Theoretically, if ever there were a moment for The Americans, FX’s critically acclaimed but little-watched spy drama, it’s now.
It’s the start of the show’s fifth season, and the show is coming off its first Emmy nomination for Best Drama Series. Its ratings ticked up ever so slightly for many of its episodes in season four. It has a planned end date — at the conclusion of season six in 2018 — and can start moving toward its series finale with purpose. This is the closest The Americans has come to the cultural zeitgeist since very, very early in its run, or maybe even before it debuted and the response was mostly, “Isn’t that the show where Felicity plays a Soviet spy?”
Oh, yeah, and there’s the Russia thing.
Between the end of The Americans season four in June 2016 and the beginning of season five in early 2017, the relationship between the US and Russia got ... let’s say even more complicated. For a show that has been less overtly political than you might expect, the world’s changing geopolitical situation might seem to be full of both promise and peril. Without even trying, The Americans has become a cultural touchstone — but if it embraces the political mood of the moment too much, it risks ruining its distinct, carefully modulated tone.
Fortunately, The Americans’ fifth season succeeds in addressing our current world by being its assiduously careful self. This is still a show about how, beyond politics, beyond economics, beyond nationalism, people are people. How beautiful, and how terrifying.
The Americans slows down just a bit — then speeds right back up again
One thing The Americans perhaps deserves more credit for is the way it portrays the entirety of a world and its political order through the prism of one marriage.
The show started small — here are these two Russian spies pretending to be a normal American couple — but with every season, it’s grown a little bigger. Eventually, major characters were living in the Soviet Union, the main characters were traveling all over the world, and the roster of important recurring characters was dozens deep.
The season five premiere, “Amber Waves,” is a great example of how expansive The Americans has become. For one thing, its recent awards recognition seems to have slightly increased its budget, to the tune of more pop music in the soundtrack and a more epic scope. For another, the series simply trusts viewers to keep up when it, say, introduces an entirely new character who appears to have nothing to do with anything until his parents are revealed and you see exactly where he fits in.
Almost alone among TV dramas, The Americans is following a very classical playbook. It’s easy to imagine it airing at the same time as The Sopranos or Breaking Bad and comparing favorably to them. The show has stuck to a very traditional model of establishing expectations gradually and with great care, and then deliberately subverting those expectations without much fanfare.
This is what makes “Amber Waves” and the two episodes after it (the only three FX made available to critics) so much fun to watch. The series breaks out of its shell just a little bit. The jokes are slightly less icy, even as the stakes are ever more present — there are, after all, only 23 episodes of this show left in total, and the noose is already tightening around our heroes’ necks.
At the same time, it undercuts the season four cliffhanger, which was full of existential dread, and picks up a short while later, when most of that dread has dissipated in the face of day-to-day life.
In its own way, this is part of The Americans’ peculiar charm. Even when you have to fly to Oklahoma to investigate a spy tip, you and your fellow spy spouse are going to chat about what’s going on with the kids. But it’s understandable to feel like season four finally brought things to a boil, and season five reduces to a simmer as soon as it possibly can.
And yet because we know how The Americans works, the show almost immediately begins subverting our expectations. Each of its previous seasons has slowly built to barely contained chaos, and as soon as episode two, things are spiraling out of control, the world is on the brink of apocalypse, and random bursts of violence are interrupting humdrum existence.
A reckoning is coming, both in the series and in history. The Soviet Union is slipping behind the US, the US is anxious to knock it down once and for all, and desperation is oozing from both sides’ every pore.
Everything good about The Americans is still good — but viewers who aren’t convinced yet might find season five revelatory
The Americans is ultimately about attempting to understand something else, something foreign: another country, another person, or another lifestyle. To get into somebody’s head and heart is the core of espionage, because then you can get them to do your dirty work for you. But that also necessarily means you’re pursuing as small a target as possible.
Of the series’ two main characters, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, who’d better win a damn Emmy before this show is over) has taken most readily to the idea of going stealth on others’ emotional radar. Whenever she attempts to relate more openly and honestly, especially with her daughter, she mostly comes off as a major bummer. Elizabeth has pretended to be herself for so long that she’s not entirely sure who “herself” is.
But the strain of lying to himself completely consumes Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys, who’d better win a damn Emmy before this show is over), and Rhys somehow manages the complicated trick of seeming a little more like a crumpled-up paper version of himself with every episode. There’s a scene in season five’s third hour when it seems like he’s balled himself up and thrown himself into a corner, and it’s amazing how readily he conveys Philip’s utter inability to cope with what he’s done and who he’s become, simply by the way he sits.
But all of this emotional remove means The Americans has long been a show that critics love but even hardcore TV fans sometimes merely tolerate. Of all the shows I adore, this is the one I most frequently talk about with others who find it too chilly or too self-serious or too [fill in the blank]. That gap seems to have only grown as The Americans has become the Last Great TV Drama, a mantle it wears somewhat uneasily. (It is not, by its nature, a flashy show.) Critics praise it endlessly; many viewers wonder where the fuss is coming from.
This is where season five sneaks past your defenses, even more than season four, which marked a turning point for many. The characters on The Americans only reveal themselves under intense pressure. In the early going, that translated only to tiny, hairline fissures in the characters’ facades, but in season five, with the weight of all those years and so much death hanging over them, Philip, Elizabeth, and everybody else have seen their shells start to fleck apart, revealing their truest selves. Viewers who have found the show a little off-putting in the past may finally start to love it.
Meanwhile, everything else that has always worked about The Americans — the performances of supporting players such as Noah Emmerich and Holly Taylor; the magnificent scope of the show’s world, as suggested on Brooklyn sound stages; the unfussy but pitch-perfect direction that frequently leaves me agog with its simple beauty — is still in top-notch condition. Above all, it remains a series where every character, even if they’re in one scene in one episode, has a point of view and a perspective and a life, which might be cruelly snuffed out but nevertheless exists and is important in the cosmic sense.
All of which brings us back to Russia, and a worldwide geopolitical situation that sometimes seems like viral marketing for this series gone horribly wrong. The Americans is a largely pro-capitalist show — one of season five’s major storylines involves food shortages in the Soviet Union and the implication that the communist government is behind them — but it’s also a show that rejects ideology as a guiding light. Codes don’t serve you well on The Americans. Codes mostly get you killed.
Food shortages are such a beautifully Americans idea to build a season around, both because, yes, they’re in the historical record, and because there’s nothing more human than sharing a meal with someone you love, or someone you don’t know, and realizing how much you have in common with them. The symbolism seems clear: Empathy is in short order on The Americans, and in our world, too. Without it, only disaster looms.
The Americans returns Tuesday, March 7, at 10 pm Eastern on FX. Previous seasons are available on Amazon Prime.