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The Americans season 5 finale: “The Soviet Division” leaves us arguing over the point of this next-to-last season

Was building an entire season of TV around the main characters’ exhaustion a good idea? Ask us in 2018.

The Americans
The family that spars together stays together.

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 finale, “The Soviet Division.”

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

Todd VanDerWerff: I had two thoughts upon finishing “The Soviet Division”: “Oh, I get what they were going for now!” and “That was it?!”

To be sure, that second thought only flitted through my brain for a couple of seconds, before I started thinking through the implications of an utterly gutted Philip being forced to stay in the US to handle One Last Job (which, if you’re familiar with stories about “One Last Job,” they rarely turn out well), and Elizabeth doing her best to hold everything else together. And “The Soviet Division” was such an engrossing finale overall — sort of the opposite of season four’s less immediately gripping “Persona Non Grata” — that I let it slide all the same.

Still, when I talked to showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields (for an interview running Wednesday morning), they indicated to me that this season was less buildup for The Americans final 10 episodes than I had expected. Indeed, they had meant for it to mostly be a standalone season.

Viewed in that light, season five still can’t quite compete with the last three, but it starts to gain more shape as a story of two people who shouldn’t be doing this job anymore but don’t really see any escape routes. Even the idea of returning to the Soviet Union rings hollow. We know the country is about to collapse, and Philip and Elizabeth’s belief that Paige and especially Henry would eventually adjust seems ... optimistic to me. (Besides, aren’t both kids US citizens, having been born here? I’m sure being the children of Soviet spies would complicate an eventual return to America, but you’d have to think they’d have certain allegiances to the only country they’ve known.)

Thus, “The Soviet Division” balances, surprisingly nimbly, season five wrap-up with a handful of setup moments for season six, perhaps none more ominous than Renée suggesting that maybe Stan should just stick around at the FBI after all. What did you all think of this as a capstone to the season?

Genevieve Koski: “Satisfying” is not the word I would use to describe “The Soviet Division,” that’s for sure. But it is intriguing, which is maybe more appropriate for a show that loves to keep threads dangling (ahem, Kimmy), the better to pick them back up once we’ve let down our guard.

But — speaking of threads getting picked back up! — this finale did strike one roundly satisfying note, in the form of Martha being presented with the option of adopting a Russian orphan. Given that her misbegotten desire for a child with Clark was one of the falling dominoes that ultimately led to her current predicament, it’s a nice suggestion of a future bright spot in her current dreary situation, even if it does have the whiff of manipulation about it.

The idea of a Russian child being what allows Martha to finally feel at home in the Soviet Union also provides a funhouse-mirror version of the “what if” scenario Philip and Elizabeth are pondering in bringing their American children home with them, as well as the horrifying predicament the Morozov family finds itself in following Pasha’s suicide attempt. To put it in Pastor Tim lingo, all of these children are, in some way or another, staring down the “challenges that will shape them,” challenges bestowed upon them by their parents.

Given all that, there’s a stinging irony to Elizabeth’s suggestion to Tuan — in some ways, her adopted child — that he needs to “have them send you someone.” She insists to him that without a partner in the field, and presumably in life as well, his work will be harder and he will fail. But having a partner, and children with that partner, has become a bigger and bigger complicating factor in Elizabeth’s work, to the point where it’s left her and Philip with no good options for themselves or their children. Tuan seems to take her advice seriously — but should he?

Todd: BTW, that orphan Martha might adopt is the most adorable child ever, which overrode my initial, “Oh, come on!” objections to the story.

The Americans
This is the pleasant face Elizabeth offers before destroying us for our doubts.

Caroline Framke: Whoever orchestrated this opportunity for Martha knew exactly what they were doing when they tied that kid’s pigtails with ribbons. They knew.

That being said, I truly wanted to come away from the season finale with a reaction other than “Oh, come on” ... and I just couldn’t do it. This is the endgame this stuttering season has been building toward all along?! I unfortunately think I might’ve been more willing to give it some slack if you hadn’t mentioned that The Americans’ producers viewed season five as a (mostly) standalone season, Todd, because I’m truly confused by that.

Season five spent more time looking ahead to its final act than tracking its week-to-week conflicts, making it that much harder to care about them. I can understand if this season was purposely scattered to send the Jennings family in a dozen directions and wear them out for the last stretch. And I do genuinely admire — and always have — that The Americans finds drama and pathos in even the seemingly smallest of conversations. But when considering this season on its own contained merits, I can’t say I’ll remember much of anything specific about season five so much as the ripple effects it will undoubtedly have in season six.

Okay wait, I lied, I’ll remember one thing: Paige becoming an unlikely steel trap of nerves. Not only can she take a punch without blinking much at all (a fact that, unsurprisingly, unnerved Philip more than it did Elizabeth), but she’s also shown a knack for sneaking around on her own. That moment where she snuck off to a parked car in some godforsaken parking lot was more intriguing than the entire rest of the episode put together, and I’m not even sure it meant anything at all.

Jen Trolio: Caroline, I had that exact suspicious response when Paige got into the car — my very first assumption was that she was somehow going rogue and that she wasn’t going to come home. Or wait, that’s not quite true; my first assumption, given that we’d recently witnessed Paige’s mini training montage (which I loved so much, by the way), was that she was going to get jumped in that parking lot in a repeat of the incident from last season where Elizabeth killed a man in front of her, and we were going to see her put her new fighting skills to use. It looked to me like Paige was in the same place where that very scene unfolded, back before she knew what Elizabeth, not to mention she herself, was capable of.

