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The Americans’ final season premiere is a masterful exercise in tension-building

“Dead Hand” sets up so many great conflicts for the series’ last 10 episodes.

The Americans
Oleg and Philip, together at last!
FX

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 “Dead Hand,” the premiere of the final season.

The final season sets up a great conflict for this last stretch of episodes

Todd VanDerWerff: When I got to the scene in “Dead Hand” where The Americans sets up its conflict for its very final season, I all but chuckled evilly. Of course this season would come down to Philip versus Elizabeth. Of course it would.

After the divisive, disappointing fifth season, “Dead Hand” jets forward three years, to 1987, to a world where Philip has mostly been running the travel agency and living a super-cool, super-laid-back life, where Elizabeth has been in the shit for all that time, where Paige is just undertaking her first few missions as a baby spy.

And sure enough if it didn’t make me reevaluate what I thought about season five. I can’t say that I “enjoyed” it, but I now better get the point of pushing the characters to the point of exhaustion, all the better to contrast who Philip was with the man he’s become, who is a line dancing phenomenon. (This sequence reminded me of his impromptu cowboy boot shuffle in the series’ pilot.)

But the major difference here is that where season five felt stretched out so far that it barely registered as the show anymore, “Dead Hand” feels like a rush compared to even the most headlong seasons of The Americans. So much happens in this premiere, and that’s before I mention the opening montage set to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” (I see what you did there, show — right up to the repeated “they come, they come/to build a wall between us/we know they won’t win” lyrical motif.)

And yet the only thing I can think about is that final conflict, with Elizabeth joining up with the communist hardliners and Philip siding with those who believe the Soviet Union needs a massive overhaul to end its corruption and benefit its people. We know which side wins — well, in the short term, at least — but by rooting this incredibly abstract ideological conflict within the Jennings marriage (and leaving Stan Beeman lurking over everybody’s shoulder), the series serves up its themes on a big old platter.

Honestly, this might be the show’s best season premiere? Talk me out of this recency bias, everybody.

The Americans
Philip gets back in the game.
FX

Libby Nelson: I gasped, I yelled at the screen, I am grinning from ear to ear — The Americans, I am so glad you are back!

And back on form. I am simultaneously delighted by the amount of plot “Dead Hand” threw at us and retroactively frustrated with season five. While we were offscreen, a whole lot happened — including Paige acquiring some jaw-droppingly good outfits and all our previously unattached characters pairing off or having kids. There could be a few episodes, at least, in Elizabeth adjusting to life as a solo spy while laying the groundwork for the summit work we see her doing here. So what were we doing for most of last year anyway?

But enough with the grudges. Time for a new start. A new lease on life, like the one Philip so clearly has. I had always assumed the central, final conflict between Philip and Elizabeth would be about defecting; it hadn’t occurred to me that retirement was an option. I’m blown away by the subtle differences between Matthew Rhys’s portrayal of Philip in the first hour of the episode versus the final moments. I’d chalked it up to some kind of physical change on Rhys’s part (a different haircut? some dye? a slimmer waistline?) until the end, when the younger, happier, all-American Philip vanished and was replaced by the Philip we’ve always known — furrowed brow, weight of the world on his shoulders.

Genevieve Koski: I may not be the person to talk you out of recency bias, Todd, given that I’m on record as enjoying the fifth season more than a lot of Americans viewers, but I am totally on board with your perception of this episode as a stellar premiere.

As someone who’s been writing about this show on and off since the series premiere (hi, Todd!), I was tickled by all the ways this premiere called back to the show’s very earliest days. Todd already mentioned the evolution of Philip’s interest in line dancing (he finally got those boots he was coveting!), but we also saw the return of Henry’s passion for hockey (if not Henry himself, unless that was really Keidrich Sellati under that helmet), and got another great montage of good old-fashioned spycraft set to a Fleetwood Mac song, this time “Gold Dust Woman.” (The pilot used “Tusk,” famously.)

And more generally speaking, this premiere felt like a culmination of so many of the threads that have been running through the show, from Philip’s weakness for capitalist comforts to Elizabeth’s extreme mama-bear tendencies, which may have hit an apex with her casual neck-stabbing of the naval security guard who flirted inadvisably with an undercover Paige. (That said, holding her fake student ID hostage for a date was a seriously dick move.)

