At this point you’re probably sick of people telling you to watch The Americans.
I empathize. Every few years there’s a show that pops up on the scene that critics absolutely love but can’t quite seem to convince people to watch en masse. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me to watch Hannibal, I probably wouldn’t have watched Hannibal so I could keep that sweet influx of nickels coming. It is an annoying pop culture pastime. Having said that…you should watch The Americans.
You should watch The Americans because it’s good for your brain and your soul. You should watch The Americans because it’s one of the best dramas of the decade. Tragically those arguments aren’t likely to work as we’re four seasons in with only two more to go.
There’s another reason you should watch The Americans, though. And it’s not one that comes up a lot in the chorus of critical admonishing and begging. The Americans is cool…like really cool. It’s cool because it wears its ‘80s heart on its sleeve. The Americans is in many ways our first truly great ‘80s period TV show. And it wears the title proudly by incorporating truly great ‘80s song into scenes that absolutely cry out for them.
In that way, it’s not that different from a similar ‘80s icon: Miami Vice. The two shows couldn’t be different on the surface. Miami Vice is a stylized day-glow romp while The Americans is a dour exploration of the American family in a Cold War context. Both, however, understand the importance of some sick-ass ‘80s tunes once in awhile.
So in honor of The Americans penultimate season, we’ve compiled its ten best use of ‘80s songs through four seasons. We’re not judging just on the quality of each song, thought that is important but also how deftly the show incorporates them.
Honorable Mention – Here Comes the Flood – Peter Gabriel
Season 2, Episode 3: The Walk In
Naturally a lot of The Americans best use of music comes via montage. One of the best examples is the use of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” at the end of season 2 episode “The Walk In.” The song is a perfect choice for this particular montage because of its escalation. Things start off slowly with Paige doing some investigating into her parents’ secretiveness and Elizabeth paying a visit to the now orphaned son of her two colleagues. Then the song crescendos along with the action as Elizabeth mournfully burns a letter from her dead friends to their son explaining who they really were.
Honorable Mention – Siamese Twins – The Cure
Season 1, Episode 8: Mutually Assured Destruction
Robert Smith of the Cure’s voice is so identifiable distractingly ’80s that it almost threatens to distract from whatever’s onscreen. And therein lies the genius of the use of “Siamese Twins” during the final moments of season one episode “Mutually Assured Destruction.” The song’s overtly ’80s sound is supposed to be both jarring and distracting. The end of the episode features both the Jennings and the FBI at their most vulnerable and confused. For vulnerable and confused, nothing else will do but The Cure.
10. Major Tom – Peter Schilling
Season 4, Episode 9: The Day After
If the headline of this article was “The 10 Saddest Uses of ’80’s Music in The Americans” it’s easy to see “Major Tom” by Peter Schilling in “The Day After” taking the cake. “Major Tom” is a really excellent, vibrant but also somehow bittersweet song. It’s use here somehow perfectly scores Paige practicing her driving and Elizabeth having to pull one of the most awful, heartbreaking missions her job has required her to do yet.
9. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John
Season 5, Episode 13: The Soviet Division
The nice thing about The Americans Season 5’s finale “The Soviet Division,” is that it knows exactly when the plot needs a good old-fashioned montage. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is one of Elton John’s best (and presumably most expensive) songs. “The Soviet Division,” however, does not save such a significant song for the end of the episode. Instead it deploys it in the middle for an extended montage of…well, not much at all. By combining the grandiosity of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” with the mundane day to day of the characters, The Americans sends the message that the absoltue best Philip and Elizabeth can hope for at this point is some semblance of normalcy.
8. Who By Fire – Leonard Cohen
Season 4, Episode 13: Persona Non Grata
Man, this song rules. And it’s used to perfect in the season four finale “Persona Non Grata.” So much happens throughout the fourth season. Lives are lost, crises are averted and the Redskins get throttled in the Super Bowl. The closing montage set to Mr. Cohen’s absolutely haunting “Who By Fire” is truly the only way a season of such consequence could be ended. Nevermind the fact that it comes with fifteen minutes to go in the season. It’s the real ending of the season and one of the show’s overall high points altogether.
