Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, a variety of writers offer their takes on the season five premiere, “Amber Waves.”
Every season premiere of The Americans contains a sequence that neatly foreshadows the season’s major themes. In season two, Elizabeth nearly hit a family of deer with her car, presaging the dark times her children were about to be drawn into. Season four featured that gorgeous memory of Philip’s, going back to his childhood in the Soviet Union and revealing a moment when violence overtook him that he’s spent the rest of his life outrunning.
Maybe you see where I’m going with this. I understand the symbolism and all, but maybe spending a long time digging a hole so deep that you probably can’t escape it — while knowing you’ll lose friends along the way — is a little on-the-nose, The Americans. Maybe just a wee bit.
“Amber Waves” is a rather sweeping season premiere, which is odd for a show that has, at least to this point, been pretty reserved in its scope. The Americans is about the tiny moments behind the scenes, when everything changes but nobody knows why. So that epic agriculture montage and then the hole-digging sequence — which was more technically difficult to execute than you might expect — didn’t jibe entirely with my ideal of the series.
But that almost didn’t matter, because Philip and Elizabeth are now pretending to be an airline pilot and flight attendant couple, with an adopted Vietnamese son named Tuan, and our introduction to Tuan (and his new friend Pasha, the son of Soviet defectors) opens the episode. Is it weird for The Americans to be so grandiose this early in a season, after being so reserved for so long? Sure. But I dig it.
Okay, and Paige’s fight training might have had something to do with it, too. What did you think?
For as surprised as I was by the reveal of Philip and Elizabeth's new spy personas, not much about the rest of the episode surprised me, least of all its scope. But I’ll also admit that knowing The Americans was renewed for two seasons at once — and that the show is working toward a season six endgame — primed me to expect the kind of broader table-setting we get with “Amber Waves.” The best example is probably Philip’s son, Mischa (who we first learned of in season one, and “met” in the season four finale), starting his trek to the United States, immediately starting a countdown clock to the moment when he finds Philip and potentially blows the Jennings’ cover.
Outside that grand-scale agriculture montage, though, I really felt like the emphasis in this premiere was on the tiny moments. Yeah, the hole-digging scene is an obvious metaphor, but it’s also emblematic of The Americans’ slavish attention to detail and commitment to showing exactly how much difficult, unglamorous work and patience goes into what Philip and Elizabeth do. (See: suitcase, stuffing a body into.) Producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg even told me in January that the hole-digging scene was carefully edited in order to emphasize the grueling longevity of it; they said the show’s usual fades and cross-cuts would’ve felt like cheap shortcuts.
But look, I’d be lying if I said the most exciting part of “Amber Waves” was anything other than how The Americans has played out Paige’s story. As much as I wanted to see Spy Paige, I really never thought the show could convincingly pull off the transformation of this determined, do-gooder teen into a covert operative. But The Americans is nothing if not patient; bit by bit, it has proved me wrong. That brief, tense scene between Keri Russell and Holly Taylor in the Jennings’ garage was the premiere’s best.
For a couple of seasons now, The Americans has been ramping up its focus on the goings-on in Philip and Elizabeth’s home country — to the extent that for a minute toward the end of last season, I found myself seriously wondering if the show might take the extraordinary measure of relocating to the Soviet Union. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see this premiere devote so much screen time and narrative energy to happenings on the other side of the world. I’m confident the series is going to satisfactorily pull together the plot lines in America and the Soviet Union as season five moves forward, through both Mischa’s journey and Oleg’s.
Setting aside the radness of Paige’s fight, I actually found Oleg’s storyline to be among this episode’s most compelling elements. His reluctant re-entry into the Soviet Union to be with his family was established at the end of last season, but seeing it play out, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more behind Oleg’s fate than showing what happens when someone who’s embraced so much of Western culture is brought back to the Soviet fold.
