I’ve heard many unflattering adjectives applied to this fifth season of “The Americans,” which ends on Tuesday night. The penultimate run of the FX drama has been called “dour,” “flat,” and, according to one massive fan, “nearly unwatchable” thanks to all the “soul destruction.” And where, some have wondered, are the percussive action sequences that once propelled the episodes forward?
Part of me wants to rush to the defense of a series that, by blending spy genre kicks and a domestic drama with global resonance, has brought so much storytelling pleasure since 2013. Sure, “The Americans” isn’t one of cable’s auteur creations, with the bold camerawork and surreal sequences that distinguish the most celebrated series in this golden age of TV. But it has nonetheless been a thoroughly engaging anti-heroic thriller featuring impressive acting and writing as well as some accidentally timely material about Russia.
But when it comes right down to it, I don’t think season five of “The Americans” needs a lot of defending. The season has indeed been conspicuously dour, and that’s because it’s zeroing in on the deep anxiety that goes along with Cold War espionage. It’s clearer than ever that all parties in the fight — including Philip, Elizabeth, now-withdrawn KGB handler Gabriel, Stan, Oleg — are weary from using other people as weapons and living in the realm of half-truths. The show’s themes are more probing and interior than before; the perspective has shifted from a wide-screen view of the Jenningses’ world to looking at them all through a microscope.
It has been a little frustrating to track the spy cases, since there are a number of them in play this season. And along with them, there have also been sporadic appearances of Philip’s son Mischa, vestiges of the Gaad murder, and Oleg’s story strands in the Soviet Union, including his mother’s history in an internment camp, his past with Nina and Stan, and his grocery fraud investigation. Just when it seems as though one of those story lines is going to crest — the pest-resistant wheat business, for example, or Philip’s tape-changing project in Kimmy’s home — it doesn’t and we’re left juggling again. But that frustration is part of the point of the season; it makes us feel the fatigue the characters are feeling from all their own juggling.
The characters also seem to be tiring of the constant manipulation of unwitting victims. As a viewer, it’s fun seeing them cleverly persuade others to do what they want – it’s a little like watching a magician fool an audience. We saw it with Martha, the way Philip had to balance between gently guiding her and outright steering her. And this season we’ve seen it all over the place, with Philip and Elizabeth working both together and separately to get results. But it all comes down to Tuan’s efforts to steer Evgheniya, Alexei, and Pasha back to Russia. While working under the Jenningses, his manipulations involve extreme cruelty to a child, Pasha — something Philip and Elizabeth have never liked, especially Philip, whose work with Kimmy has consistently made him squirm. Their underlying senses of morality are kicking up more than ever.
If the writers of “The Americans” had not given us this difficult season, Elizabeth’s growing desire to end their “tour” of duty in America might not seem credible within the world of the show. She has been a fierce Soviet loyalist, while Philip has waffled. If her stridency is waning, if her ideological commitment is finally giving way to her family commitment, then life must be pretty bad for them. I see an endgame in Elizabeth’s exhaustion, and in Philip and Elizabeth’s nostalgia for their homeland (“But I miss my old name, too,” Philip tells Paige). The presence of Mischa may be a piece of the endgame, as well, while it reminds us of the losses lurking deep in Philip’s consciousness.
The season also appears to be setting up a big irony that will play out next year. Now that the parents are trying to find their way out of the life, the daughter is finding her way into it with passion and intelligence. I’m a fan of the Paige story line, as well as the actress who plays her, Holly Taylor, and this season has been particularly well done in terms of her transition. We are seeing her gradually push the people in her life away — Matthew, Pastor Tim, Henry, whom she urged her parents to send away to school — while working on her physical prowess and her spying skills. Now that her parents have told her the truth, she is drawn to the power of secrets, and she’s ready to use it.