Halfway through the first episode of the upcoming fifth season of FX’s The Americans, I had to check and make sure I hadn’t accidentally loaded the incorrect episode. Indeed I hadn’t, and was reminded one of the core tenets of the show that has made it one of the outstanding dramas of this decade: It never holds your hand, and trusts that you will catch up once the show gives you enough information. It’s a show that above all treats the audience like adults, and in turn rewards its viewers with some of the most devastatingly beautiful drama airing on any network.
That’s some pretty purple prose to be sure, and I can hear a lot of eyes already rolling. But there’s something utterly hypnotic about the deliberate (some would say “slow”) way in which this story has unfolded over the course of its run. In a vacuum, the idea that an FBI agent wouldn’t have any idea his neighbors were Russian spies 50+ episodes into its run would sound ludicrous. But in practice, The Americans isn’t really about spycraft at all, but about the ways we try to stay grounded when the world threatens to open up below us at any given moment.
That has taken several forms over the years, as The Americans has turned from a show about a complicated marriage into a show about a complicated family into a show about how every family is equally complicated. Making a show about the Jennings and Beemans being political enemies has a short shelf life. Making a show about the two families being political enemies but also close friends presents a much richer tapestry. Yes, Phillip is playing Stan a lot of the time, but he’s also deeply invested in this man’s struggles to stay above water when the tide keeps rising. There’s no better example than last year’s EST storyline, in which Phillip attended to keep tabs on Stan but eventually came to embrace some of the program’s teachings. The toll the Cold War takes on each side is devastating, and The Americans has a sympathetic eye for the foot soldiers on both sides of this conflict.
If last season’s bioweapon storyline felt familiar to those that have watched other espionage-laced entertainments, this season’s primary driver of US/Soviet tensions feels simultaneously more prosaic yet more terrifying. Giving that away here won’t exactly ruin the show for you, as the pleasures from The Americans usually comes in the form of execution rather than outright surprise. But I do think it’s worth coming to latest battleground on one’s own, as it offers up this question: “Is there ANY field upon which the fight for global supremacy wasn’t waged?” The answer of course is “no,” but so few Cold War narratives examine topics beyond nuclear proliferation that it’s downright shocking to think of the myriad ways the two countries sought to get an edge.
The implications of this new threat feed directly into one of the show’s more powerful long-running narratives: The shift in Paige’s understanding and allegiance with what her parents truly do. A two-hour film could not adequately dramatize the seismic turns her journey has taken, and The Americans takes advantage of television’s need for constant content by being patient with her evolution. It hasn’t been a straight line, and through the first three episodes of season five it’s still not ultimately clear where she’ll end up. But Holly Taylor continues to earn the increased role that the show has bestowed upon her.
Paige’s journey is not only interesting in and of itself, but it helps deepen and solidify the show’s core dramatic tension: the lengths to which Phillip and Elizabeth will go to honor their commitment to the Motherland. From the very first episode, The Americans has shown how the latter usually is the most fervent believer in the cause, and the conflict over how to initiate Paige and help control her training has been a quietly explosive way to send the show into its ultimate endgame. Paige is the fulcrum upon which this final third of the show will play out, because in a spy show about whether family is more important than country, how could she NOT?
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the central duo of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys is as dynamic as ever. Elizabeth and Phillip understand that bringing Paige into the fold has radically reduced their options, and perhaps have damned them in the long run. But they persevere regardless, even while backed even more tightly into the corner they have created for themselves. History itself provides the dramatic irony of their actions, insomuch as we know their side will lose. But we don’t necessarily want the Jennings themselves to fail, which is the show’s most thrilling bet. It’s certainly not a bet that has yielded millions of viewers. Many people simply can’t/won’t watch a show in which Russian spies are the heroes. But I’d argue they are actually the protagonists, which is a subtle but important difference. The Americans doesn’t encourage us to sympathize with Elizabeth and Phillip. But in earnestly depicting their lives through their eyes, we sympathize with them despite our best efforts. That’s the mark of great drama.
There’s little else that can be said about the upcoming season without robbing viewers of its central pleasures. Needless to say, the show is like a fine wine, with each season adding to the richness and texture of its unique flavors. There have been shows I might more overtly love this past decade, but I can’t think of another that has been this consistent for this long, and only seems to be getting better as it approaches its final endgame. It’s confident without being smug; it’s smart without being exclusive; it’s adult without being lewd; it’s shockingly funny without undermining its inherent tension.
When all is said and done, it’s possibly going to end up as the best show FX, and maybe any network, has ever done in the past ten years. It’s the peak of Peak TV.