The Americans – Season 5

The Americans – Season 5

In its Penultimate Season, TV’s Revered Spy Drama Leans Heavy on the Latter, Plays Hard to Get With the Former


The Americans can’t end well. That’s basically the only thing I can guarantee about what’s coming in the show’s sixth and final season that’s set to air next year, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess as to what, exactly, is going to happen in the end. This is due not so much to the show’s inherent unpredictability as the strangely inert, meandering collection of episodes that made up its recently concluded fifth season. It unfolded like a drawn-out inhalation, building up an expectation in its audience that the final episode or two would see a billowing exhale that would snuff out the slow burning flames of this season. And then, it just sorta… ended, mid-breath, leaving the candles to burn for at least another nine months.

To clarify, Season 5 of The Americans wasn’t bad, by any means, but it did seem to almost push against what a show’s second-last season should be. Where other shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men used their penultimate seasons to push their characters to make extreme, life-altering choices to set up the whirlwind events for their final seasons, The Americans seems more concerned with deepening its core players than thickening its plot. Hence, this year’s episodes played out as a mostly uneventful and contemplative slab of narrative that, I imagine, will serve to make the eventual descent into chaos next year all the more potent. That’s an interesting idea to craft a season around, but not knowing where it’s all leading sometimes made it a less than compelling watch.

In case you’re not familiar with it (which seems likely, because no one watches this show), The Americans is an intricate, restrained and yet deeply-felt espionage drama, in which Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (real-life couple/greatest actors on television, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) infiltrate 1980s America in the midst of the Cold War. As covers for their real identities, they start a travel agency, have two kids and pretend to be a normal American family. On the sly, they conduct missions and extract information of use to their government in the ongoing feud between their two countries. Also, they live across the road from the world’s worst FBI Agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), but it’s not as hokey as that sounds.

Seriously, though, he’s super bad at this. (FX)

The first few seasons of The Americans established a tensely-plotted and incredibly well-acted show, with a killer soundtrack and aesthetic to solidify its setting. As it continued, however, the themes of family and allegiance crept in, while the action sequences and high-wire espionage started to take a backseat to more intimate moments. Remarkably, it not only worked with the show’s general vibe but actually improved it in the long run. When the Jennings’ daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) finds out the truth about her parents in Season 3, it’s true that there’s an element of suspense as to whether this will be their undoing. But, beyond that, watching how she deals with this information is a great metaphor for the realisations kids have about their parents as they get older. They’re not the people you think they are; hell, you might not even really know them at all.

Suffice it to say, even though things slowed down a little for the Jennings’ spycraft, there was still a lot going on with all of the characters week to week. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in this latest season. For example, Stan spends a good deal of these episodes with his new girlfriend, Renee (Laurie Holden), who Philip suspects has been sent by the Russians to keep tabs on Stan. Has she? Thirteen episodes in, we still don’t know, and it’s less intriguing at this point than frustratingly ambiguous. Also, Stan’s attempts to “turn” someone with access to pertinent Soviet intel takes up a lot of screentime and, so far, has yielded nothing. Is this an accurate portrayal of the real-life drudgery of working for the FBI? No doubt. Is it fun to watch? Some doubt.

Meanwhile, back in the Motherland, Russia’s counterpart to Stan, Oleg (Costa Ronin), is investigating corruption and malfeasance within the government. It’s a decent storyline, one that reflects the disillusionment the character’s are all starting to feel this late in the game, and Ronin is one hell of a good actor, sympathetic and capable in all the right ways. But it doesn’t add a whole bunch to the show as a whole, beyond confirming that the country Philip and Elizabeth regularly risk their lives for may be irreparably broken.

Oleg’s better at his job, but he’s in Russia, sooo… it all sorta evens out. (FX)

This is the unavoidable drawback of The Americans‘ unique approach to plotting. It’s the sort of show that’s often willing to allow its storylines to peter out and never reach a proper conclusion, or pull the most sudden of left turns at the drop of a hat. Its admirably true to life, and fits with the general precariousness every character on the show is experiencing. But it can lead to a frustrating lack of fulfillment, a sensation that nothing is adding up and that we’re actively witnessing a series of random events that have no coherent link between them.

When it works though, it’s better than any other show at pulling off this singular trick. In fact, perhaps the storyline that best represents The Americans as a whole is the one this season involving Philip’s Russian-born son, Mischa, whom he has never met. Learning that his father works in the United States, Mischa spends weeks travelling from Russia through the Baltics to finally arrive in the U.S., which in the ’80s was no mean feat. However, despite somehow managing to get into contact with one of Philip’s KGB handlers, at the last minute Mischa is prevented from meeting with his father, in a heartbreaking scene where it’s explained to him that it would be too dangerous for the both of them. In any other case, you’d call this cheap and anticlimactic, but The Americans hits that sweet spot where not allowing something to happen is more effective than following through. It pairs all of the show’s greatest elements into one moment: despair, duty, last second changes and, above all, the need to know one’s family.

With stunning moment like this and considering the show’s overall success rate, it’s hard to feel actively disappointed with The Americans. Even at its worst, it’s still of superior quality to most other programs, with such considered storytelling and honest to God breathtaking performances. Truthfully, I’m confident its final season will be a masterpiece and bring together all of the disparate threads that the show’s been toying with for the past few years. And, of course, it always manages to evoke that signature sensation of unease and impending doom that has been its hallmark since the beginning. It’s almost certainly gonna be a great conclusion, but that doesn’t change that one simple fact: this cannot end well.

2 Replies to “The Americans – Season 5

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *