This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 1
The Americans creators Joel Field and Joe Weisberg are far too congenial and professional to admit it but they have to be a little annoyed with how much they’re being asked about how their show now parallels reality in a new, unwelcomely discomfiting way.
On a recent conference call with reporters, the first four questions were about Russia’s interference in the U.S.’s presidential election. That’s not to chastise anyone involved. It would be gross negligence not to check in with creators of a show about the Cold War regarding their feelings on Russia’s re-emergence as a geopolitical super villain. It’s timely and it’s valid. But it does miss the point about The Americans as an artistic entity to a certain extent.
The Americans is about many things: marriage, loyalty, love, duty, violence, politics and mail robots. One of the biggest ongoing themes, however, is fear. We don’t ponder often enough how close the world was to the brink of non-existence during The Cold War. Last season’s episode “The Day After” briefly offered the real life story of Stanislov Petrov. Petrov was a military officer who rightly identified a notification that the U.S. had launched its nukes as a false alarm, averting literal armageddon. That’s a day ending in “y” in The Cold War.
We can ignore that in hindsight because nothing truly disastrous ever happened. The people alive during the time ignored it because they had to. When the world is on the brink of destruction that can occur at any moment, what do you do with that fear? Ignore it. Go to the grocery store. See Return of the Jedi in theaters.
That’s why what happens at the beginning of “Amber Waves” the first episode of The Americans second to last season is so important. After a brief introduction to Tuan and the Eckerts*, we’re treated to an unusual montage (with dubious CGI) of America’s amber waves of grain contrasted with Russia’s fields of bleak nothingness while a Russian version of “America the Beautiful” blares.
*More on them later but for now if I may bother an old Dave Barry bit…Tuan and the Eckerts would be a sick band name
It’s as bold a season opening the show has undertaken since the Fleetwood Mac-tastic first ten minutes of the pilot. The message is clear: this is the end, my friends. One side has a shockingly virile 170-year-old cowboy actor vowing defeat of the evil empire and the other has dust where there should be food.
For a show set in America called The Americans, The Americans has understandably spent a lot of time in the U.S. “Amber Waves”, however, brings us our most extended view of the now crumbling U.S.S.R. yet. And there’s one thing on everyone’s mind: food.
“Want to hear a joke?” Oleg Bourov’s new boss asks him. “A woman walks into a food store and says, ‘do you have any meat?’ We don’t have fish. The place that doesn’t have meat is across the street.”
Oleg is back in Russia and working for a Russia agency that weeds out corruption: in this case taking bribes in the form of food. Earlier, before his first day on the job, his mother speaks with him about his dead brother and the state of things in the homeland.
“Sometimes I wake up at night and I can’t breathe. Be careful. This is a hard place,” she says.
Philip’s Russian-born son Mischa takes his first steps in coming to America to meet his father. He passes through customs hesitantly. The facility is bleak. Everything is bleak. Later on he boards a bus in the Ukraine and opens a letter from his deceased mother. If I could do it all over again…I’d do it differently,” she writes.
This is the reality of war…even the cold kind. And this is what losing one looks like. One day you wake up and begin to notice that the diminishing variety of food at the grocery store has reached crisis levels. Feeling your stomach rumble and not knowing if the store will have any food for you is real fear. Stanislov Petrov and his fault nuclear signal reader? Fuck that guy. That’s abstract and it’s out of your hands.
Welcome to the food season of The Americans. Which could otherwise be known as the fear season.
Hell, the first thing we see is food. We open on a high school cafeteria where a Vietnamese student, Tuan, graciously sits down to eat with a Russian student, Pasha. This being The Americans, however, things aren’t what they seem. Tuan is a spy and posing as the adopted son of the Eckerts, a pilot and flight attendant married couple…who also happen to be Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.
Philip and Elizabeth need to get close to Pasha’s dad and they succeed in being invited over for, what else, dinner.
