The Americans has always been a tragedy in the making. Our past is the inevitable future for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell); the end of the Cold War is a looming specter ensuring the show’s main characters end up on the wrong side of history. It was a bargain those watching entered into willingly, though knowing that does little to take the edge off a premiere filled with a deep sense of unease and even sadness, beginning with one of the series’ best musical montages, a sequence set to Crowded House’s suddenly even more somber ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, wherein characters go about their daily lives — engaging in spycraft and other tasks — simultaneously oblivious to and seemingly aware of what’s waiting around the corner.
As the series begins its sixth and final season, it takes all of its characters closer to that end, jumping forward to 1987. A thawing of the Cold War is in the air, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union are hammering out the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Philip has left the spy game behind completely (or so he thinks). The lie of Philip Jennings has become his truth; he’s finally living it full time now, having expanded the travel agency into a bustling enterprise, becoming a poster boy for capitalism. Things are markedly different for Elizabeth, however. Ever the loyal Soviet soldier, she’s well past her expiration date in the field. The toll the job has taken and is taking on her revealed by the mask of exhaustion she wears and tries to conceal behind an ever-present cloud of cigarette smoke.
Over the past five seasons, the show’s emphasis on how the couple’s cover story has blossomed into a genuine domestic partnership has become its true focal point, making the one-sidedness of the premiere all the more fraught. But The Americans isn’t just about Philip and Elizabeth. Paige (Holly Taylor) is now running PG-rated missions with her mother (though even that feels destined to become restricted viewing in the near future), while Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is away at boarding school, blossoming into a young hockey star with a sizable coed fan base. Like Philip, Stan (Noah Emmerich) got out of the intelligence business after that whole mess with Oleg (Costa Ronin) that stemmed from their doomed love of Nina. Oleg, too, is out; he’s living in Moscow with a wife and a baby, until Arkady (Lev Gorn) comes calling.
Arkady’s ask makes one thing clear: Nobody is ever really out of the game. If this were any other season, the circumstances would be like the gravitational pull of some clandestine celestial object. Instead, at the start of season 6, it’s more like bathwater circling the drain. Hardly a word is spoken between Philip and Elizabeth in the premiere. The opening montage affords them a knowing look and a pair of weary smiles. It’s only from the front door to the kitchen but it may as well be Moscow to the Mall of America. There’s a (Cold) war between them, but the premiere presages one that may find them on opposite sides of a bitter conflict brewing back in Mother Russia.
The Americans season premieres are usually filled with seemingly portentous nods to the season’s themes — the deer in the headlights in season 2 or the flashback to Elizabeth throwing Paige into the deep end of the pool as her first swimming lesson. This time it’s the paintings of a dying artist, which capture the silent screams of women trapped behind panes of steam-covered glass. The images are eerily realistic and deeply unsettling, but they are, nevertheless, only images, warped representations of reality. No wonder Elizabeth is hesitant to engage with them. She’s always been more tactile anyway, choosing to thumb an opal necklace (presumably)hiding a cyanide capsule gifted to her by a Russian agent who describes Dead Hand — essentially the nuclear doomsday device from Dr. Strangelove — with a straight face over cups of coffee in Mexico City. Unlike existentially disconcerting paintings, the necklace and its deadly payload are tangible objects that leave no room for interpretation. There’s nothing to think about or ponder; it’s do or do not. That’s Elizabeth’s reality and she’s sticking to it until the bitter end.
“It’s your life. You don’t know how long it’s going to be, but you know it’s got a bad ending.” Those words were spoken by Don Draper, another guy whose future is our past, and who knows a thing or two about hiding in plain sight. Those words speak to the somber and inevitable end of all things, and they ring especially true in the case of The Americans. The show has always been a tragedy; we’re just waiting to see how tragic it’s going to be.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Tchaikovsky’ @10pm on FX.