—On Wednesday, the bickering married spies of FX’s The Americans return to TV—and find a different world.
That applies to the action of the show’s sixth and final season, which has jumped ahead three years to 1987, a year marked by arms control talks between the Soviet Union and the United States—talks that Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), a true believer in the Russian cause decades into her assignment, hopes to disrupt. And, as has increasingly become the case with this perhaps-accidentally-prescient show, the show relaunches amidst yet-further-ratcheted-up suspicion among stateside viewers of the power and the potential malign intent of our neighbors across the Bering Sea.
By now, her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) has quit the game, having been pushed to his limit by cases that carried with them both an escalating body count and a futile sense of trying to outrun the facts of Russia’s slow fade. What was once a cover story—that Philip and Elizabeth were but travel agents—has become for him fact. He’s just a travel agent now, or as near that as he can be. The spy’s ingrained sensitivity to atmospheric changes kicks in: Philip, never as committed to the cause as his fire-eyed wife, is newly inspired by Gorbachev’s promises of a more open Russia, and begins taking steps back into the game. The thrill of The Americans kicks in at the end of the season premiere, as Philip questions a bereft and exhausted Elizabeth. Is this the emotional support of a spouse, an attempt to derail a competing spook, or something in the middle?
Philip’s hope of a post-perestroika homeland—a Russia that might just have a Pizza Hut in the heart of Moscow—flips the show’s longtime equation. Now Philip is the true believer, while Elizabeth, having flipped daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to work with her, is forced to carry out missions whose efficacy and whose very point she has cause to question. Elizabeth and Paige, sitting with a handler (Margo Martindale), watch old Russian films, make peasant dishes flavored with the desire for home and listen to Tchaikovsky. The women can’t know quite how quickly the dream of a global red empire is falling away from them—for now. But Elizabeth, at least, seems to know on some level she can’t admit that this nostalgia is, as usual, a last resort for those outrunning history.
The collapse of the USSR is, viewers know, inevitable for Philip and Elizabeth; whatever home to which they return will be unrecognizable to them. But it’s a fair question as to whether or not they’ll make it together. “He’s got my life,” Elizabeth tells a Soviet contact, “I’ve got mine, and she’s with me.” “She” is the daughter the pair have fought over for seasons; Elizabeth’s triumph in getting to turn Paige on to a life in the shadows is deeply conditional, as Paige’s flaws—the soft-heartedness of a young woman raised by Sesame Street, not the Directorate—reveal themselves. She’d be safer without her parents, and, for all her stated loyalty to her mother, happier, too.
At this point in any Americans review, one pauses to note that the milieu may be strange, but the pain is all too familiar. (How many parents have never fought over their kids’ future?) The Americans’ notional subject is the adventures in statecraft of Elizabeth and Philip, a pair brought together as kids in Mother Russia to pull off a joint mission to subvert the U.S. government. Its real subject has been from the show’s inception an almost too-easy one-liner—marriage and espionage are just the same, because both require deception! The show’s early going, while beautifully made, felt at times uncommitted thanks to just how plainly the metaphor was stated, just as Mad Men could feel in its first seasons schematic in its use of outdated attitudes to flatter its audience.
Happily, the show has evolved in how it deals with its central concerns. Paige’s travails, which could all too easily be a typical look at two parents fighting over their kid’s future (hilariously, the Jenningses’ other child, perpetually underwritten, is now at boarding school), carry heft thanks to Taylor’s acting. Paige, as played by Taylor, genuinely believes the Soviets could make the world a better place if given the reins—or maybe just a greater slice of the pie. And as for the marriage, the previous season, which gave little succor in the way of big plot moves, showcased the effects on a marriage of one partner’s breaking down, as Philip’s long-simmering unease gave way to a collapse to which the hardened Elizabeth, who’d begun the series in icy détente with Philip, was now forced to respond. This season, it’s Elizabeth’s turn to fall apart—or, more precisely, given Russell’s gift for fractured composure and manic self-control, to just barely avoid it.
That previous season finally made me understand a comment other critics have made of shows that have fallen off their peak: Even at its less-well-loved moments, The Americans is still better than practically anything else around. The slowly unspooling fifth season, with its increasing anxiety at home and its murmurs of famine across Russia, created a context for the panicked, bracing, and—in its first episodes—superlative season about to air, one in which a final race against time has begun. The other context, of course, is written across the media, as Elizabeth’s dream of a world-straddling Russian empire seems to have come true in a monkey’s-paw kind of way, with all of the dominance and none of the old folk values Elizabeth is teaching Paige. One senses she wouldn’t mind; Elizabeth has compromised enough for her dream, so much that she sees the kindness of her husband as interference and the sensitivity of her daughter as toxically compromising. Much has been written about how The Americans is a story of marriage. There’s less about what may be its final form: A tragedy.