Is ‘The Americans’ Stuck In A Rut In Its Penultimate Season?

A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as a 45-year-old single logistics manager kicks me out of bed…

“Wouldn’t it be a nice world if nobody had to do this?” -Elizabeth

When FX renewed The Americans for two final seasons, it gave Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg the opportunity to plot out the entire concluding arc of the series without having to worry about how many episodes they would have to tell it, or whether the series might end abruptly before the whole story had been told. That’s a great and reassuring thing, in theory. But what seems to be happening is that the show’s being plotted out with both of those years in mind, and there’s been a slackening of tension in this particular season as a result. There’s still the tremendous sense of dread, there are still the superb performances from the cast, and there are still individual episodes like “Lotus 1-2-3,” but the narrative has felt stuck in the mud for much of this season, as if everyone is marking time for whatever grand and terrible plans the show has for them for next year.

This wouldn’t be the first drama — nor even the first FX drama (see both The Shield and Justified) — to drag a bit in the penultimate season, whether or not there was an official two-year final renewal like here. In the early stages of a series, showrunners might have some vague notion of where they might want things to end years down the road, but there are too many other things to worry about to do much steering towards that final destination. But when that finale is so close you can smell it, then the temptation becomes much greater to ensure that everything is juuuust right for it, even if things get sluggish in the meantime.

There are a few issues The Americans has been struggling with this year as the endgame gets set up. The first is that the show shed a lot of interesting characters last year without coming up with replacements who provide the same emotional heft. Plot-wise, Ben and Deirdre occupy a similar space that Martha once did, Sofia is sort of a new Nina, and Wolfe obviously is in Gaad’s old job, but in the short amount of time they’ve all been around (really short, in Sofia’s case), none have been able to evolve into more than stand-ins. It’s easy to say that this is an unfair comparison, considering how much screen time Martha or Nina got compared to some of the newcomers, but you only have to look to Young Hee last year to see how quickly this show can turn a newbie into a fully-fledged person whose relationship with one of the veteran characters matters.

It’s a more depopulated main cast at the moment — Brandon J. Dirden is third-billed at the moment (though that’s also a quirk of both alphabetical order and deal-making, as Noah Emmerich would probably be if he didn’t want the “And” credit), even though there’s never really been an Aderholt-centric story — and the characters are more scattered than before. Once upon a time, any Stan work story would on some level incorporate Martha, Philip, and a couple of people from the Rezidentura; now, Stan and Oleg are each on narrative islands, occasionally connecting from thousands of miles away (like when Stan saved Oleg from the CIA’s approach), but mostly doing their own thing. There was more linking each story to the next, and also more narrative tension overall — Martha alone existed as a kind of ticking story bomb, who at any moment could have blown up to destroy Stan or Philip or Gaad, depending on the circumstances — where now the tension is almost all psychological: Can Paige handle this horrible burden that’s been placed on her? Will this be the mission where Philip cracks and refuses to do the Centre’s bidding?

And when you have actors this good, and writers who understand the characters this well, you can get away with that to a point. But when things aren’t as emotionally dire as they were when Elizabeth and Philip found out how wrong they were about the Topeka mission, the show as a whole feels less urgent than it ever has before, even as we are watching all the Jenningses save Henry start to crumble under the never-ending weight of their mission. At its best, The Americans is a great psychological drama and a great suspense thriller, but at the moment it’s almost entirely the former.

“Immersion” in some ways feels like a commentary on that. When Philip and Elizabeth discover that Claudia is again their handler (because Character Actress Margo Martindale’s day job is on another Graham Yost-produced show, which makes her more available than she’s been since season one), they decide they’ve had enough of treating the relationship as anything other than professional. As Philip puts it, “Let’s do this a little differently from now on.” But doing things differently hasn’t really been working out. Neither of their hearts are in the Topeka assignment — Philip because he doesn’t want to turn Deirdre into another Martha, Elizabeth because she has developed more feelings for Ben than she wants to, and both because they’re more conscious than before about using sex on the job — and it results in Philip botching things with Deirdre altogether. (His dismay and embarrassment at being rejected by a woman he doesn’t even like provided “Immersion” with a welcome undercurrent of wry humor.) Similarly, we see Stan continually trying not to make the same mistakes with Sofia that he did with Nina (beyond the whole affair thing), but it feels like he and Aderholt are getting boxed in by a woman so frightened of the danger they’re placing her in that she may wind up endangering herself further. Everyone wants to avoid repeating old patterns, but the new approaches are only creating different problems.

“Immersions” still had a few scenes that popped emotionally, notably Elizabeth telling Paige about her rape — and teaching her the coping skills that are valuable for spy work, much less so for being a psychologically healthy human being — and there’s at least some tension over in Moscow about why Directorate K is sniffing around Oleg. Is it, as he suggests to his boss, the decision to look at his mother’s file, or has the CIA’s approach already irreparably harmed him? But a lot of it — Philip re-baiting the hook with Deirdre by inventing a fake wife he’s cheating on with her, the discovery of an actual affair by Alexei’s wife Evgheniya, etc. — is missing that spark that The Americans has at its best. Everything’s a bit detached and slow at the moment, which isn’t ideally where you want to be this close to the end.