Right now, FX's spy drama The Americans is in the kind of incredible stretch of episodes TV dramas sometimes hit in the middle of their runs. With the characters firmly established and the stakes of the plot in place, a series can carefully start blowing up assumptions and turning the screws tighter and tighter to see how the characters get out of steadily worsening situations.
That's exactly what The Americans is doing right now. And in "Stingers," which aired Wednesday, April 1, the show hit another level, with the series' main characters, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings, the married couple who are deep undercover KGB spies, revealing everything to one of the people they care most about in the entire world.
In fact, I would say the show has started getting downright Shakespearean. (Spoilers through "Stingers" follow.)
The Americans is following the structure of a Shakespearean five-act tragedy
To understand why I think this way, you have to know a little bit about story structure.
Most of the time when we talk about cinematic story structure, we're talking about the three-act structure with a beginning, middle, and end, which looks something like this:
Many screenwriting students are taught three-act structure in this fashion — have a character climb a tree, throw rocks at them, then get them down from the tree. (This advice, popularized by screenwriting guru Syd Field, is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, though no one knows who actually said it first.)
That works well in movies, because movies have finite running times. On a TV show, structuring three acts becomes much tougher, because the second act tends to stretch on forever and the writers run out of rocks to throw at the characters.
That's why many of the best TV shows (including Breaking Bad and The Sopranos) use a five-act structure — or that thing you learned about in high school when you were reading Romeo and Juliet for the first time.
The main difference here is time. You'll notice the shape is roughly the same, but the five-act structure gives both the buildup to and fall from the climax whole acts to breathe. Instead of getting stuck in a never-ending second act, much of the story is pushed to the fourth act, or the fallout from the big moment. And on TV, time is everything:
The five acts consist of the following:
- Act 1: Something happens to spark the story into motion, and the characters begin making choices that will set everything else spinning along.
- Act 2: The characters still have a chance to escape their fates, but something in their psyches keeps driving them forward.
- Act 3: Featuring the "climax," this is where everything shifts. Something happens to flip everything on its ear, and the story reaches a point where the characters cannot escape what's coming.
- Act 4: The characters, trapped by fate but not yet cognizant of it, are sucked toward the endgame. In a tragedy, this is often when the body count begins to mount (or the audience can see this coming).
- Act 5: Everything ends, often in blood and horror. There is some quiet musing on what it all means. A few characters escape with their lives, but even they will likely have long years of therapy ahead of them.
The five-act structure can be used for anything — Shakespeare wrote both tragedies and comedies, after all — but modern writers seem to use it for tragic dramas more often than not. One reason for this is because most of us know this structure subconsciously. Once the third act rolls around, we can start to see the choices the characters make through the lens of the fifth-act horrors we know are coming, which gives every moment even more weight.
How does this apply to The Americans? Not only am I pretty sure the series is in the third of five acts, but I think the show is signaling that fact to viewers over and over again.
The Americans has reached its climax right on schedule
Consider this: At the January 2015 Television Critics Association winter press tour, FX president told reporters he thought The Americans would run at least five years. And when I later interviewed showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, Fields said:
"We're telling a long character story, and we're setting up pieces of things that we hope will pay off far down the line. We have this big story in our mind that we want to tell."
There's some sort of plan, then. Maybe even a five-year one?
The show hasn't gone back to the band's catalog since then — or at least it hadn't until the third season's seventh episode, which concluded with "The Chain" by the same artists over a sequence of significant importance. And if The Americans runs five years, that episode will be its exact midpoint — the high point of the five-act structure. The use of Fleetwood Mac underlines the moment's importance.
Or consider the way "Stingers" features two massive revelations, of the sort viewers might expect the show to spin out for many more episodes.
In the first, FBI agent and Jennings neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) realizes something his subconscious did long ago in a season two dream sequence: that FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright) is spying on her coworkers to benefit the man she thinks is her husband, Clark. Clark is actually Philip under an assumed identity, in a plot so ridiculous it shouldn't work.
