The Americans is back for its final season. I published my review of the early episodes last week, and I have specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I’m aware of my wife…
“I’m not involved anymore. This has nothing to do with me.” –Philip
The Americans is no stranger to time jumps, most famously the seven month jump that happens late in the classic episode “The Magic of David Copperfield”. Still, the three-plus years that have passed since the season five finale make for by far the biggest jump the series has ever taken, and it takes a while to adjust to the many changes:
* Stan has left the counter-espionage unit and now works in a more traditional crime-busting branch of the FBI, and he and Renee are now married;
* Aderholt (who now has a wife and a baby) has remained behind in the old department, and only works with Stan on the one case involving Sofia from TASS and her ex-hockey player beau Gennadi;
* Oleg left the KGB, got married, became a dad, grew an impressive beard, and now works under his father in the transportation ministry, while Arkady (last seen in season four) is still in the spy game, and supporting the pro-Gorbachev forces in the government;
* Henry is thriving at his private school, a hockey star with his own cheering section of girls (and the time jump also means the show no longer has to try to hide Keidrich Sellati’s frequent growth spurts, or do its own equivalent of Taller Ghost Walt from Lost);
* Paige is a college student, but also now a member of Elizabeth’s support team, doing the kind of surveillance and counter-surveillance jobs Hans (RIP) used to do, and her relationship to Elizabeth is a secret from the rest of the team, who know her as “Julie”;
* Philip is loving life as a travel agent, having expanded the office, bought a slick new car, and finally getting to go country line dancing in public without shame, a touching and funny callback to the moment from the series premiere when he kicked up his cowboy-booted heels to “Queen of Hearts” while out shopping with an embarrassed Paige.
Really, though, the time jump serves two purposes, for both the plot and emotional core of the series: it takes us straight to this precarious moment when Gorbachev’s push for a more open Russia had the potential to end the Cold War, and it deposits us at a point when Elizabeth has been a solo agent for a long time, and it is weighing on her as much or more than we ever saw Philip suffering in episodes like “Martial Eagle.”
Scene after scene, I found myself thinking, “God, Elizabeth looks like hell,” not just because the makeup artists and Keri Russell’s performance were playing up how physically exhausted she must be after years of working without her partner and most trusted confidante, but because of how well Russell was conveying the emotional fatigue Elizabeth is experiencing by now. She’s always been the true believer in the partnership, and her belief hasn’t wavered — down to her willingness to take orders from these anti-Gorbachev forces looking to preserve what Elizabeth has no idea has become an untenable, unlivable status quo for most of her people — but as she warned Tuan in the season five finale, “It’s too hard — the work we do — to do it alone.” Claudia, Paige, Norm, and the others provide some degree of support, but all the hard decisions and harder actions are down to her and her alone, and if she wasn’t so devoutly committed to the cause, she’d clearly be screaming to get out by now.
“Dead Hand” has to spend so much time playing catch up, and on setting up the main conflicts for this abbreviated final season, that it could run the risk of being nothing but exposition. As it is, certain scenes like Elizabeth learning about the eponymous nuclear response system nearly choke on all the names and technical details being listed. But The Americans has always wisely emphasized character over plot, so that no matter how dense or outright confusing the missions may be, all that really matters is how Elizabeth and (until now) Philip feel about them. And there is no shortage of feeling throughout the premiere, between the palpable joy and relief Philip is enjoying living his cover identity for real, the weight that’s crushing Elizabeth, the unexpectedly strong grandmotherly bond that’s built between Paige and Claudia in our absence, and Oleg’s reluctant decision to return to America in hopes of recruiting an even more reluctant Philip to join him and Arkady in stopping whatever mission Elizabeth has been given.
Spy husband vs spy wife had long seemed like a road the series could go down at some point, though usually in the context of Philip’s love of America versus Elizabeth’s disdain for their adopted country. Instead, the conflict is about their homeland, with Oleg risking his freedom, and in turn asking Philip to give up his cushy travel agent lifestyle(*), in order to win this cold civil war for the heart of Mother Russia. This is a more complicated and fraught reason for the spouses to potentially be at odds, and also one that ties in neatly with the way the time jump has brought us so close to the conclusion of the larger conflict between the US and the USSR. The Americans is at its best when it makes the global local, and in inviting Philip to unretire as part of this Cold War endgame, the series has again deftly connected the big and small pictures.
(*) Stan’s two buddies — whom he knows in two very different ways — working together will almost certainly not end well.
Like most problems in less homicidal marriages, this conflict could perhaps be solved by open communication between the two partners, but Elizabeth is so tired and angry at having to kill the sailor who held onto Paige’s ID that she won’t even let Philip talk to her in the episode’s closing moments. Oleg and Philip are potentially risking a lot, but so is she, with this new assignment so important and so well-guarded that she now has to wear a cyanide capsule around her neck at all times in the event the mission is compromised.
This was never going to be a series that ended well for the protagonists — the line dancing scene would be Philip’s happy ending if there weren’t nine more hours to go — but “Dead Hand” wastes little time in establishing just how bad the conclusion could be for all involved.
Some other thoughts:
* Jumping ahead to 1987 gives the show an entirely new range of ’80s classics to put on the soundtrack, starting with the Crowded House anthem “Don’t Dream It’s Over” over our introductory montage. Other songs this week include “Quince Años” by Chilo Escobedo, “We Do What We’re Told” by Americans favorite Peter Gabriel, “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads, “Louisiana Saturday Night” by Mel McDaniel, and “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac.
* Party like it’s 1987: Philip passes a movie theater with posters promoting Wall Street, The Pick-Up Artist, and Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise, featuring a young Bradley Whitford as the frat boy villain. Philip is also doing so well that his new car comes with a detachable stereo to discourage thieves from breaking in (eventually, the technology would miniaturize enough that you only had to remove the front of your stereo rather than the whole thing). And at Stan and Renee’s dinner party, Paige and Stan get into it over the political leanings of Robert Bork, whom President Reagan unsuccessfully nominated to the Supreme Court that year.
* Not nailing character actress Margo Martindale down with a series regular contract after season one was one of the series’ bigger management missteps, though things worked out okay in the end thanks to the great Frank Langella. Though Martindale’s been at least a small part of every season since, seeing her name finally appear in the opening credit sequence put a smile on my face, even as I pondered what might have been.
* A couple of familiar TV faces playing Glenn and Erica Haskard, whose lives Elizabeth has affixed herself to by posing as a hospice nurse for terminally ill artist Erica: Scott Cohen and Miriam Shor.
* So, does the fact that Renee and Stan are still a happy couple — and a married one, no less — years after he left spy work alter anyone’s belief that she’s a spy working for the Soviets or some other group? It’s entirely possible that she’s playing a very long game — and Elizabeth overhears her telling Aderholt’s wife Janine that Stan now is free to talk about his job in a way he wasn’t when he worked for Gaad or Wolf — but one could also imagine her handlers pulling the plug after a year or two of him chasing bank robbers.
* The movie Claudia shows to Paige is Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, the 1981 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
* The show didn’t have to travel far for the Mexico City scenes, just over from its Brooklyn home base to East Harlem.
What did everybody else think?