The best drama on television continues to ratchet up the tension while pushing purposefully toward the end (and no spoilers here).
One of the great difficulties writing about long-running series with complicated and hard-earned twists and turns is that you can’t go anywhere near them. Nobody likes a spoiler — and far too many people these days think even the smallest detail revealed is a spoiler. The longer a series is on the air — especially one, like FX’s The Americans, that is arguably the best drama on television — the harder it is for a critic to say anything new of substance about it.
And yet, there’s an obligation to write about the best drama on television, because, well, people will want to read it.
You see where we are here.
There won’t be anything that’s an actual spoiler revealed in this review. That would normally only leave the door open to something along the lines of, “Wow, the start of the fifth season is really great — nothing I can tell you about, but, wow, some amazing things happen.”
Which is true, actually. The Americans, through the three episodes of season 5 that FX made available to critics, continues along the same ground it always has: It’s extremely well-constructed, with slow-burning storylines that are paying off in superb dramatic depth; it boasts consistently top-tier acting from stars Keri Russell, Mathew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Holly Taylor and more; it has artfully crafted visuals that emphasize the mundane work of everyday spies while simultaneously revealing things about the characters. It’s all here, plus a very intriguing twist that pops up immediately in the first episode, which I won’t mention again but hope to elaborate on much later when dissecting the growth of this fifth season.
There are elements to talk about that don’t spoil the experience and are germane to the ongoing value of The Americans, but first this quick note about how there’s maybe a better way to do this in the future: Either waiting until four or five episodes have aired, which allows a more detailed discussion about merit for viewers who won’t feel like spoilers are being revealed; or reviewing these later-stage series only if something has changed for the worse (a terrible plot decision; a clearly degraded sense of visuals; bad acting).
Thankfully, none of the latter applies here, but since I’m “reviewing” the show before season five kicks off, a couple of things stand out as worth mentioning (that are not spoilers, so relax).
Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have said that the tensions and stakes will continue to rise as they did in the superb fourth season, and that’s to be expected. A long-running spy story of this quality truly pays off after the seeds of the long game are planted. One of the exceptional achievements of The Americans is that Weisberg and Fields have made the series compelling even though we know that this Cold War-era, ’80s spy story about Russian agents posing as Americans has a real-life ending that the audience already knows: The “evil empire” that Ronald Reagan battled eventually declined, became less of a nuclear worry to antsy Americans and, until relatively recently (more on that coming), the two sides became friendly allies.
None of that diminishes the anxiety of watching Elizabeth (Russell) and Philip (Rhys) complete missions for their country while trying to raise a daughter in Paige (Taylor), whom they outed themselves to and are, essentially, trying to protect and convert at the same time. All the while this frays their already extremely complicated marriage. These have long been the elements Weisberg and Fields have played with in great detail, making The Americans one of the truly exceptional TV dramas of all time.
But while viewers have no idea of the fate that lies ahead for the Jennings family, they do know that the American side “wins.” And the first four seasons have shown the FBI, particularly neighbor and field agent Stan (Emmerich), getting close. The vice is tightening.
Season four ended with all kinds of hell: William (the wonderful Dylan Baker) swallowing the biological sample, the FBI narrowly missing Philip, and handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) suggesting the family consider closing shop and moving to Russia. It’s not a spoiler, given there are 13 episodes this season and 10 in the sixth and final season in 2018, to admit that they don’t flee. That wouldn’t be very dramatic.
But season five isn’t in a holding pattern — though people unfamiliar with the show or simply not paying attention to the pace from the start might suggest so. The Americans truly is a slow-burn series, because the spying (and whatever action comes from it) has always been secondary to the character development (and the Jennings marriage and family). So it looks like we’re going to get more of the Paige conundrum, and we should. It’s an intriguing conceit, a teenage girl finding out her parents are actually Russian spies, and she’s already spilled those beans to her pastor (embracing religion as she did as a kind of rebellion against her godless parents); now she’s slowly falling for the son of the FBI agent across the street. What could possibly go wrong?
That’s a storyline that has a lot more fruit to bear. And this season, The Americans is shifting one of its storylines to Russia as the series follows Oleg (Costa Ronin), who departed Washington and the confines of the Russian Rezidentura and went back home. Following Oleg in Russia adds a new angle, providing a deeper understanding of life in Moscow and a more nuanced take on the impact the spy game has on either homeland.
Also heading (slowly) West: Mischa, Philip’s son. Who knows when he arrives but, yeah, that will complicate a lot of things.
Of course you can’t have a show about Russia and America and not think about the Trump administration and the current controversy it now finds itself in (with ever increasing complications), despite the fact that The Americans itself is focused on 1984. While it certainly is fodder for hot takes and think pieces, you should resist the impulse to examine it too closely. Weisberg and Fields have steadfastly written the show in the spirit and mood of the moment it takes place in — not with their eyes on the future to come. It’s what makes The Americans real; they are not manipulating character actions based on the known outcome. They try very hard to create this fictional world, populate it with characters and play. That’s pretty much it. To drag the Trump mess into the frame, as a viewer, is a disservice to the effort at hand and adds little to the viewing.
Instead, you should definitely pay close attention to Philip and Elizabeth, who bonded more than frayed last season. That hasn’t always been the case. And the other burning issue is, as explained, Paige: her actions, plus her parents’ reactions to those actions, might indicate something about this marriage and the future of the Jennings family. We’ve got 23 episodes to see how that goes.
And, oh yeah, the three episodes sent to critics were great.