washington, DC, where they were trying to simultaneously infiltrate the US government, raise their teenage kids, and run a travel agency. To those of us who were around at the end of the 20th century, and who saw how things shook out for the Soviet Union—not to mention the mom-and-pop travel business—it was obvious from the get-go that Philip and Elizabeth’s fates were sealed, their only options being death, deportation, or maybe a customer-service stint at Priceline.com.

And yet, even with those looming dangers, and despite the show’s body-stacking violence, the early seasons of The Americans were also … fun? Granted, it was a sporadic, “let’s put on wigs and bug Casper Weinberger’s place and then go down on each other afterward” kind of fun, but it eased the tension a bit, giving The Americans a relaxing hint of sexy-time escapism. Those moments of semi-levity, coupled with the pair’s tenacious self-preservation skills—they’ve endured everything from torture to DIY dentistry—may even have gotten viewers’ hopes up: After all, if Elizabeth and Philip could worm their way out of all the spring-loaded traps and sinister double-crosses thrown their way, maybe they could get through the Cold War, too.

But as Season 4 of The Americans begins tonight, it’s clear the show (which likely has another few years to go) is doubling down on the darkness. And much like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos—two similarly blood-spattered, ultimately dread-fed tales of troubled families—The Americans has only become more essential, and even more captivating, in its advancing age. By now, nearly every character is endangered, every relationship is suspect, and every escape route is blocked off. The joy of the early seasons were watching Elizabeth and Philip navigate an increasingly threatening world; now, the pleasure comes from seeing how they’ll react when that world begins closing in on them.

The season premiere, “Glanders,” begins with circa-1983 Philip flashing back to a gruesome incident from his Soviet youth. The memory is one of the many existential hang-ups that’s sent Philip back to est, the self-awareness-stoking group-therapy confab that’s become his de facto confessional booth, and which has led to his growing realization that perhaps the US isn’t as bad as he was raised to believe. In a show full of increasingly wobbly allegiances, Philip’s slow embrace of America is perhaps the most poignant emotional defection yet: There’s a feeling he gets when he looks to the West, but no matter how much he may want to disappear into his illegally adopted home country, he’s doomed to forever be an outsider looking in.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, is dealing with the fallout from one of Season 3’s biggest twists, in which teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) was told about her parents’ Russian pasts, only to blab to the unnervingly upbeat pastor Tim (played by Kelly AuCoin, whose wig makes him look a bit like a professional Conan O’Brien impersonator from Vermont). Elizabeth and Philip can’t possibly let Tim live with their secret—but if anything bad happens to him, Paige will know her parents were involved, and the family will be split apart (kids, right?). If that wasn’t enough to deal with, Elizabeth and Phillip have now also been paired with a recalcitrant fellow spy (played by Dylan Baker) to help the Russians secure bioweapons.

For Elizabeth, always the more pragmatic (and more Soviet-Unionized) of the pair, the ever-escalating dangers only strengthen her fight-or-fight impulses. Yet there are signs that she, too, may be looking for a way out. In one of the season’s most affecting sequences, an in-disguise Elizabeth befriends a fellow overworked mom, who invites Elizabeth to her home for a traditional home-cooked Korean meal. Usually on The Americans, such a moment would end with cyanide in the soju. But the encounter marks one of the few times Elizabeth has found a confidant beyond her family, and glimpsed what it would be like to let her wig down and experience life as a normal suburbanite.

Finally, there’s Stan (Noah Emmerich), Philip and Elizabeth’s neighbor and a struggling FBI agent. Poor guy! Will anyone stan for Stan? He’s ruined his relationship with his wife and his Russian girlfriend; alienated his son and coworkers; and failed to detect the Russian agents living in his own neighborhood. At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stan is little more than a flummoxed lummox in a suit, but his isolation (and maybe all that est) has only made him more focused on work, turning his sights on Martha (Alison Wright), the too-trusting FBI secretary whose love for one of Phillip’s alter egos has dragged her into the spy game (and made her the show’s perennial least-likely-to-live-much-longer character).

If that all sounds like a cavalcade of bummers, don’t fret: There are still plenty of goofy undercover get-ups to be had this season, including one costume that might just mark the first-ever use of fake man-boobs on Prestige TV. There’s also a ridiculously taut, niftily executed off-the-cuff murder (set to a synth-pop score) and a single-episode, locked-room mini-thriller that underlines the show’s writing and directing acumen. Such moments likely won’t shake off the show’s seemingly end-is-nigh vibe. But they do serve as reminders that, even in its darkest hours, The Americans (much like its namesake Americans) hasn’t lost the element of surprise.


The Americans’ Fourth Season Doubles Down on Darkness