But the most impressive aspect of this premiere to me may be how it subtly reshuffles some of its character dynamics to set up the central conflict that is going to drive this series home. I loved Oleg’s reincorporation into the main action, drawing him out of relative comfort under the threat of harm to him and his family so he can track down Philip to do the same to him. And while the scene of Elizabeth eavesdropping on Stan’s and Aderholt’s significant others commiserating felt a tad stilted, it did provide a glimpse of how Stan’s FBI work might prove to be a bomb that hasn’t been entirely neutralized.

And don’t even get me started on Paige watching Russian television with her mom and Claudia (and presumably working on her Russian in the process). I will never not be a sucker for Paige Learns to Spy stories, and this season is already overdelivering in that regard. And hey, welcome to the main credits, Margo Martindale! It’s about time.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in Different Lives

Caroline Framke: The Paige of It All definitely gives this episode an extra layer of urgency — not that it needed it.

I totally agree that this premiere feels like a necessary, purposeful shock to the system after the slow descent that was season five (in hindsight, that extra-long digging montage from the fifth season premiere really was foreshadowing the entire season, huh?). The stark contrasts between Elizabeth and Philip’s lives are perfectly jarring, from Elizabeth’s sullen solitude in the field to Philip’s gregarious life as a crackerjack travel agency owner, proud parent who never misses a hockey game, and line dancing enthusiast.

The Americans
Elizabeth is pretending to like the food at Stan’s.
FX

The brilliant thing about that opening montage is that Elizabeth and Philip’s lives set to “Don’t Dream It’s Over” read radically different, with Elizabeth hunching lower and lower as she grits her teeth and bears it while Philip truly comes into his own.

So, yes: Of course it was going to end up with the two turning on each other. For Elizabeth, that means resenting Philip for getting to live a real life and not understanding why she can’t; now Philip may be spying on her, just like old times.

It also felt really striking — and inevitable — to me that the two opposing approaches to Soviet patriotism that we get in this premiere split just about evenly down gender lines. On the one side, there’s Arkady(!) and Oleg trying to appeal to Philip’s shades of moral gray in order to keep total devastation at bay. On the other, there’s Elizabeth and Claudia mentoring Paige and staying the course no matter the cost. I’m fascinated to see where that dynamic goes next.

Todd: It’s also reminiscent of the show’s approach to antihero stories, which have always flipped the typical gender script, where the guy is the one willing to do the dark things and the woman is always looking away. Here, the horrible things he had to do weighed so heavily on Philip that Elizabeth encouraged him to step away, while she’s still right in the thick of it.

So it sort of makes sense that she (and the show’s other women) would end up on the side of communist hardliners — to the degree that she now has a deadly poison pill she can take, should she need to be willing to die for her cause — while Philip and the show’s other guys would end up being more open to the slow evolution of the cause. Philip has gotten just enough distance to see that he was right about the moral rot the job caused within himself; Elizabeth has far too much invested at this point to see her country attempt an awkward pivot from the way things always were.

For as much as I’ve liked the show’s choice to set certain storylines in the Soviet Union over the past few seasons, it also feels appropriate to bring Oleg back into the fold via sending him to DC, even if this makes it seem all the more unlikely that we’ll ever see Gabriel, Arkady, or (gasp!) Martha again.

Season six gains strength from condensing its ensemble to one city

The Americans
Good ol’ Mustache Phil.
FX

Todd: One of the things that bedeviled season five was how many characters the series cycled through in season four, writing out Nina and Martha and Arkady and Gaad, without really building up new characters to take their place. (I like Aderholt in general, but he doesn’t have the rich history of these folks.)

When you added in the fact that Oleg was essentially all by himself over in Moscow, the show quickly ran out of characters for the main two to bounce off, which made it feel much, much smaller than a series that spans two hemispheres really should.

Bringing Oleg to DC doesn’t immediately solve this problem, but it does give us the opportunity for him to visit with Philip (a character he’s barely been aware of in the past) about the changes happening in the USSR, and we can only assume that he’ll also bump into Stan again at some point. Those two have plenty of unfinished business to discuss.

