This is a spoiler-free review of the first three episodes of The Americans season five.
Russians have always been the generic “bad guys” of pop culture.
The Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. lasted from roughly the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s. That’s a long time for any one country to play the role as America’s boogeyman.
When The Americans first premiered back in 2010, there was a sense of “Oh so this is a Cold War story from the perspective of the ‘bad guys.’ Neat!” Of course, that was before we knew what this show was. It turns out there are no bad guys on The Americans. Just people from two countries at war, trying to do what’s best for themselves, family and country.
How does The Americans look in season 5, now that in 2017 Russia is looking boogeyman-esque again? Its same old, excellent non-black and white self. Thank God/Putin.
The Americans has never been about heroes and villains. It’s always been about marriage. Co-crreator Joel Fields said as much when the show began. “The Americans is at its core a marriage story,” Fields told Slate. “International relations is just an allegory for the human relations. Sometimes, when you’re struggling in your marriage or with your kid, it feels like life or death. For Philip and Elizabeth, it often is.”
He was absolutely right, of course. This is a show about marriage. A very good one, in fact, thanks in part to the beautiful, real-life chemistry between Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. Which, by the way, remains one of the best singular “things” in all of television in season five.*
*There’s a particular scene with a cowboy hat that almost made me gasp with how simply intimate, human and real it is.
But it’s also about marriage in an even deeper sense. Marriage is not supposed to be something you can change. It’s in theory at least, un-ending loyalty. Do you disagree with something your spouse is doing? Figure it out. Make it work. This is a show about marriage and by extension a show about a metaphorical marriage to one’s country. You don’t agree with the actions of your country? Figure it out, make it work.
For four seasons now The Americans have thrived off that tension. The tension of loyalty often being at odds with one’s actual day-to-day life. Philip and Elizabeth are on team Jennings and team Russia. Aside from that, they’re not that much different from their American neighbors. They live in an American house in an American neighborhood in an American city with American friends and peers. For 99.9 percent of people that would make them American. The only thing holding Elizabeth and Philip back is their undying loyalty to their country. And that one thing supersedes everything else.
Season five adds another much-welcome wrinkle. The Soviet Union is finally starting to show signs of losing this Cold War. Season five of The Americans opens with a brief montage to illustrate in very literal terms that the Cold War is on its last legs. Russian citizens are hungry. American citizens are not. And that’s the surest sign yet that an end, violent or peaceful is on the horizon.
The Americans has entered into its end game. FX negotiated an end for the show last year. Things will wrap up after season six, making this season the penultimate. And it’s clear creators Fields and Joe Weisberg have it in mind that this is the beginning of the end. The first three episodes of season five almost have the banally apocalyptic feel of W.B. Yeats The Second Coming. Gyres widen. Falcons cannot hear falconers. Centers cannot hold. The Soviets boycott the 1984 Olympics. Et cetera, et cetera.
Philip and Elizabeth are working on a new mission for the program that highlights how desperate the situation is for the Soviets. I don’t want to spoil what this year’s weapon/mission/theme is, but suffice it to say it’s the next logical step from last years bio-weapons. And it neatly fits in the theme of things falling apart.
Oleg Bourov is back in Russia, working on solving the Soviet Union’s corruption problem vis-a-vis food. In fact, season five offers the most extended look at the U.S.S.R. we’ve seen yet and it’s much better than the bleak sound stage-y prison sets of last year. “Want to hear a joke?” Oleg’s new superior asks him. “A woman walks into a food store and says, ‘do you have any meat?’ The guy says: ‘We don’t have fish. The place that doesn’t have meat is across the street.’”
Paige is still seeing Matthew Beeman against the wishes of her parents. She also can’t sleep. She’s at the end of something too, whether it be her innocence, childhood or something else. Stan still doesn’t know how to cook. Though he does have a new lady friend played by a Walking Dead alum. A fitting casting choice for a season of the show that can safely be subtitled The Americans: The Walking Dead.
All of this quiet almost unconscious desperation brings the show to a fascinating place. This was never a show about good guys and bad guys. But in its penultimate season, The Americans has revealed itself to be a story about winners and losers.
We so rarely think of the show and the Cold War from that perspective. Now that we’re arriving at the end, however, it couldn’t be clearer. History is written by the winners. So here’s a story from the perspective of the losers as they live among the winners. Obviously, four seasons and 52 episodes of the show have been much more complex than that but at it’s very core, that’s what matters.
I’ve mentioned endings when there is still two full seasons to go but if you cut up the show’s six seasons into a beginning, a middle and an end, we’re at the very beginning of the denouement. Thankfully, season five’s first three episodes reveal that The Americans is as good at endings as it is…well, pretty much everything else.