7. In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins
Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot
Phil Collins’ atmospheric, omniscient ’80s masterpiece “In the Air Tonight” absolutely had to appear on The Americans at some point. Wisely, the show gets it out of the way early so every subsequent scene of the series doesn’t have the lingering question of “this is nice and all but when are they gonna whip out the Phil?” Required or not, the way the song is incorporated is masterful. Philip and Elizabeth dispose of a body and then bang like teenagers in their car. It’s the perfect introduction to the show.
6. Only You – Yazoo
Season 3, Episode 4: Dimebag
Ok, I guess there are a lot of song/scene combinations that would safely turn up on the “Saddest Uses of ’80s Music in The Americans” list. “Only You” by Yazoo isn’t an inherently sad song. It’s actually a nice slice of ’80s fun. But the context is absolutely tragic. Philip must pose as a cool older man and seduce a high school student to gain access to her government worker father’s office. The girl, as young girls like to do, just wants to play her favorite song for the handsome guy. To her this is an intimate, important moment. To Philip, it’s just pure pain. And it hurts even worse later when his own daughter references the same band.
5. Under Pressure – Queen and David Bowie
Season 4, Episode 5: Clark’s Place
How anyone could watch this scene and then not spend the rest of their lives hearing “Under Pressure” every time they have sex is beyond me. “Under Pressure” is just a flat-out awesome song and matches the moment between Philip and Elizabeth perfectly. Just like every other song on the list, context is important. Philip couldn’t metaphorically be more under pressure. He needs to get his wife/unwitting informant, Martha, out of the country before the FBI catches up to her. Elizabeth reads the moment and realizes that the only thing that can help her husband feel better in that instant is her.
4. Old Flame – Alabama
Season 5, Episode 3: The Midges
Many of The Americans best moments come simply from Philip and Elizabeth behaving like a married couple – especially when that can be contrasted with their day job. In “The Midges,” Philip and Elizabeth don cowboy hats and head to middle-America for a secret mission into the country’s grain production. It’s there, in a hotel in the middle of nowhere that the mournful country song “Old Flame” from Alabama comes on the radio. So Philip and Elizabeth simply dance with each other. Sharing an intimate moment in the midst of such dark espionage is a haunting moment for the show.
3. The Chain – Fleetwood Mac
Season 3, Episode 7: Walter Taffet
Despite it’s high concept espionage nature, The Americans isn’t James Bond. It has very few scenes of actual overt action, gunplay or violence. So when those scenes come along, it’s extra crucial for the show to pick the correct musical accompaniment. Fleetwood Mac seems like it would be near the end of the list of ’80s bands that would score a scene involving bullets being fired. Something about it just works though. “The Chain” is a fun, exciting song and just matches up to the action in an inexplicable, almost magical way.
2. Tusk – Fleetwood Mac
Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot
The sharp, driving, borderline sensual drum beat of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” begins just two minutes into the very first episode of The Americans. This was the very first sign that we were dealing with a special show. “Tusk” is an incredible song but also an incredibly sprawling, strange beast. It’s Olympic-gold medal material for soundtrack curators. Only the most talented filmmakers can make it work onscreen. The Americans makes absolute mincemeat out of it, casually riding all of the songs escalatingly bizarre sounds as Philip and Elizabeth chase a mark through the streets of Washington, D.C. There can truly be no better introduction to the show than this.
1. Tainted Love – Soft Cell
Season 4, Episode 2: Pastor Tim
“Tainted Love” isn’t the best song on this list. And its appearance on the show is relatively short. Still no song in Americans history has been used more effectively than Soft Cell’s biggest hit. Philip gets on a bus to coordinate with a Ukrainian pilot. The skittish pilot forces Philip’s hand into murdering a TSA agent in cold blood. As Philip chokes the innocent man in a wrong place to death, the audience is granted some diegetic music action courtesy of a young woman rocking out to “Tainted Love” on the bus. The suddenness of the violence combined with the cheery ’80s-ness of the music make for the best use of music on The Americans thus far.