One of best moments on The Americans last season came in the opening minutes of “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” when Martha (Alison Wright) is being taken to her drop-off point to be sent to the Soviet Union. It’s a stunning, hypnotic scene that is completely wordless until she tells her husband, “Don’t be alone, Clark.”
It sounds — and probably should be — interminably boring, but it’s precisely the type of thing at which The Americans excels. No show produces taut, compelling tension through omission better than the FX drama. And it’s a skill the series deploys — more confidently than ever — in its fifth and penultimate season.
The final act of the Season 5 premiere has Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) just digging a massive hole. The second episode features Elizabeth standing solo in a lab surrounded by insects, and the third episode released to press features a beautiful scene of the pair in their latest cowboy disguises. I won’t say any more — it’s truly one of the most moving sequences the show has ever done.
That naked human intimacy is a testament to showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg’s commitment to crafting this acutely complex portrait of marriage — to each other, to family, to country. Perhaps armed with the knowledge that next year is the show’s last, the stakes in Season 5 feel even higher even as its trademark slow burns decelerate to a purposeful crawl, and the personal and the professional lines blur further.
Philip and Elizabeth’s latest mission is to protect their homeland’s wheat supply, as the U.S. is unleashing poison on the crops it exports the USSR. The Soviets are losing the Cold War and Philip’s losing his faith again. “Why can’t we grow enough wheat to feed our country?” he asks his wife at one point. They loop Paige (Holly Taylor) in on it, but their primary concern about their daughter is her blossoming relationship with Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) son Matthew (Danny Flaherty). They have “the talk” with her, and as you can imagine, the advice that they dispense is a lot different than what you or I may have gotten from our parents — but ultimately deeply moving and universal nonetheless.
It’s hard to dismiss the real-world impact that has likely contributed to the heightened feel of the show. Weisberg and Fields have repeatedly said they try not to let our latest, uh, ties to Russia infect the creative process of their Cold War-set series, but they know the current state of affairs might make fans watch it through a new lens.
“It doesn’t affect our writing of the show or our process with respect to creating the show, but we’re more and more aware that it’s going to affect the viewers’ experience watching the show,” Weisberg told reporters on a conference call. “And that’s OK because the themes are relevant and if the specific expression of the theme is getting more relevant today, that’s fine by us. We’d prefer for the world that things be less conflicted. And maybe by the time we get to the actual series finale we can have come full circle.”
Weisberg and Fields came up with ending to the show in Season 2 and the idea “has stuck,” Weisberg said. Season 5 is the calculating, precise beginning to that end that’s also bound to say so much by saying so little.
Season 5 of The Americans premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on FX.