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Farewell to The Americans, TV’s most (accidentally) relevant show

The best drama series of its era ends as it lived — insisting “US versus USSR” is an elaborate shell game.

The Americans
Just havin’ dinner and bein’ in love.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every time I’ve talked to Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the showrunners of FX’s The Americans, which begins its sixth and final season Wednesday, March 28, they’ve politely begged off confronting questions about US-Russian relations too directly.

They were doing this in the show’s earliest days, when Weisberg was peppered with questions from journalists about whether anybody could really care about the fraught relations between the US and USSR in the 1980s, but it’s become more notable as the series has somewhat unexpectedly become hugely relevant to the geopolitical moment.

The more Americans suspect that Russia meddled in our 2016 election, or at the very least posted a bunch of annoying memes on Facebook, the more Weisberg and Fields have insisted that their show is not about this moment, except in the tangential sense that it helps us better understand how governments use espionage to try to turn global events to their advantage.

But even in that case, The Americans has a higher body count and a higher tally of sexy situations than most spies would encounter in years on the job, simply because it’s a TV show and TV shows leave out the boring parts.

But in watching the first three episodes of the sixth season, I finally got Weisberg and Fields’s reticence, at least a little bit. For as much as the shadow conflict with Russia has pushed the show into a brighter spotlight than it’s ever occupied before, neither man wants the series to stand as a geopolitical statement — not because the series is set 30 years before this moment, but because the series isn’t about geopolitics.

It’s about the way human beings are used up by them.

In season six, The Americans retroactively justifies some of its more curious decisions. Sort of.

The Americans
Paige gets in the game.

If you only half-follow TV critic chatter about The Americans, then you know that many of us saw season five of the show as a mixed bag. There were stunningly good episodes and moments, and the series’ acting was as good as ever, but the writers’ choice to make a season about anticlimax, about the slow buildup of exhaustion that arrives when nothing happens, resulted in a season where, uh, not a lot happened.

Now, The Americans has never been an action-packed series. It’s always been about the ways espionage — and becoming a convert to a cause more generally — twists and warps relationships with other people. Its central marriage is fundamentally a good one because both participants actively work at it, but it’s also always been notable that they represent the same fight, the same cause.

Every other relationship on the show has been built atop some sort of fundamental deception, where the radical honesty of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, forced upon them by their situation, has made them stronger than they might have ever imagined.

But season five seemed to be setting up one conflict — the Jenningses’ desperate attempt to stop a US effort to destroy the Soviet food supply — only to abruptly obliterate it a few episodes in. The US wasn’t trying to starve the Soviets; it was, instead, trying to build its own super crops. Without a central mission to undertake, Philip and Elizabeth (played in gorgeously restrained performances by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) found themselves questioning whether they wanted to do any of this anymore. In the finale, a new status quo was set up: Elizabeth would stay in the game, but Philip, always possessed of a more tortured soul, would mostly step back and keep up the couple’s cover business, a travel agency.

Season six doesn’t quite retroactively justify all of season five’s inaction, but it definitely justifies the choice to focus on Philip and Elizabeth’s exhaustion through a bold move: Over one beautifully paced montage, the series’ timeline jumps forward several years (I won’t spoil how many) to a point where US-USSR relations are thawing. Picture the gut-churning place Philip and Elizabeth found themselves in at the end of season five. Now picture them years later, having had to live in it even longer.

Or, rather, Elizabeth has had to live there. Philip has all but semi-retired, turning the travel agency into a sleek, upscale business that feels as surely doomed by soon-to-occur events as his home nation is. And this subtle separation between them in cause has grown into a canyon in the intervening years, even as their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), has followed in her mother’s spy footsteps, while the FBI agent next door, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), has settled down and switched off of the Soviet task force in favor of more prosaic crimes. The world has changed, and if Philip and Stan live in some newly emerging one, Elizabeth and Paige have yet to join them.

Call it trickle-down perestroika. Even if Philip and Elizabeth are thousands of miles away from Moscow, the reforms pushed by Gorbachev are slowly but surely restructuring their lives, and the lives of those around them. Hardliners lurk everywhere, on both sides of the Cold War, but the characters are all still able to share a warm dinner together, one that seems almost genuine, even with all the buried secrets between them.

For now, at least.

For its final stretch, The Americans hollows out its characters, then sets them on a collision course

The Americans
Philip discovers some troubling things.

Season six of The Americans is but 10 episodes, compared to the 13 of all other seasons, and thus it moves with more urgency than the show ever has before. Much of that urgency will be read into the show by viewers who know these are the last episodes, of course, but Weisberg and Fields have also set the season at a pivotal enough point in history that everything is driving toward one day on the calendar, in a way the show has never quite matched before.

This means that a series that spread all over the globe in recent seasons now feels downright compact, as it finds reasons for the vast majority of its surviving characters to congregate in the greater Washington, DC, metropolitan area. After the long hollowing-out of season five, then, they all feel a little like improvised explosive devices, set on a collision course with each other.

Where radical honesty was the watchword for the first five seasons, now, Philip and Elizabeth are keeping secrets from each other, as surely as they are from Stan or their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati), either of whom could instantly ruin them.

Season six, then, feels like it’s finally homing in on the series’ great theme, which is to say it’s about communication, about the gaps that open up when we don’t tell each other what’s necessary and instead stick to what’s self-serving. The Americans has never argued for a political point of view because its essential point of view has always been a radically humanist one. We are only as good as what we share with each other, or what we do for each other. But codes of nationalism, of conflict between peoples set up by their governments, do everything they can to corrupt this.

This is perhaps why Paige’s interest in Christianity in earlier seasons didn’t feel like a gimmick designed to develop her character. Christianity’s core is the idea that we are as good as we can be to each other, that to treat even those fellow humans we don’t know as we would like to be treated brings us closer to understanding the example of Jesus Christ.

And the Christianity depicted on The Americans was almost always outward-focused, dedicated to making the world more Christlike, not more like any one human or nation or political code. But Pastor Tim, the series’ foremost arbiter of the religion, is long since gone now, and Paige has been drawn into the conflict between US and USSR as surely as anybody else.

If there’s a reason The Americans rests uneasily alongside other antihero dramas in its weight class, maybe this is why. On The Americans, pursuing dark and violent ends only makes you feel darker and more despairing. Family, friendship, kinship — they’re the place you find yourself blossoming, but the world as it exists does everything to obscure this from us, because it thrives on pushback, on battle.

There is a scene in the season six premiere of The Americans that has stuck with me in the months since I’ve seen it, and I’ve been hard-pressed to say why, because it’s unremarkable. It’s just the various characters sitting down to dinner, to conversation and laughter. Maybe it feels like a calm before the storm I know must ensue.

Or maybe it feels like the show in a microcosm: This is what we should care about, not the battle between the US and Russia. We are all human beings, after all, bundles of longing and love and secrets that fester. To forget that is to surrender yourself to the whims of those who want to remove what small parts of you are left, the better to make you an unquestioning warrior.

The Americans debuts Wednesday, March 28, at 10 pm Eastern on FX. Follow Vox’s coverage of the show.

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