Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

Is The Americans a Good Show, or a Great One? The Next 2 Weeks Will Settle the Question

I’m anxious about The Americans. It’s impossible not to be. There are only two episodes of this slow-burning 1980s-set espionage drama left, and it’s possible that a finale has never mattered more. That’s because for all of its critical accolades, The Americans, in its sixth season, remains niche entertainment. Why? It has a prickly, sometimes glacial pace, a drab normcore palette (brown on brown on brown), and the complex cloak-and-dagger plotting serves mostly to map the emotional trip wires of marriage and family. Don’t get me wrong: This is a remarkable drama with landmark performances from Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. The way showrunners Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields have deepened the stakes around Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, deep-cover Soviet agents in suburban Washington, D.C., season after season, has made loyalists of many of us. But is The Americans great? Seventy-three episodes in, I’m not sure—and can’t shake the feeling that the show still has something to prove.

This is not the way high-profile finales typically work. The last episodes of Breaking Bad had us by the throat because that show had long ago become blue-chip entertainment. Ditto Friday Night Lights. Ditto The Sopranos. Ditto Mad Men—which never put up impressive ratings but achieved consensus status nonetheless.

The Americans is in a similar boat: unimpressive ratings but consensus status. Or almost. If it’s not all the way there, that’s because the show has never rewarded enthusiasm. Many of the episodes—particularly these past two seasons—have taken perverse pleasure in withholding, in silence and misdirection. The Americans can be subtle to the point of stasis, and it can be shockingly violent.

No more so than in these past weeks. I have watched with something close to horror as Russell’s Elizabeth has become an automaton, a mix of humanity and sociopathic menace. Her killing spree this season is astonishing—as is her two-seasons-long cultivation of her daughter, Paige, as a Soviet spy. She’s guaranteeing Paige a life of violence and tragedy—and yet she remains an incandescent heroine: steely, hyper-confident, glamorous.

Meanwhile, Philip is a black hole of ambivalence. The tragedy of watching him try to extract himself from his Soviet minders, connect with his oblivious son, and try to find his moral core is the most affecting part of the show. Rhys has an incredible variety of hangdog expressions. He’s an encyclopedia of misery and stymied hope.

What happens to these two matters. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling both a need for them to be okay and a need for them to pay for what they’ve done. There’s a reason an Americans death pool is circulating on the Internet. I don’t see how both of them can survive, or escape justice (and Elizabeth is wearing that cyanide pill around her neck). Certainly, the Jennings as a family cannot remain remotely intact.

So we need a tragic ending. It’s what the show has been building to. But will The Americans deliver one? Will it actually punish the characters we’ve come to love? If it pulls its punches and manufactures some quasi-happy resolution for Elizabeth and Philip on May 30—a retirement dacha in the Urals, perhaps—I fear the show will be forgotten, discarded, a curiosity that had its moments but never amounted to anything. But if something awful happens, if the sky-high stakes pay off, this show will be legend.


Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans recap: Elizabeth finds out The Center has been lying

“You lied to me for months because of Gorbachev?”

Any argument that contains this sentence is not one that’s going to be resolved easily. With only two more episodes after this before The Americans complete their mission once and for all, Philip has decided to come clean to Elizabeth. He confesses that he has been leaking information about her activities to Oleg Burov — some guy from back home who says The Center is trying to undermine the U.S.S.R. leadership.

She absorbs this with a lot of heavy silence.

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him you’re the most dedicated, loyal person ever to serve the organization. I told him about the sensor. I told him you were looking into one of our negotiators that you thought was a traitor.”

Continue reading The Americans recap: Elizabeth finds out The Center has been lying

Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans recap: A rescue mission ends in a bloody mess

After weeks of tension, it’s now even more grueling that Philip and Elizabeth are back on the same side. “Harvest” may be one of the most tense episodes of the entire series, and with only a handful left, it sets the stage for a truly dark finale.

Philip has pledged to join Elizabeth and her accomplice Marilyn in Chicago, where they are seeking to extricate a fellow undercover Russian who has been detected and is under constant surveillance by the FBI under their operation codename “Harvest.”

But the job is overwhelming, and they can’t do it with just the two of them. They don’t think they’ll save their target. They’re not even sure they’ll survive themselves.

So Philip volunteers to rejoin the cause and help. The episode begins with him asking Stan to look after Henry until the boy returns to school when Thanksgiving Break ends.
Continue reading The Americans recap: A rescue mission ends in a bloody mess

Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans recap: Rififi

The world is collapsing around Philip and Elizabeth and they are too busy warring with each other to even realize it. The deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Teacup has ignited a counter-espionage wildfire in the FBI, and they’ve connected more dots than ever before about the covert Soviet operation in the United States.

Philip and Elizabeth are tearing their relationship apart just when they need each other the most.

We begin with Philip dropping a heaping helping of judgment on Elizabeth. “Stan came by. He was very upset about the couple murdered right in front of their 7-year-old kid.”

“I didn’t do it in front of their kid. He was in another room. I didn’t see him,” Elizabeth shoots back.

