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.
I trust that Fields and Weisberg have a great plan for that final year, and I suspect there will be some moments over this season’s last five episodes that will punch me hard in the stomach the way The Americans likes to do. But something’s been lacking for a lot of this year, and “Immersion” helped me recognize it.
Some other thoughts:
* Philip and Elizabeth’s muted grief over losing Gabriel is undercut by the fact that he also stopped being their handler very early in the first season (Claudia’s first appearance is in episode three of that year), and at the time it also seemed like they would never see him again.
* While Martindale has appeared several times on the show since she stopped being their handler, her last scene with Russell and Rhys was back at the end of season two when she warned them about the Centre’s plans for Paige. When Elizabeth asked Claudia where she had been, I half-hoped she would say, “Farting on a CBS sitcom, then playing myself on a weird animated comedy about a horse-man.”
* Totally ’80s: Henry and his friends are playing Pitstop II (you can make out the box, just out of focus, lying on the coffee table in a couple of shots) on what looks like a Commodore 64. Later, when Paige is relentlessly channel-surfing, we’re reminded that there were only a handful of channels available back in 1984, which is why we keep hearing snippets from the same Lost in Space syndicated rerun and the same commercial for the Whatchamacallit bar (still a relative novelty in the early ’80s) as she loops through the only four or five options she has.
* For a while, it seemed like Tuan was going to be trouble because he has trouble containing his anti-American sentiments. Now, though, he’s starting to come across more as lonely than anything else; when he keeps asking Philip and Elizabeth to spend more time at the house, it seems less about keeping the operation humming smoothly than his desire to have his fake parents around for company.
* In the opening scene, Philip comes home to find Elizabeth reading in bed, which has me wondering exactly what she reads for pleasure. Philip is at least somewhat interested in American culture, and both of them have to keep up to maintain their cover identities, but when our favorite KGB killer wants to curl up with a big book before bedtime, what does she chose?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org