This is a spoiler-free review
The Russian dish zharkoye is straightforward enough.
Peel some potatoes (wash them of course), cube them and fry them in butter until they’re a light golden color. Then slice a medium onion, and fry that along with some carrots, celery, and parsley until they’re also golden. In a ceramic pot, add a pound of beef, potatoes and your onion and root concoction along with some salt and pepper and a can of beef broth. Cook for 30 minutes at 350 degrees then serve with some fresh vegetables, pickles or sauerkraut.
That’s about a simple a recipe as you’re likely to find. Most families in virtually any country on Earth have eaten something similar plenty of times. Beef, vegetables, and potatoes in broth aren’t rocket science.
In episode three of The Americans brilliant sixth and final season (FX made the first three episodes of 10 total available to critics for review), Russian super spy Elizabeth Jennings, her budding-spy daughter Paige and their “handler” Claudia make some zharkoye.
“It’s peasant food, Claudia says as she prepares the pot. “They know how to survive. We’re always having droughts, famines, wars.”
“My mother used to make pots of this. We’d eat it for weeks,” Elizabeth says, preparing the vegetables with Paige.
“You never got sick of it?” Paige asks.
“That wasn’t an issue.”
That’s the special ingredient in zharkoye – the ingredient that makes it different from any other beef stew. Human misery.
The Americans Season 6 is yet another triumph in the show’s long list of triumphs. This season (or the first few episodes at least) understands something deep and complex about human nature. Sometimes we’re married to our suffering. Sometimes we hold up and celebrate those who suffered in the past, while forgetting that we could just try to make things easier for the future. Sometimes the world is ready to move on from its pain and its sorrows. But you’re not ready to stop going about in pity for yourself.
Much like the entirety of The Sopranos, The Americans Season 6, feels like we’re turning and turning in the widening gyre, teetering on the edge of something – the end of something. Probably because we are at the end of something. The show is ending after this shortened 10-episode run and so is its depiction of The Cold War. It’s a testament to the show that it’s able to capture this feeling of an encroaching end for the Jennings and the U.S.S.R. so viscerally.
The season opens three years into the “future” The year is 1987. On the global scene, The U.S.S.R. is running on fumes. An upcoming disarmament summit in Washington will likely put the finishing touches on this particularly, well, “cold” era of history. Gorbachev is presenting a kinder, gentler, more progressive face of Russia. A face that Ronald Reagan can deal with, deteriorating mental state or no.
In the suburbs of D.C., Stan has moved on from his job in counterintelligence. He and Aderholt still work Soviet sources Sofia and Gennadi, but other than that he’s out. Henry is a hockey star at St. Edwards. Paige is a college student, spying on her professors for the KGB, Elizabeth is working harder than she ever has before, preparing for the upcoming arms summit. Philip is a mild-mannered travel agent and square dancer.
That’s right, The Americans is so justifiably confident that it has the goods in its final season that it has eliminated its strongest asset: Philip Jennings’ miserable mug. Philip is out. He’s retired to a life of perfectly charming and acceptable American mediocrity. He watches Henry play hockey, he reads self-help books to be a better boss, and yes, he really square dances. And it’s as perfectly meme-able a television moment as you’d expect it to be.
Elizabeth on the other hand has bags under her eyes. She smells like cigarettes all the time and has clearly picked up some tips from her husband at the Philip Jennings School For Displaying Abject Misery. Of course, the state of the Jennings household, just like the state of the Soviet Union isn’t built to last.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings feel that advancing denouement, in entirely different ways. When Elizabeth returns home from Claudia’s with some leftover zharkoye for Philip, he’s delighted to eat it even though he already had some kung pow chicken.
“Honestly, the way things are going in a couple of years we’ll have Stan over for zharkoye,” Philip remarks. “They’re talking about opening up a Pizza Hut in Moscow.”
Yes, the war is winding down. The Pizza Hut-ification has begun. Just not everyone is ready for it yet.
“They want us to be just like them. I don’t want to be just like them. And neither do the people at home,” Elizabeth says to Philip.
“You haven’t talked to anyone at home in 20 years,” he responds.
“Neither have you.”
Philip and Elizabeth are ghosts. Neither American, nor Russian. Just two uncommonly attractive people existing at the edge of history that’s not built to last. Decades ago, Philip and Elizabeth made an extreme choice. One of them is fighting for a country she can’t remember. Another is happy to exist in a country he doesn’t fully understand.
The Americans grafts the crumbling state of the Soviet Union and the disparate factions within it onto Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. Within the paranoid walls of the Kremlin and the Jennings household, there are very differing opinions on whether there should be a Pizza Hut in Moscow.
The concept of Philip and Elizabeth as allegorical Cold War marionettes minimizes the miracles the show has been able to pull off over its five years and especially now. Philip and Elizabeth operate as symbols for the larger world around them. But more importantly they operate as themselves. As embodied by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, they remain two of television’s most richly-realized human beings.
It also minimizes just how fun the show can be in its final season. Rhys, Russell and the other actors are given opportunities to really explore the outer edges of their characters. Even young Henry and his hockey-playing ways seems refreshed and rejuvenated. There is also an uncommon but appreciated level of borderline fan service like a reclusive, bearded Oleg being The Only Man for the Job (TM) Jack Bauer-style, and yes, even a mail robot sighting or two.
The Americans Season 6 ’s greatest trick though is that it takes Philip and Elizabeth’s respective situations and does what it’s always done, deftly marries the intimate and the universal. Only this time it does so on a much larger scale and more effectively than ever before.
Juggling the concepts of intimacy (simply put: how persons act and feel) and the universal (simply put: how people act and feel) is not necessarily a novel concept. Call it the zharkoye of storytelling techniques. It’s not rocket science But how The Americans is able to pull off this interplay between the intimate and universal is remarkable.
It’s the best goddamn zharkoye you’ve ever eaten.