Indeed, if there’s one thing that I’m glad season five gave the show, it’s a whole bunch of dangling shoes, just waiting to drop. We still somehow don’t know what’s up with Laurie Holden’s Renee, for instance (though I love how the show continues to let the audience use every bit of spy knowledge it’s picked up over the years to try to dissect her true allegiances), and we don’t yet have a sense of how Philip and Elizabeth’s decision to stay for just one more mission has become this open-ended stay that has slowly eroded their trust in each other.

Before we go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the greatness of Keri Russell in this episode, especially in the scenes with the slowly dying artist, whose work — gigantic voids, absent of color, which seem to swallow you up the more you look at them, painted by Brooklyn artist Alyssa Monks — does that thing where it pings something deep and fundamental to Elizabeth’s soul that she doesn’t quite want to reckon with, not yet. I have a feeling every episode of this season is going to be an Emmy submission tape for either Russell or Matthew Rhys, and “Dead Hand” is a good start for the former.

So let’s close this one out by circling back to something you mentioned, Genevieve — the way the episode circles back to the pilot in many ways. One of the clunkiest things about that pilot was the final sequence, in which Stan infiltrated the Jennings family’s garage and started poking around because he just knew somehow. But now, this deep in its run, the show has much better established that sometimes, Stan just knows. And for as friendly as he is, that might be the biggest dangling shoe of all. At some point, he’s going to figure this out, and then we’re off to the races.

(Final note: I called this in 2016 and have the Slack transcripts to prove it, but the presence of “Gold Dust Woman” has made me more confident than ever that the final song the show uses will be Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” If you read this and sigh in frustration that I called it, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, do not change the final song. Let me be right, I beg of you.)

(Or, okay, if you want to change the song, fine, but have Matthew Rhys tug three times on his right ear in the series finale to let me know I was right.)

Caroline: This episode had so many fun music cues! I’m not entirely convinced all of them worked — I honestly kept waiting for the action to better match “Gold Dust Woman” — but I will never not grin my face off when I hear the drumbeats of a familiar song. I’m not a machine.

Anyway, I have faith that Stan will serve a greater purpose this season because he kinda has to. Like Todd said, he and Aderholt (and possibly hockey star Henry?) are our only ties to the American side of the conflict at the moment — and of them all, Henry arguably had last season’s most consequential arc.

But if there’s one shoe I’m excited to see drop, it’s the one hanging over Paige’s commitment to the cause and her idealism. She’s so convinced that she and her mother are fighting not just the good fight, but a clean one, and the moment she realizes otherwise will be devastating.

Elizabeth knew the second that Paige said that officer had her ID that he couldn’t get away with it for long, but she shielded Paige from it to keep her daughter’s tenuous spot in the spy program — and her belief that it’s worthwhile — safe.

But it’s been three years, and Paige is smart. It’s only a matter of time before she gets in over her head without Elizabeth there to bail her out, and it’s going to be fascinating to see which parent she takes after in a moment of true crisis. So far, she’s been in line with Elizabeth, but I have a feeling that when push comes to literal shove with a stealth blade, she might see Philip’s more conflicted side of things.

Libby: I’m excited about the spy-versus-spy conflict we’ve long known was coming between our favorite couple. But by the end of the episode, when Elizabeth didn’t mention she’d stabbed a man in the neck for Paige’s sake, I spotted an even deeper conflict: Does Philip know just how far into the spy game his daughter is? Does he even know his daughter is watching Russian soap operas with Claudia and lurking, half-disguised, in a dodgy neighborhood near the Naval Observatory? (Well, supposedly dodgy; as the only DC resident in our discussion, I must air this complaint: One thing The Americans never quite gets right is the geography and feel of unofficial Washington.) Nuclear disarmament is one thing; this might be the betrayal that Philip can’t forgive.

Which brings us to Stan, who we now know is a Robert Bork apologist — if he’s going to learn the truth about Philip and Elizabeth, it will be in the next nine episodes. (Incidentally, I interpreted the conversation Elizabeth overheard differently; it read to me as another signal that there’s something awfully, well, persistent about how hard Renee digs for details about the FBI’s work.)

It’s a mark of how intricately woven the world of The Americans has become, and how much I’ve come to care about these characters, that the big reveal no longer seems like the most important development yet to come.