“He saw them. Covered in blood.”

“What do you want me to say?” Continue reading The Americans recap: Rififi

Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans recap: The Great Patriotic War

We’re close to the halfway mark on the final season of The Americans, and the title of this episode gives you some idea where we’re heading: “The Great Patriotic War.”

As Paige learns during her Russian Immersion Training from her mother and fairy spymother Claudia, this is what Soviets call World War II, where they lost (by Claudia’s estimate) 27 million people to the Americans’ 400,000.

There has always been a body count on this show, but it’s usually strangers who meet untimely ends. Chances are, we’re going to start losing people we know very soon.

That brings us to Sofia and Gennadi, the Russian defectors nicknamed Mr. and Mrs. Teacup by the FBI. Stan helped recruit and manage them, but now their cover has been blown and they are in protective custody.

This humiliation cannot be allowed, so The Center has dispatched Elizabeth and her team to eliminate Mr. and Mrs. Teacup. We open with them using Stan as the trail of breadcrumbs that will lead to them. Continue reading The Americans recap: The Great Patriotic War

Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans: Philip and Elizabeth are living in very different final seasons

Elizabeth Jennings keeps killing. Halfway through The Americans‘ final season, the Soviet spy played by Keri Russell has shot, strangled, or stabbed six people. That’s 1.2 murders per episode.

Well, “murders.” She could plead self-defense in one case: Attacked by traitorous General Renhull (Victor Slezak), she shot him with his own gun in his own hands. That blast face painted her with chunky blood, boiled skull, and ambient cortex, so she looked like Bill Paxton at the end of Near Dark.

It’s not always so messy. Last week, Elizabeth earned a 100% stealth rating by Solid Snaking her way through a darkened warehouse. She popped the lightbulbs with her silenced pistol, and then she popped three security guards. That scene was thrilling, but death can be funny on The Americans, too. In the third episode, Elizabeth staged the old “Security Audit” ruse, inviting a guy from the warehouse to a hotel room. The rube explained all the ways a savvy operator could sneak past the guards — and then blathered on about his gal pal, who worked in security. With a weary my-day-just-got-longer sigh, Elizabeth thanked him for his service — then grabbed his neck, and pressed Triangle for Skull. Continue reading The Americans: Philip and Elizabeth are living in very different final seasons

Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans recap: Mr. and Mrs. Teacup

“We can make peace with them. Now…is maybe the best chance we’ll ever get. That’s why I’m here.”

This is Oleg and Stan….I mean, Philip (God, I’m so used to writing about the other pairing) standing on the steps of a park at night. Philip is considering the idea of spying on his own wife, but first he needs some answers from the man asking him to do that.

“I don’t really understand what’s going on.”

“The people running The Center, we believe, are actively trying to get rid of Gorbachev,” Oleg tells him. “They can’t stand progress. It’s a threat to them. Our country having any kind of openness or freedom…they think it means we won’t be communists anymore.”

“My wife would never do anything to hurt our country,” Philip answers.

“We know how loyal she is,” Oleg says. “But that loyalty can be used. We have to know what she’s up to.” He tells Philip about Elizabeth trying to secure a radiation sensor. He tells him about the Air Force general who ended up dead. Continue reading The Americans recap: Mr. and Mrs. Teacup

Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans recap: Urban Transport Planning

“There’s trouble back home.”

Elizabeth is talking about Gorbachev and the party leaders working to secretly undermine him, but her warning also applies to the Jennings household. Paige witnessed the violent death of one of Elizabeth’s contacts. Not only does she know her mother has blood on her hands, but she also has it all over her face, clothes, and hair.

Paige makes it back to her family’s house before her mother, and Philip tries to comfort and reassure her. (Almost pathetically, he plies her with some EST self-help techniques.) Then Elizabeth blows through the door like a thunderstorm and rips Paige apart for reacting to the gunshots and running to the scene, rather than waiting in her position.

Nevermind that, one way or another, Paige was going to figure out what happened. Even if she’d stayed put, how was Elizabeth going to explain being covered in an Air Force general’s blood and brains? Continue reading The Americans recap: Urban Transport Planning

Categories Articles & Interviews The Americans

The Americans recap: ‘Tchaikovsky’

Life is still a frozen sea between Philip and Elizabeth. Last week’s season premiere ended with him coming very close to alerting her that elements of the Soviet government want him to begin monitoring her, but her chilly dismissal silenced him.

Now, he watches Elizabeth descend the stairs. He has heeded her advice. They’re still not talking.

Back at FBI headquarters, we see Stan Beeman in his new role. He’s discussing an ongoing sting, and although the name of the target is never mentioned, we can put the clues together (cocaine purchase, city official, alligator shoes) and know he’s talking about disgraced D.C. mayor Marion Barry.

He gets a call from Agent Aderholt to come down to his old office at counter intelligence and have a conversation in the Vault. Two of their past recruits, the courier Gennadi and his wife Sofia, are having troubles. Stan will have to help patch things up. Continue reading The Americans recap: ‘Tchaikovsky’