But after watching again, I think she was simply headed home from her evening at the church/food pantry with Pastor Tim — less exciting, though another indicator of how The Americans has us all amped up waiting for something bigger to happen. And that’s generally how I felt when watching “The Soviet Division”: Ah, okay, here’s where things start picking up. But then they didn’t, really.

Essentially, I too walked away from the finale thinking it was all a table setter for season six, which indeed makes it especially confusing to hear that season five was supposed to operate on kind of a standalone basis. I almost wonder if, in “training” us to watch The Americans in a certain way for so long, the show’s creative team undercut themselves a bit, and closed off the opportunity to try any different approaches. Maybe they wanted season five to be slower and more standalone, and every week they’ve got us asking when something’s going to happen.

At any rate, I think this episode is going to function as something of a table setter no matter its intentions. I keep going back to something Stan said when he was talking to Renée about possibly quitting the FBI: “It just feels shitty. I’m tired of feeling shitty.” That line feels like something of a mission statement for a lot of characters on The Americans right now. And I think the sentiment behind it is definitely going to play into however the show wraps things up in season six.

The Americans
Spy or not a spy? You make the call!

Genevieve: I’m fascinated that both of you picked out that shot of Paige in the parking lot as a setup for some big action that never arrived, when I thought it was clearly included for thematic/summarization purposes, not narrative ones. It occurred within a musical montage, something The Americans uses more to underscore its Big Narrative Themes than to introduce action (though it sometimes does the latter as well), and to me, that’s clearly what this one — set to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” — was angling for.

As the Elton John song plays, we watch Stan bid farewell to racquetball buddy Philip and embrace his new partner, Renée, whom Philip still regards with suspicion; we see Elizabeth pondering the well-stocked closet and cushy American home she’s now realizing, as she considers leaving it behind, she’s become surprisingly accustomed to; and we see Paige leaving church to walk through the very parking lot she and her mother were accosted in — after taking a moment to brace herself, she walks to her car and drives away, brushing aside the trauma of that earlier event with the steely reserve her mother has instilled in her through training.

Basically, the “Goodbye Yellow Brick” road montage functions exactly as I’d want a season-concluding Americans montage to function, showing us how our primary characters have developed this season, and subtly indicating what challenges still lie ahead.

In case you can’t tell, I loved that montage — as I almost always love The Americans’ musical montages — but it highlights something that I did find the show somewhat lacking in this season: memorable musical moments. Aside from this one and the use of Bauhaus’s “Slice of Life” in “Darkroom,” I’m hard-pressed to remember any great music cues from this season, and I wonder if that may be contributing to the sense that this season felt just a little “off” by The Americans’ (admittedly high) standards.

Caroline: I also really liked that “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” sequence! So much so that I can admit I was probably looking for more significance in Paige’s shuffling walk than was maybe there — but like Jen said, that’s kind of been my experience with this entire season, after all.

While I’m at it, though, I might as well talk a little about the big development that did happen in this episode. Philip overhearing on the tapes he routinely swipes from Kimmy’s house that her father is now going to head up the CIA’s Soviet Division (hence the episode title) is a huge revelation, and one that reverses the Jenningses’ plans in a second flat once Philip tells Elizabeth about it. And yet I still couldn’t bring myself to react to it like the eleventh-hour twist it’s supposed to be. After all of Philip and Elizabeth’s agonizing, after all their back and forth with the Centre on whether or not going back to Moscow would be the right call, this single moment upending everything felt anticlimactic.

But that’s The Americans for us, isn’t it? A single twist of fate in even the seemingly quietest of moments can shatter plans, deal death, cast everything in a whole new light. Season five doubled down on that idea hard, squeezing most of its drama out of whispered conversations and furtive glances rather than the high-stakes action sequences the show has leaned into from time to time in the past. So while I can’t say I enjoyed this season, I do respect where it came from.

The Americans
Spy Paige is our favorite.

Todd: Respecting season five without quite loving it is where I am, too, Caroline, though I think I liked it better on the whole than you did. (I have a tendency to love deliberately isolating seasons of TV, against my better judgment — ask me about the Lost finale sometime, or, better, the Battlestar Galactica finale.) I think the emotional throughline it reached for was perhaps a touch too muted to really carry everything, but it was nonetheless fascinating to watch an entire season of TV about getting sick of being a character in a TV show (very Sopranos-y).

And yet there are a ton of indelible moments in this season all the same. That final confrontation with the Nazi collaborator, say, or the rush to save Pasha’s life, or even something as mundane as Paige taking off her little cross necklace. It feels like this season was full of tiny Rubicons being crossed, even if no one in the world of The Americans quite realizes what they’ve done just yet.

So for as much as Weisberg and Fields say that this season should, in some way, stand on its own, I still think it will stand out as something quite different when viewed via the prism of the whole picture. I’m confident we’ve just witnessed the last time when everyone on the show could still change things. Now, with the decision to stay in the US, Philip and Elizabeth have made their bed, and they’re going to lie in it. At least they’ll be lying (in all senses of the word) together.

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