The Americans brings season 5 to an emotionally jarring end, as the slow-burn story exposes the misery of a job that’s never done.
Before the penultimate season of The Americans even began, co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields issued a statement regarding the season 5 storyline and its slow-burn nature. The intimation was clear: a show that was already known for its deliberate, contemplative pace would be turning the dial down an additional notch in preparation for the season 6 run of episodes that will bring the story of the Jenningses and their mission as Soviet sleeper agents in the U.S. to a close. The comments by Fields and Weisberg certainly proved to be true; time and again the penultimate season established itself as a simmering pot of tension that didn’t boil over or result in an unlikely twist because that would not only ring false, it would undermine the entirety of what the creators have spent the last five seasons building: one of the most devastating family dramas in the history of television masquerading as a spy show. The Americans brings season 5 to an emotionally jarring end, as the slow-burn story exposes the misery of a job that’s never done.
The forewarning of the season’s slow burn is an example of just how well the creators know their story and what it needs in order to have an effective send off. Slowing the pace is The Americans giving itself the necessary runway to ease into the sort of dramatic finish only a show that’s as measured as this one could have. As a result, the penultimate season was arguably the series at its introspective best, giving the audience ample opportunity to experience the lows and the… other lows of Cold War-era spies struggling mightily with their work-life balance (that being they have all of one and none of the other), realizing they’ve been backpedaling their way into one hell of a corner this whole time. As the season comes to a close with Philip reluctantly informing Elizabeth that Kimmy Breland’s father is about to become the most important get of their long campaign against the interests of the United States, it does so with the sobering realization that, try as they might to leave the world of international intrigue behind, it’s unlikely the couple will ever make it back to the Motherland, much less drag Paige and Henry along with them.
As with so much else on TV (and America) at the moment, The Americans has found itself dabbling in the toxicity of nostalgia and how a longing for a time and place that used to be so often leads to a misinterpretation of something that never was. Oleg Burov’s season-long Russian-set story line has occasionally felt disconnected from the intrigues faced by Philip and Elizabeth. Although Oleg is facing charges of treason, the story of the Soviet food chain, shady grocery store employees, and the obvious corruption of government officials felt sometimes incongruent, tied only tangentially with the subplot of American super-wheat the spies had been investigating throughout so much of the season. Only when Elizabeth told Philip “I want to get out of here. We should just go,” during the closing moments of ‘Dyatkovo’, did the fog hanging over Oleg’s plot lift: This is the Russia to which Philip and Elizabeth are so desperate to return. It’s not remotely like the one they left behind, much less the one they’ve built up in their minds for the last few decades.
All at once the show’s most resonant themes of belief, family, and identity, have come back to the forefront of the series, just as it prepares to slide into its final run and bring with it the high potential for a heartrending conclusion. The season’s final episode ‘The Soviet Division’ is another example of the levels of demarcation that Philip and Elizabeth find themselves dealing with as the lines between their lives as spies and their lives as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have blurred to such a degree they’ve convinced themselves that a family trip to Europe will be the necessary first part of their attempt to slip back behind the Iron Curtain. Their aspiration to return to the Soviet Union is matched only by the desire to keep their family together, explaining why they don’t heed the advice of Pastor Tim from last week’s episode, telling them to wait a few years for Paige and Henry to be adults.
A couple years is hardly a prison sentence, but as when Philip sat staring off into nothing with his surrogate son Tuan, it’s clear that, aware of it or not, Philip’s already begun losing Henry to Chris, mathematics, and the private school he was just accepted to. So when he denies his son an opportunity to attend the new school, on the grounds that “This family stays together,” it’s in preparation for plans Philip never should have made, and the realization that, in more ways than one, the clock is ticking and this father can’t get back the time his work took from him.
The two sides of Philip and Elizabeth’s conflict are mirrored in Tuan’s urging of Pasha to attempt suicide in an effort to get his mother to return to Russia, and in Stan’s growing disenchantment with his work at the FBI, not to mention Philip’s growing distrust that Renee (Laurie Holden) is who she says she is. The distance between The Americans’ characters and the collateral damage of their respective causes has been compressed considerably. In the finale, it’s roughly the distance from Brad and Dee’s house to where Pasha lays bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. That’s the obvious extreme, but it’s also in Paige putting ice on a busted lip because, from the very beginning of the series, bonding with her mother always means there will be blood, Paige’s. As before, those wounds are a promise of all the pain that’s yet to come, and yet the series finds a new level of pain in the persistent ache of Paige’s shrugging response that it is what it is and her growing admiration for what little she knows about her parents’ lives as spies.
But that’s not the life Philip wants for his children. And yet, when faced with the prospect of ignoring what he’s learned about Kimmy’s father becoming the head of the CIA’s Soviet Division, he takes the evidence to his wife and tells her the truth, knowing full well what the outcome will be. Work (and country) has always come first for Elizabeth, and in his own way, through his wife at least, Philip is admitting the same is true for him. The struggle to find balance between work and life may seem small in the context of the Cold War, but as The Americans takes steps toward its final season, turning the overwhelming external forces at play into internal ones, largely about the push-pull of domesticity and professional identity, makes the conflict hit all the more closer to home.
The Americans will conclude with season 6 in 2018.
Photos: FX Networks
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