This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 6 Episode 1
Throughout The Americans now six years, it’s received pretty disappointing ratings. Last season’s premiere hit a series low for all premiere episodes with 930,000 viewers.
This season’s premiere, “Dead Hand,” is likely to attract a few more viewers than that from the fact that it is the final premiere and perhaps more people have had a chance to catch up on Amazon Prime.
The only thing that’s kept The Americans on air this long are hyperbolically effusive reviews like the one you’re about to read (*pats self on back*) and FX President John Landgraf’s stubborn refusal to cancel great television shows (save for Terriers).
Still, even as someone who loves this show, it’s hard for me to fault anyone outside of those 1 million or so viewers who have watched. This thing is dense, at times difficult, and its idea of fan service is to include a scene or two per season where a “mail robot” motors on in the background of a scene.
While it’s understandable that many viewers would have resisted The Americans weird charm, it’s also quite unfortunate. This show has always been one of the best on television. And now in its final season, it has self-actualized into something even better – something dark, conclusive, and…fun.
“Dead Hand” may very well be the best season premiere the show has ever done. This is a briskly-paced hour that does more than enough to justify its oversized length. It re-introduces us to the characters we’ve cared so much about for six years, changes them in fascinating ways, and presents a likely season long plot that makes this already six or seven minute-long wait for episode two agonizing.
As “Dead Hand” opens, Philip is out. As the dulcet tones of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” play, Philip runs around the travel agency, wearing a nice suit, and commanding his troops. His plea to Elizabeth at the end of season five to be let out of the spying business has come to pass. It’s nothing but apple pie, small business running, and hockey games for Philip. He is well and truly happy.
Elizabeth is…not. Elizabeth is staying true to her pledge to her country and continuing to operate as an undercover agent for the Rezidentura. And like Philip predicted would happen, she is now shouldering the burden of work meant for two people. Elizabeth is working undercover as a hospice worker for the wife of an important American public servant. She heads to the Boca Cafe to meet continue her surveillance. Philip remarks that she always smells like cigarettes now. Her only moments of respite are when she, Claudia, and Paige gather around to watch Russian soap operas. Even that, however, is work. It’s training Paige to see things from a Russian perspective, which is hard when all the women on the soap operas seem so much less empowered than her.
One of the reasons “Dead Hand” works so beautifully is that the contrast between Philip’s serene life and Elizabeth’s stressful one makes for both fascinating character development and legitimately fun onscreen action. Elizabeth is basically living the life of a spy action movie – more so than we’ve ever seen on the show before. This is a lot.
There is an important arms control summit in Washington, D.C. approaching. It could mean the end of the Cold War or if it goes poorly – an escalation. Elizabeth is one of the KGB’s few remaining and certainly most competent embedded agents. So she is whisked away to Mexico City to meet with a KGB contact.
The contact, General Kovtun, informs her that Gorbachev is sending an officer with the foreign ministry named Fyodor Nesterenko to Washington. Rumor has it that Gorbachev has authorized Nesterenko to trade Dead Hand, the nuclear system that ensures America will be wiped off the map even if the U.S.S.R. is destroyed, to the Americans as part of a peace deal.
This is unacceptable to some in the KGB. It’s unacceptable to Elizabeth as well, who despite spending the same amount of time in the country as her husband now sees it as an ignorant, ugly, monster that can’t be trusted with promises. Kovtun tells her of this mission and hands her a necklace containing a cyanide capsule. The Rezidentura cannot know about this. Her fellow agents cannot know about this. Philip cannot know about this.
“Dead Hand” does a remarkable job presenting this as a line in the sand moment, the pulling back of the bow’s string that will carry the arrow of The Americans through to the end of its 10-episode final season. As Kovtun speaks, his voice begins to quietly fade away as the camera pulls in closer to Elizabeth, examining her. And once more, The Americans makes better use of Peter Gabriel than any other entertainment entity in history as his “We Do What We’re Told” sonically traces the lines of stress in Elizabeth’s face.
It’s the most overtly James Bond-ian the show has gone in awhile and it’s artfully, perfectly done. What makes it even better is how non James Bond-ian Philip’s portion of the episode is. While Elizabeth is abandoning what remains of her soul in Mexico City or later on killing an innocent security guard who made the mistake of confiscating Paige’s ID, Philip is selling vacation packages at the travel agency, watching Henry play hockey, and in one fan service atom bomb – taking his employees square dancing.
Yes, in the same episode where Elizabeth opens up a necklace in an airplane bathroom to reveal a cyanide capsule, Philip fucking square dances.
Thematically “Dead Hand” begins season six on strong footing. It shows so vividly the costs of war put up against the relative rewards of peace. And then, almost in the same breath it creates circumstances to bring our happy, peaceful baby boy Philip Jennings back to war.
The show has always been good at taking the complex geopolitical circumstances of the world and contrasting them to the complex personal circumstances of marriage. In season six, it now seems as though those comparisons will be closer than ever. There is a civil conflict going on for the soul of the Soviet Party going on in Moscow. Some elements of the party like Gorbachev believe that peace will soon be achievable. Others, mostly in the KGB, believe that the Americans cannot be trusted and the only sure way to victory is to continue on this path.
“Dead Hand” grafts this geopolitical conflict onto the Jennings marriage in a more literal way than it’s ever done before by setting them up to be combatants in this conflict on different sides.
In another fun, Bond-ian treat, Arkady visits a now-bearded (and therefore sexier) Oleg in Moscow to recruit him into this struggle – Ocean’s Eleven style. Arkady tells Oleg that he’s going to need to serve his country again, despite damn near losing his life over the revelations that he was compromised by Stan Beeman at the FBI.
At first Oleg refuses. The war should be over for him. He has a wife now…and a son.
“Then there’s just the matter of the country (your son will) grow up in,” Arkady tells him. That works. Ever the good boy scout, Oleg jets off to Washington. He leaves a message for Philip on a mailbox so that they can meet.
Oleg tells Philip that the progressive wing within the Soviet party needs his help. They need him.
“The people running the organization right now have a very old view of things. They have no interest in the changes that are happening,” Oleg tells him.
“I’m out of it,” Philip says.
“They told me. I wouldn’t be here but some very powerful people are out there to get Gorbachev. Your wife had a meeting with Latin America with the general of the strategic rocket forces.”
“I’m not involved anymore. This has nothing to do with me.”
“We want you to find out what your wife is doing and tell us. And if you have to – stop her.”
“She’s my wife.”
“I understand. I left my wife and baby boy to be here. I don’t have any immunity. If I’m arrested, I’m finished. If they catch me and send me back, I’ll be shot. I’m here because the future of our country is being decided right now. You know that. I’m sorry you have to make some tough decisions too.”
And just like that, “Dead Hand” sets up the most thrilling conclusion to The Americans possible. Spy vs. spy. Husband vs. wife. Philip vs. Elizabeth.
This is the kind of thing that would have potentially seemed cheesy had it been rolled out in season one. Nobody wants to see Mr. and Mrs. Smith – the TV series. But The Americans has created a believable, lived-in, logical universe for itself. Now that logical universe has led to a logical conclusion – a conclusion that any entertainment-seeking TV fan would love to see.