At the start of the series’ penultimate season, The Americans has great deal going for it. In addition to being widely thought of as the best drama on television, FX’s Cold War-era spy drama has four seasons worth of richly drawn characters and tensely plotted narrative to draw from, allowing season 5 to turn inward rather than expand, as the series effectively launches the beginning of the end. That’s a boon to co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, as they have slowly and effectively transitioned their series from high-concept espionage thriller to one of the most successful and potent dramas about marriage, family, and, of all things, humanization in the crowded offerings of Peak TV.
Even in this day and age of six-to-ten-episode seasons, anthologies, and limited series, plotting the end of any television series remains a daunting task. Most shows are still built for catalytic beginnings that jumpstart a creative engine, whereas conclusions seem a far more nebulous proposition. That makes what The Americans is able to do at the start of season 5 all the more impressive. After a run-in with a deadly biological agent, and an asset falling into the hands of the FBI, the Jennings and their handler, Gabriel, thought it might be time to pack up their lives as Americans and to head back to the motherland. That was the end of season 4, so you will be forgiven for wondering what’s going on when the season 5 premiere, ‘Amber Waves’, opens in an American high school to the suddenly sad sounds of Devo, and focusing on a young man named Tuan as he chats up the new Russian kid, Pasha.
The opening is brilliantly of a piece. Period details are all just right, but in keeping with how The Americans handles such things: never too obvious. Still, as a seemingly innocuous friendship between two immigrant students is born, the show slowly pulls back the iron curtain to reveal the true intentions of the situation. The Americans has been doing this time and again for four seasons, but somehow, as season 5 begins in the political climate of 2017, a chilly nostalgia for the series’ Cold War setting has begun to set in. Perhaps that is because Russia is so prevalent in today’s headlines, and perhaps because the audience already knows that, like the series, the Cold War Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are tied up in is destined to come to an end.
The move toward an ending and the pursuit of purpose in that conclusion beyond simply finding the right stopping place is the challenge facing Fields and Weisberg. Throughout the premiere, the two demonstrate ways in which they are up to the task. Whereas the Cold War is the narrative engine driving the plot, the aftermath of “the War” still weighs heavily on the adult characters in ‘Amber Waves’. As TV has so often demonstrated, there’s no better place for some tense, uncomfortable drama than right around the family dinner table. So when a neighborly meal with a still-assimilating Russian family turns to a discussion of the Soviet Union versus the United States, it inevitably becomes a comparison of the land of deprivation versus the land of plenty, casting a shadow on the Jennings’ stalled plans of returning to a country they continue to serve, but is no longer home.
Elizabeth derides Pasha’s father on the drive back to their suburban D.C. home, asking Philip when will be the right time to go “home” to the U.S.S.R. after he casually mentions they’ll have another chance. After all that has happened, the question The Americans asks at the start of season 5 is: What is home to people who live such emotionally strained, bifurcated lives, torn between loyalty to a country that routinely asks them to do “impossible things” and the family they’ve created to maintain a ruse? On one hand, home is everything they believe they’re fighting for, but it’s also each other, and, increasingly, the place where an FBI agent and his son who happens to be dating their teenage daughter lives across the street. It all adds up to one of the most vivid and compelling depictions of marriage and family on TV. Philip and Elizabeth know they’re the only two people who could possibly understand what the other is going through, which makes Paige’s knowledge of and struggle to come to terms with their secret such a rich source of conflict, one the show continues to mine for dramatic gold.
Instead of blowing up the show’s conceit, Paige being brought into her parents’ inner circle elevates the show’s emotional stakes, folding the spy drama in on itself so that everything becomes a deeper examination of its characters’ struggles with an insufferable work-life balance that has potentially softened their once inflexible worldview (or at least it has for Philip). The show also cleverly converts parental anxiety over the looming specter of teenage love and sex and heartbreak by adding an uncomfortably real and potentially life-threatening variable to the concept of exposure. Elizabeth’s answer is to reach out and connect with her child by teaching her how to throw a punch. The moment harkens back to season 1, when Elizabeth pierced her daughter’s ears in the middle of the night, seemingly preparing Paige for the hurt that was headed her way. But the lesson in self-defense is as much to protect Elizabeth from her daughter growing up, as it is to further steel Paige from the harsh realities she’s only begun to experience.
The season premiere is also about letting go, something poor Hans (and Martha) would attest the Jennings are able do regardless the emotional consequences they might endure later. And although there are still over 20 episodes left, The Americans is preparing its characters, and the audience, for the moment when they too have to let go, further cementing the show’s place as the best drama on TV.
The Americans continues next Tuesday with ‘Pests’ @10pm on FX.
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