Oleg’s conversation with his new supervisor, about weeding out corruption in the food-trade department, has some curious undertones — like the Colonel’s insistence that Oleg affirm his commitment to the KGB — and Stan’s reaction to news of Oleg’s departure was pretty inscrutable. I’m not going so far as to suggest Oleg has turned double-agent offscreen, but Nina’s death is still fresh in his mind, and quite possibly informing whatever the hell he’s doing right now. Or he could just be serving as a Soviet Union mirror to the themes playing out Stateside. Either way, I suspect Oleg is going to be a narrative crux as The Americans’ scope continues to expand beyond the Virginia suburbs.
The Americans always starts its seasons in media res — I don’t think there’s been a premiere where I don’t ask about at least one character, “Wait, am I supposed to know who that is?” (Mild prosopagnosia adds an extra frisson to a show in which the art of disguise plays a key role.) Even by those standards, though, “Amber Waves” was audacious. Season five might be The Americans’ best shot at a breakout season, but it gives no quarter to newcomers or casual fans. “Good! You’re here!” it barks. “Now keep up!”
The Americans has always been a story about a family. But in “Amber Waves,” that narrative is complicated by shadows of second families and secret relatives.
Philip’s Russian son makes his way to the United States. Stan relishes his role as the neighborhood dad — including a close relationship with Paige. The most dramatic echo of family life is the Jennings’ new mission: Philip and Elizabeth are posing as another married-with-children American couple. Their child, like Paige, knows their secret. The difference, of course, is that this kid is a real spy.
I could write a paper on the nuances of Philip and Elizabeth’s dinner-table conversation with the Russian immigrant couple. But I suspect we’ll have ample opportunities to deconstruct that relationship in the future.
So I’ll close by saying that their “son” has maybe the most thankless task of the Cold War — pose as a high school student so that your “parents” are eventually invited over for dinner — and if FX is moved to produce a spinoff on his journey, I am very, very here for it.
The first time I watched this episode, I was pretty fixated on the damn hole — despite what Todd has long said about Americans premieres and their season-foreshadowing sequences, at basically 10 minutes long, this one initially left me antsy as to what “Amber Waves” was setting us up for in the episodes to come. (Also: RIP, Hans.)
But on a second viewing I was able to settle in and enjoy many of the premiere’s more expository moments.
I actually really liked the dinner scene where Philip and Elizabeth — in character as their new pilot and flight attendant alter egos — spent some time with their new marks. It’s fun to see Elizabeth play outgoing, more unzipped types, and when she was talking to Pasha’s mom in the kitchen, I couldn’t help but think back to her delightful (if ultimately devastating) friendship with Young Hee, the Mary Kay consultant from last season. Knowing that Elizabeth has always been a bit more defensive and reactionary than Philip regarding their ideology, I’m looking forward to seeing her try to keep her cool as Pasha’s dad, Alexei, inevitably continues to rail against the motherland.
Meanwhile, something in the way Tuan talked about Pasha and his family set me on edge. Tuan’s default state seems much angrier than that of almost any other Soviet spy we’ve met on The Americans. The way he first described Alexei as “a real piece of shit,” while practically accusing Philip and Elizabeth of personally playing a role in Alexei’s defection — “I don’t know how you people let a guy like that get out. You should have put a bullet in his head a long time ago.” — was actually kind of chilling.
It may be early in the season, but there’s already some simmering volatility in play with this storyline that I can only imagine will boil over sooner rather than later.
That volatility is fascinating to see in the early going, to be sure. The Americans often feels as if its characters keep their emotions locked in glass cages in their hearts and only take them out occasionally to look at them and remember a time when they were useful.
But the further into the series we get, the more those emotions are front and center, no matter how much the characters might wish it were otherwise. The building sense of desperation and frustration and rage that’s bubbling up closer and closer to the surface feels as if it might erupt at any moment — something that would be hard to imagine in, say, season two.
Still, it’s not hard to return to that big hole in the ground, and the thought that everybody is digging and digging, to a place they might never return from. The Americans’ default state is often dread, but this was dread mixed with something else: the idea that the road to hell might be paved with all of your hard work.