“You want food, you stand in line,” Pasha’s dad says about life in the Soviet Union, then adds. “You see any lines around here?”
After the dinner when Philip and Elizabeth take Tuan back to his fake home* and then get in the car.
*The Americans attention to espionage detail continues to impress. “How do you do the lights?” Philip asks Tuan who then explains his elaborate routine for turning lights off in a specific order to create the illusion the family really does live there.
“Sorry you had to wait in line to eat,” Elizabeth says about Pasha’s dad in the car. “He’s old enough to remember having nothing to wait in line for.” Philip then shares a story about how his mother used to make “onion soup” which was really just hot water with the faintest hint of onion. Elizabeth shares how her mother used to go days without eating and pretended that she was not hungry.
Rather than making Philip and Elizabeth appreciate their current American life, however, they immediately discuss when they’ll get to go back home. Philip says when the time is right. Elizabeth asks what the right time will be and Philip says nothing. In a perverse way here is the love of The Americans clashing with the fear. Love and devotion for country and a cause can sometimes make those violent hunger pangs feel like love taps.
What happens when love for country must reconcile with love of family? Paige is still seeing Matthew Beeman and the Beeman household in general has basically become and extension of Paige and Henry’s living space. Did neighbors always used to be this close? I know it’s weird that one family are Russian spies and the other has an FBI agent but the whole thing makes me want to bring a pie over to my next door neighbors and I don’t care what antagonistic foreign government they’re working for.
Making out with Matt Beeman isn’t enough to stop Paige’s night terrors, however. Watching your mom efficiently murder three carjackers/potential rapists will do that to you. So Elizabeth invites her to the garage for some combat training. And just like that, Paige’s spy training has really begun.
The mundanity and slow pace in which Paige has gone down this path of training and preparation for her life as a spy is perfect. It started one day with the Rezidentura ordering Philip and Elizabeth to begin training her and them adamantly refusing. But as time goes by, Philip and Elizabeth’s walls fall down and they begin to train Paige piecemeal whether they realize it or not. Why wouldn’t Elizabeth want to show her daughter some moves when she’s afraid to sleep at night? But make no mistake: in the context of the Jennings’ lives, this is training, whether Elizabeth is prepared to realize it or not.
Paige is going to need that training too for as the end of “Amber Waves” reminds us: the spy work is a gruesome, dangerous business. The final scene of the premiere is among the most striking and powerful the show has pulled off yet. It serves as almost an epilogue to season 4.
Gabriel informs Philip and Elizabeth of William’s fate from last season. After being captured by the Americans, he infected himself with the brutal Lassa fever virus rather than turning on the Jennings. He died a hero. But he also leaves behind one final mission. Philip, Elizabeth and a crew of like-minded friends must infiltrate Fort Dietrich and retrieve a piece of William’s flesh. Having access to the Lassa virus is a must.
The final 15 minutes or so of the episode are a wonderful silent movie. Philip, Elizabeth and company infiltrate the grounds of the Fort after dark and begin digging. Then keep digging…and digging…and digging. I praised the show’s meticulousness earlier in their depiction of how to turn lights off in a house to create the illusion of a happy family living there but this is on a whole other level. It’s almost a parody for people who (wrongly) think the show is too slow. There is no such thing as too slow if the action onscreen has a purpose.
The show’s dedication to realism is admirable but the final scene isn’t just a yeoman’s dedication to hard work and meticulousness and spying, it’s good storytelling. The more dirt that gets dug up you can’t help but think it will eventually end up on top of one of our character’s bodies. And of course: it does. R.I.P. Hans.
If “Amber Waves” has a flaw its that a bold beginning and superb ending detract from the plot moving that comes in-between. Still, its continued dedication to characterd and the introduction of a perfect season-long theme suggests that we’re in for another great season of The Americans. Ho-hum. Planets turn. Dogs bark. The sky is blue. Russians steal elections. The Americans churns out good TV.