One of television’s greatest series, FX’s marital spy drama heads thrillingly and ominously toward its end.
It’s a weird thing to be proud of a TV show. To understand the difficult decisions the writers make in the face of expectations and to feel it’s important to acknowledge terrific and sometimes surprising acting and directing. The hardest thing in all of television is making a great series season after season. And as The Americans begins its sixth and final season, the first three episodes sent by FX to critics elicited that kind of admiration, that confidence that, at least in the early going, the enormous weight of expectations hadn’t crippled the show but given it a certain exhilaration as it began its end game.
They were, all three of them, exceptional — clear examples of one of television’s greatest dramas still very much on top of its game.
Viewers are all over the map on what they consider to be a spoiler, so all a critic can do in a situation like this — watching the last moves of a complicated chess match, the strands of a long-building pattern emerging for its last reveal — is to promise to hew more toward appreciation than actual review. And honestly, with only three episodes to judge from, all the truly enormous twists have yet to be seen, so realistically there’s not much to spoil (and does anyone want to do that anyway?). Besides, The Americans is a drama about the Cold War, and we all know how that ends for that period and how, in 2018, the word “Russia” seems to be ominously everywhere (giving this series an intriguingly twisted place in history — far different from what could have been predicted when it launched in January 2013).
But a couple of elements are unavoidable to the discussion and won’t take away much from the experience. When we last saw Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), their craft was taking its toll. The Soviet-era spies, recruited as teenagers and eventually joined together in a pretend marriage so that they could be sent to the U.S. and deeply embedded, has been a very long con. They had a daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), and a son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who grew up as Americans knowing nothing of their parents’ work. An enormously successful piece of The Americans’ storytelling was that Paige, as a curious teenager, would eventually find out what her parents were doing, highlighting a crack in their now very real marriage: Elizabeth, ever the purpose-driven operative, more willingly agreed with the designs of Mother Russia to indoctrinate Paige into the spy game, while Philip, who leered at the American way of life from the periphery of his existence in it, did not.
That gambit from series creator Joe Weisberg and fellow writing partner and creative force Joel Fields brilliantly illuminated what was truly the main subject of the series — the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth and all of its complicated twists and emotional-toll-taking turns, which made the actual spy games seem secondary and also somehow enhanced. That it all hinged on having a very young actress in Taylor not only mature into the role but handle it competently (a trick very rarely pulled off) is retrospectively nerve-wracking. Not only did Taylor perform wonderfully in the role, she’s now as essential to the series’ effectiveness and conclusion as anyone.
That’s because the fifth season ended with Philip and Elizabeth ground down — particularly Philip — with Elizabeth suggesting that he step back from the spy game and manage their front: the travel business. “You need me,” Philip says, knowing all-too-well how true that is (advice about essential partnership that Elizabeth had already shared with a young spy last season), while also realizing, as illustrated by the look on Philip’s face, that he needed to get out of the spy game; it was over for him, an emotional husk.
As this season opens, the time jump that most guessed would happen has transpired, with three years having passed and it now being 1987. Mikhail Gorbachev is leading the Soviets in a new direction and President Ronald Reagan is fading out as whispers about his competency waft through the political landscape in the U.S. A summit between the two superpowers has both sides feeling that so much is in the balance, especially in the Soviet Union, where Gorbachev’s progressive leanings do not have the full support of the KGB (we know that the end of the Cold War and the U.S.S.R. itself is around the corner); Weisberg and Fields deftly use this to explore the shift within the Jennings’ marriage, which is a moment they’ve been aiming at for some time and reinforces how skillfully they’ve balanced the spy game/marriage motif from the beginning.
It’s a beautifully dramatic thing to witness — landing at a juncture where the true selves of Philip and Elizabeth emerge: He’s enthusiastically embracing the business expansion that capitalism nurtures, while she’s overwhelmed with the stress of going it alone. Meanwhile, Paige, now in college, is fully under the tutelage of Elizabeth and her handler Claudia (Margo Martindale).
Three years has changed a lot of elements inside the Jennings family structure and The Americans as a series. Weisberg and Fields go at that shift in rewarding ways, with expanded roles for some lesser characters and the return of others. The first episode has so much to smile about as 1987 comes to life; the first few glimpses of Philip in the montage are wonderfully evocative, particularly one scene where he walks to his car holding a pull-out stereo. So, too, are those with Elizabeth, particularly a telling reflection in a hotel window as Washington looms in the distance; her makeup-smeared face holding the look of a weary warrior. The news on TV is all about hope and change. Philip notes that an American fast-food chain is heading to Moscow. Elizabeth, who has been cooking favorite Russian foods with Paige and watching Russian movies, is disdainful of the divide: “The Americans eat it up — they want us to be just like them. I don’t want to be just like them.”
Change is hard for countries and couples.
So, yes, there’s a certain amount of pride watching the unfolding of this last season of The Americans. There are a lot of plates spinning — it’s time to see which are saved and which are shattered.