Temperature Take: Checking In on the 5th Season of FX's 'The Americans'
Welcome to Temperature Take, a new recurring column here at Pajiba wherein I check on a show during its current season. For the inaugural installment, I’ll be checking in on FX’s The Americans, which just passed the halfway point in its penultimate season.
Before its debut, you called this show “the peak of peak TV.” Does that pithy statement still hold true seven episodes in?
Snarky first question, but I’ll allow it. Yes, I believe it does, even though I’ve gone on record as claiming other seasons of TV are either better (The Leftovers) or more vital (The Handmaid’s Tale). But it’s the cumulative effect of this show, coupled with its almost supernatural consistency of quality, that leaves me constantly stunned at how goes this show is. It’s by no means an easy watch, and yet I’m always surprised when an episode is over. It never overstays its welcome, and never feels like it’s padding time even while doling out its story at a moderate pace.
What’s been the most satisfying thing so far?
The way the entire endgame of the show seemed to click into place in the final scene of the last episode, “The Committee On Human Rights,” in which Gabriel’s final words to Philip about Paige seemed to set up the ultimate conflict of the show. It’s not about the US and Russia. It’s never been about those two countries. It’s about Philip and Elizabeth deciding if Paige will grow up like them or free of them. And that focus solidifies why this is a great drama, not just a great spy thriller.
What’s the difference?
I like spy thrillers just fine, but some tend to get caught up in the technicalities and plot mechanics. Not all, mind you, but it’s better to start with a human drama that HAPPENS to be a spy thriller than work the other way around. That goes for any genre of storytelling, to be sure. The Americans has always foregrounded the familial aspects of its story, placing the strains on the Jennings’ household above The Cold War, focusing on it as a specific reason Philip and Elizabeth do what they do even while the existence of their children provides both incredible cover from detection and incredible complexity as those kids grow older. Paige and Henry, for lack of a better analogy, have been ticking time bombs since the moment they were born.
Speaking of Henry, is there any chance this is a Buffy Season 5 situation in which they secretly replaced the other kid and we’ll learn that Glory/Ben has mindf$cked everyone into thinking this was the same son all along?
Look, that’s ridiculous. We all know Mail Robot is behind the mass hypnotism/bodysnatching.
What other family aspects have been strong this season?
In order to set the stage for the Philip/Elizabeth schism, the show has leaned more heavily on Frank Langella’s Gabriel to serve both as overt father figure as well as an example of how wearying the spy world can be on a person’s emotions. Philip has always been the most likely to stray from his role: From the very pilot, we’ve seen how he’s embraced aspects of Western culture and has resisted bringing Paige into the fold. The guilt Gabriel felt over lying to Philip about his son’s visit manifested itself not in telling the truth, but in revealing that he has been lying to Elizabeth this entire time about Paige’s viability.
Philip has not only lost the only parental figure he’s truly had, but now has received information that confirms his own worst fears. But there’s another aspect that makes all this truly land like a thunderbolt.
The sheer tonnage that The Americans has put both Elizabeth and Philip through over the years. We’ve seen them go through masquerading as others without so much as an emotional scratch on them to being bloodied and battered by each subsequent encounter. Whether it be Philip’s marriage to Poor Martha, or the way Elizabeth orchestrated the undoing of Young-hee’s family, the time The Americans spent watching these two infiltrate, manipulate, and ultimate undo these people means that we understand the exhaustion and hesitation they have exhibited this season. Neither are on their A-game: Philip’s mark is already bored with him, and Trader Joe turned out not to be a traitor but just a crunchy dude with a wandering eye.
The difference is that the further this goes along, Elizabeth tends to cling more tightly to the fact that she’s doing all of this for a reason, while Philip is quickly losing his grip. The season has gone to great links to show how they are trying to be strong for one another, which is what’s going to make the Battle For Paige absolutely, positively brutal.
What’s the best part of having Gabriel serve as the kickoff of the show’s last act?
What’s great about this development is that Gabriel was only added to the show because CBS said, “Hey, Margo Martindale, we want you to be on a terrible sitcom,” and Margo said, “No way, I’m Margo Martindale, and I’m awesome and I don’t need my brand besmirched,” and CBS said, “Does Margo want a yacht?”, and Margo said, “Margo loves yachts,” and CBS said, “Here’s some yacht money, come overact with Will Arnett,” and Margo said, “Mags Bennett OUT,” and thus Gabriel was born. (All of these quotes are 100% true and really what happened.) TV shows always have basic plans, and all those plans go to hell because TV shows encounter situations like this all the time. But the best ones are smart enough to use this to their advantage. Who knows how the show would have arrived at this point had Langella never been cast. Would the final showdown still be the same? Probably. Would the path have been the same? Undoubtedly not. But it feels like it was always supposed to be this way, and that’s the sign of great writing.
Is there anything that makes you too uncomfortable while watching?
Given how tense and awkward certain scenes can be, I’m remarkably OK with everything except when it seems like Stan Beeman’s penis is going to reveal government secrets to His Girlfriend That Is Totally A Spy. I watch those scenes from across the street through binoculars with the sound off.
What’s the overall temperature?
Let’s call it a simmering boil. This isn’t a show with huge histrionics. It’s built on time and pressure, and while I couldn’t imagine before this season started how it had two seasons left in it, now I’m glad we’re getting a season six to truly wrap things up. Here’s where all the show’s patient work will pay off. The Emmys might continue to ignore this show, but history will show this was one of the five or six greatest shows this decade produced.
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