Yet the show has turned that ridiculousness into an asset — Martha is so lonely that she's willing to overlook all of the things she doesn't know about "Clark" in favor of feeling loved. And when she finally does realize her husband must not be who he says he is (in that pivotal seventh episode described above), she finally actively starts feeding him intelligence, knowing it will presumably head into the Soviet bloc somewhere but not caring so long as Clark stays around. (Another hallmark of the third act: characters start making choices that suck them deeper into danger because of misguided loyalties.)
But now Stan knows something's up with Martha, as part of an officewide hunt for the source of a bug in the director's office. And once he catches up to her, nothing good can happen.
The show's single biggest secret is revealed — with potentially devastating consequences
But that's not even the biggest moment in the episode. The single most prominent storyline this season has been about Philip and Elizabeth's 16-year-old daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor). The parents' KGB handlers want them to turn their daughter against the country she was born into, to tell her the truth about their origins. Elizabeth is ready and willing to do so. Philip thinks it could destroy the girl.
The season, then, has slowly built as Elizabeth begins the early process of recruiting Paige, trying to warm her up to the ideas behind her parents' true line of business, while Philip looks on in slack-jawed horror, unable to do much of anything without exposing the truth.
But what's great about Paige — and what sets her apart from many other irritating TV teenagers — is that she's not stupid. She knows something is up with her parents and has since the first season, and her questions go beyond the usual teenage suspicions. It's a neat metaphor for that moment most teenagers eventually have, when they realize their parents are all too human.
So she just asks her parents who they really are. And — led by Philip, no less — they tell her.
As scripted by Weisberg and Fields and directed by Larysa Kondracki, the sequence is exquisite, one of the best scenes the show has ever done. The moment isn't proceeding according to Elizabeth's plans, nor is it something Philip can jump in front of and stop. If they love their daughter — and they do — they have to take a leap of faith and hope that by telling her the truth, she will choose family over country.
Kondracki shoots the sequence so that Philip and Elizabeth start as one unit, questioned by their daughter and on the same "side," so to speak:
But once they go to sit down and talk with their daughter, they sit at opposite ends of the table:
It's an image familiar from dozens of family TV shows — the parents and child sitting down for dinner — but it's one fraught with so much more significance here, as Philip and Elizabeth actively subvert the vision of the typical nuclear family.
Tellingly, once Philip and Elizabeth are separated by that table (and their daughter between them), the two of them can speak only haltingly, the truth emerging in dribs and drabs, until it's finally all out there. "You're spies?" Paige asks. "We serve our country," says her mother, suddenly realizing how Paige might interpret her actions.
Throughout, Kondracki shoots the three in tight close-ups, built to enhance how horrible these revelations are to all of them:
How this works as Shakespearean tragedy
Paige discovering the truth about her parents is a classic third-act revelation, because we know two things. First, we know she will have to choose whether to keep their secret or betray them. And second, we know she won't betray them because there's so much story left to tell. Thus, she is going to become complicit in her parents' actions — entirely and completely because she had the misfortune of being born to them. It's a gut punch.
Many shows would have delayed this revelation — and the one involving Martha — to the final season. But Paige finding out about her parents is integral to whatever's coming next, and thanks to five-act structure, we get so much more time to see this story play out.
Paige makes her ultimate choice in a scene where she calls her pastor. For much of the past two seasons, Paige's allegiance has been split between her parents and her newfound Christian faith — something that gives her atheist parents a large measure of anxiety. Now, however, she trails off when she's about to tell him what she learned from her parents. She freezes:
And she doesn't tell. She can't tell. Finally, she's on the other side, with her parents, and her fate, like theirs, is sealed.
Kondracki even finds a way to underline this as the episode ends. Stan, in the middle of divorce proceedings and lonely, comes over to share a meal with the Jennings family. When he enters the house, Paige gawks at him, presumably suddenly aware of just how much damage she could do to her family by slipping up in front of the FBI agent.
Kondracki shifts focus between Stan and Paige several times, underlining the gravity of the moment for her.
But she says nothing, smiling nervously when her father makes a quick excuse for her awkward stare. And then we see Paige's point-of-view of Philip and Elizabeth as they prepare a roast. If Paige didn't realize the dangers inherent in knowing her parents' secret, she does now:
Pledging allegiance in the world of The Americans isn't just about reciting a creed, one hand over heart. It's about realizing that the ties that bind are also the ties that can strangle you, suddenly, and out of nowhere.