Even if Matthew Rhys hadn’t had a standout performance in The Americans‘ Season 3 finale this week — and, of course, he did — I probably still would have bestowed him as the TV Performer of the Week, because he deserves to be named actor of the season. The Americans has always been an acting tour-de-force for Rhys his co-star and on-screen wife Keri Russell, though this season has truly belonged to Rhys’ Philip, and to Rhys’ dexterity as an actor.
For those unfamiliar, The Americans is a show built on the idea and deconstruction of identity. Rhys and Russell play a pair of high-level KGB spies developed specifically to infiltrate the United States in the 1970s and 80s, living as American citizens (“Philip and Elizabeth Jennings”) while carrying out complex Soviet spy orders.
Over the course of its three seasons, The Americans has also slowly challenged the Jennings’ certainty about the cause and the outcomes of their missions. In the second season, a similarly-situated spy couple was brutally murdered, leaving Philip and Elizabeth wondering about their own future, and that of their two children. In this last season, there has been a push from Russia for their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to be developed as a second-generation spy, but broaching that topic proved emotionally taxing and eventually dangerous for all.
Philip had a particularly hard time in Season 3 juggling his commitments to a variety of women, as the real and fake relationships started to weight heavily on him. Though his marital relationship with Elizabeth is the strongest it has ever been (especially from her side of things), Philip was distraught over the thought of “developing” Paige into their line of work. Philip, more than Elizabeth, has always enjoyed the trappings and freedoms of American life. And while his loyalties to the cause have been tested mightily (and he has never faltered), he doesn’t necessarily want his daughter to have to face the kind of test like breaking the bones of someone you knew and slept with for several years, before stuffing their corpse into a suitcase.
The friction wasn’t helped by Philip’s “other” marriage to Martha (Alison Wright), who he uses to get a wiretap into the FBI, but with whom he also has developed a genuine relationship. She pushes him for children and for them to see more of each other, which he has to handle carefully. Meanwhile, he’s up against other challenges in his life with Elizabeth, and another relationship he’s been forced to start with the teenaged daughter of a CIA agent, Kimberly (Julia Garner). Kimberly reminds him in many ways of Paige, and as Philip starts to compartmentalize all of these feelings, he begins to slowly fall apart.
At times, when he is angry or focused on a mission, Rhys as Philip is frightening. He sets his jaw and carries out his duties with studied, killer determination. Other times, like when he jokes with his son or has a conversation with neighbor (and secret nemesis) Stan (Noah Emmerich), he seems like any casual, suburban dad. Philip also has a loving and passionate relationship with Elizabeth, which also carries over to his time spent with Martha.
A role like Philip requires Rhys to be a chameleon in every episode, and though the wigs and colored contacts help somewhat (even though they are occasionally laughable), it’s really down to Rhys’ changing countenance that sells him as Philip versus Clark versus whomever he is in that day, or that hour. It’s a meaty part for an actor, but it only works if the actor has the chops to pull it off. Rhys does, in spades.
And yet, The Americans has been slowly uncovering the true natures of its leads. Philip’s struggles and hesitations with Martha, Kimmy, Elizabeth, Paige, and everything else exploded in the season finale. He attends an EST seminar (without Stan, who had dragged him along before), that focused on sex. Earlier in the season, we saw a rare flashback to Philip’s KGB training, where he was forced to “make it real,” sexually and emotionally, with any situation he’s presented with (and they truly meant anything). The question for Philip now seems to be: who is he really? Does he still know? Or can he even find it again? Rhys conveys these struggles and ideas silently, yet clearly.
Burdened by his secrets he cannot share with anyone but Elizabeth, Philip later spends time alone at home, leading to one of The Americans‘ most quietly powerful sequences. Throughout the finale, Philip was anything but sure of himself. That determination was gone (save for one scene with their KGB handler, who read it instead as petulance). In its place was a man broken and confused, looking pained and even ill as he sat and considered the disparate pieces of his life. When he is left alone in the episode, Rhys makes Philip looks completely lost. He does what he needs to do, but in the moments in between, Philip doesn’t seem to know where to rest his mind. His weariness at wearing so many different personas is palpable.
When Elizabeth and Paige return home from their trip, Philip greets them with enthusiastic smiles and hugs that are full of relief, wrapping Elizabeth up in a particularly warm embrace. He’s thrilled to have them back, those with whom he can share his truths, and for the first time we see Philip stammer when trying to explain his feelings to Elizabeth. He’s interrupted by Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, which grabs Elizabeth’s attention, so we don’t get a full sense of what he was trying to convey to her. But in that moment, he was so sincerely vulnerable, scared and confused, as he stumbled around his recent struggles, and (presumably) a growing disconnect with the cause. He also seemed, for the first time, afraid.
It was a side to Philip we have never seen before. The emotions were raw and unstable. The often icy and tough Elizabeth had a vulnerable moment earlier in the episode with her mother, her eyes welling with tears and she was given the opportunity to say a proper goodbye. But as fascinating as all of the Jennings’ transformations have been this season, none have been as utterly compelling as Philip’s. Part of that is the well-written trajectory of his character, but much more of it comes down to Matthew Rhys’ ability to make us connect with Philip. His performance in the Season 3 finale was spellbinding and heartbreaking, but on any given week he succeeds in making us like and even feel protective of a KGB agent, whose life is dedicated to bringing down the republic. And yet, in Rhys’ hands, it’s almost enough to make one forget one’s own identity, and follow his cause.