I don’t always buy what The Americans is selling.
The FX spy drama (which returns March 28 at 10 p.m. ET) had a hot concept, built on suburban paranoia equal-parts Cold War history and Twilight Zone. Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) are a regular pair of keep-up Joneses; a nice house, a couple kids, one of those families that wore the ’50s into the ’80s. But they are also Soviet spies, with a diva’s wig collection and more fake identities than their countrymens’ bots.
They look like regular neighbors, but they are actually socialist atheists who despise the American President and don’t like private schools. Actually, that describes all my favorite neighbors, and I wonder if the best thing about The Americans is how the Jennings duo—for all their apocalyptic ambiguity—can feel quite aspirational. Consider: They work together—they work two jobs together—and their family is a big part of that work, like how every Fixer Upper episode finds time for a cute Gainesling montage. How hip are they? They have an open marriage, halfway between chic ’70s swinging and chic ’10s polyamory. And they talk to each other about each other’s lovers, which feels positively Scandinavian.
They are never not busy, yet always find time to worry about the advancement of their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor). Like, worry about her: They want her to understand the world, they want her to feel inspired by social justice issues. They also have a son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), raised by videogames. But even his neglect is a secret parental success. Last season revealed Henry as a math genius, like all those early-adopter computer kids who played Ultima until their overstimulated neurons created Google. Elizabeth and Philip, ugh, such #CoupleGoals.
I’m having some fun here, but it’s important to remember that The Americans can be ludicrous. Over six seasons of spycraft, Elizabeth and Philip have investigated stealth aircraft, bioweaponry, the birth of the internet, killer flies that were actually helper flies. Their bugs infiltrated the highest levels of the FBI; and, by the way, the FBI agent investigating them lives next door. Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman is one of my favorite characters on television, but his presence is a still premise hurdle too far for me, something I have to get over every time he swings by for a beer. And I’m not always convinced by how the Jennings keep Gumping their way through Cold War history: Reagan’s Star Wars program, the Soviet food shortage, the evolution of ’80s synth-pop into ironic-violent soundtrackery.
Creator and co-showrunner Joe Weisberg was an actual CIA officer, while I have seen some Bourne movies twice, so credit him for certainly knowing what he’s doing. And the spy ops are TV magic, humming with quiet efficiency: Dead drops, pedestrian-automotive tracking teams, the pleasant two-note crk-crk the Soviet spies use to communicate via radio. And the show has an austere autumn-gray look, like everywhere is Siberia.
But I worry in its later stages, The Americans is overstretching itself, trending toward wild dramatics. There’s a feeling in the first three episodes of final-act hyperbole that left me a bit dizzy. After a slow-paced fifth season, the final year begins with a parade of bloody deaths. In one episode, I swear, Elizabeth is wearing a different wig in every scene. After years of sprawling the main cast across the world, the premiere awkwardly brings everyone back together, in one rough geographical location and dedicated to various sides of one spy operation. One character gets a mission that could decide the fate of Russia. And one character gets a mission that will affect, well, the fate of the world. [John Oliver snarky voice]: Cool.
(More on page 2.)
Last season earned some negative critiques for its gradual pace. At times, it was comically small-scale, almost Strangelove-ish: The Jennings’ whole CIA-taunting spy apparatus was employed towards making a Russian teenager feel sad. The tantalizing mystery of Stan’s New Girlfriend remained a mystery, and the finale had an anticlimactic feeling that retroactively made the whole season feel like a holding action.
But season 5 caught a new mood in the Jennings marriage. Philip, always exhausted by a lifetime of lying, now looked utterly spent. And cracks were forming in Elizabeth’s resolve; she seemed happiest doing bedroom tai chi, the kind of spiritualist-yuppie fascination she used to disregard as American goofery. Season 6 expands that mood, in thoughtful and unexpected ways. The montage that opens the premiere shows Elizabeth juggling multiple ops, undercover under the covers, coming home late. She can’t really talk about her work anymore, because Philip’s out of the spy game.
But not just out. For the whole time we’ve known the Jennings couple, their travel agency has been a handy cover, a job that lets them pretend they can travel anywhere anytime. It felt like the plot contrivance that it was: You never got the vibe that the business was an actual business, unless the point was that Elizabeth and Philip were terrible bosses.
I think I’m the only person with this complaint—how come we never see them be travel agents???—and I’m rather stunned that the writers heard my cry. In season 6, Philip presides over a radically rebooted agency. It’s introduced with a flourish: New computers, cubicles from back when cubicles looked futuristic, Philip himself gone full Lord Business in a blazer-tie combo. There’s a whole plot thing where he gets worried, really worried, about losing a client. “We’re bigger now,” he explains. “I can’t deal with every single customer!” Ah, the problems of scaling: What contempo capitalist can’t relate?
In the montage, we catch a brief sight of a movie marquee advertising Wall Street. That’s a subtle indication of a time jump—years have passed since last season—and maybe a joke on Philip’s newfound Reaganaut attitude. Oliver Stone’s movie, which captivated a generation, was an attempted satire but became a playbook for decades of conspicuous consumption (and financial armageddon). So they’ve gone in two directions, our Jenningses. Their kids are out of the house, to college and a boarding school. There’s some typical empty nest syndrome, maybe, that moment when abandoned parents have to figure out how to be just married again. But the best idea in The Americans is that every relatable marriage problem trends global and fatal. The opening montage is set, brilliantly, to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” That song features the lyric “a wall between us,” which I’ve always misheard as “a war between us.” Both phrases feel accurate. Philip and Elizabeth are still together, but there’s something building between them.
I worry about spoiling much more in their direction, except to say that the big spy plot of this season also involves Stan and dear Oleg (Costa Ronin), the babyfaced Soviet patrician who has evolved into the least morally dissolved character on the show. Paige has moved into the orbit of Jennings handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), a freaky-endearing relationship across generations of undercover agents. Henry is playing hockey and taking AP Calculus; I love Henry! And Stan is still with Renee (Laurie Holden), whose possible spy-dentity is either the worst or best mystery this show has ever done. The soundtrack’s great fun, Leonard Cohen and Talking Heads.
The big op that Elizabeth starts working is a big final-season plot swing that combines late-Soviet history with contemporary nuclear paranoia. It’s a bit cuckoo logically but fascinating emotionally, and the way it affects the Jennings marriage tees you up for a truly remarkably final act. On a historical level, I guess the show is drifting off inevitable tragedy: Whatever Elizabeth does this season, you know that anything a Soviet spy does in 1987 will seem a bit pointless by 1989.
Even so, the magnitude of the espionage feels unconvincing, and the murder-happy early episodes suggest that they learned the wrong lesson from last year’s too-slow burn. But The Americans gets more patient when it examines the widening cracks in the Jennings marriage. Elizabeth is smoking more, and is frankly tired of her husband’s big speeches. Russell looks like a glorious wreck, her demeanor suggesting a tired old soldier who knows the best victories happened years ago.
And Rhys has always shaded Philip with mournfulness, but financial desperation give Philip’s scenes a new energy, both sweet and pitiful. (We catch him reading Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude; he gives a speech to his employees that seems to invent a decade of Dilbert boss jokes.) The Americans makes its ambitions clear in these opening episodes, trying to weave together the end (?) of the Cold War with the end (?) of the Jennings marriage.
How will things end for them? Worst-case scenario, they wind up living in a country descending toward decades of violent paranoia, ripped apart by enemies within and without. Or maybe they’ll go back to Russia. B+