A look at why the sensational show feels so sluggish, and why that might change soon.
Is it too obvious to call The Americans a series about family? Redundant or not, that’s what it is. You would think that a show about spies set during the height of the Cold War would be a lot more interested in the US-Soviet arms race and political brinksmanship, but The Americans has always cared more about the nuclear family than nuclear arms.
That remains true as the show reaches the midpoint of its fifth season, perhaps even more than ever now that showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have made a concerted effort to cut down on the show’s already secondary “whizbang espionage” plots. I watch every episode and occasionally write about it, but even I’d be hard pressed to explain just exactly what Elizabeth is supposed to be doing while breaking into a local psychiatrist’s office. The Americans’ greatest strength is its characters, and it excels when it wraps those characters up in its spy plots. That’s why we cared about Martha’s activities as an FBI secretary, why we cared when Nina was caught and sent back to the Soviet Union, and why we care about Paige’s continued indoctrination into Elizabeth and Philip’s covert activities. Martha, Nina, and Paige are what we cared about. The operations were secondary. Sideline those characters, and you’re left with the types of missions that happen every season and are quickly forgotten. Remember the manipulation of Abassin Zadran? Getting secret plans from Lisa and Maurice? Fred collecting stealth paint on a factory floor? If you’re like me then it’s vague at best.
The fifth season of The Americans is the first that hasn’t been superior to the season that preceded it. While individual moments still resonate (I’ll stand by that hole-digging sequence until I die), it’s hard to argue that the show still isn’t waiting to hit the gas this year. I think there’s a few reasons for the sluggish start. First, part of what made Season 4 of The Americans so spectacular was how it wrapped up so many of the show’s initial plots. Nina was shockingly executed in a Siberian gulag and Martha was secreted out of the country in the middle of the night after the heart-wrenching revelation that her husband Clark was actually a Soviet spy.
Those major arcs have now been resolved, but the show hasn’t replaced them with new ones. It’s hard to blame them. Developing characters like Martha and Nina took multiple seasons-worth of work, and the show frankly doesn’t have that kind of time anymore, which is the second reason the show seems to have slowed: they’re into the endgame now. The Americans will wrap up next year with its sixth season. When I say that there isn’t enough time to introduce new characters and develop them fully, there really is an episode count now. With only 20 episodes remaining The Americans looks content to tie up loose ends, dabble in place-holder plots, and double down on long-term storytelling like exploring the relationship between the Jennings family and the Beemans. Much of what will make or break Season 5 will ultimately lie in what happens in the second half. If this season ends with Philip defecting to the United States or Stan Beeman realizing in horror that Philip and Elizabeth are the two mysterious figures that he’s been chasing for years then much of these early episodes will be forgiven as table-setting. The criticisms of The Americans are similar to those of AMC’s Better Call Saul. Joe Weisberg and team can craft a show as finely as Vince Gilligan, but the ins and outs of elder law just aren’t as interesting as the addictive storytelling of making and dealing meth. Bring back the high stakes, and the show will blossom.
But none of that is to say, of course, that Season 5 of The Americans has been remotely bad television. The people who work on the show are incredibly talented, and just good at crafting television episodes. The Americans has spent a half season doubling down on old themes. The slow plotting only reinforces the idea that, despite what the movies would lead you to believe, spycraft is drudgery ninety-five percent of the time. Even Soviet spies have boring days at work and then go home to deal with their kids.
Paige’s growth has been a high point. Gone is the simplistic teen who wanted nothing but her church and black and white morality. She still loves that church, claiming that her baptism was the greatest experience of her life, but she’s come to see the world in shades of grey. The girl who once openly confessed that her parents are Soviet spies to her youth pastor is now reading Karl Marx books provided by that same Pastor Tim, and noting the ways that Marx’s opinions on poverty and wealth manipulation align with her own Christian notions of helping the poor. Sure, Marx may have once said that religion was the opiate of the masses, but her own country isn’t without its share of problems. You take the wheat with the chaff and decide what rings true.
That acceptance has brought Paige closer to her mother, becoming the common ground that Elizabeth has always craved. Just as Paige has become more accepting to Philip and Elizabeth’s work, they’ve also softened their stance on introducing her to spycraft, going as far as bringing her to Gabriel, a man that she didn’t realize has been her parents’ father figure for the majority of her life. That reality only makes the revelation that Gabriel is leaving the US and returning home harder to hear (take a moment to realize that four-time Tony Award-winner Frank Langella is the fifth lead on this show, an A-list talent doing incredible work that’s easy to take for granted). Gabriel leaves a bit of a mess in his absence. The Center hasn’t always given the Jenningses the best handlers, and after the abrasive Claudia and the inept Kate, Gabriel was a steadying, trusted hand.
Those are the building blocks for the second half of the season. What effect will Gabriel’s absence have on the Jennings just when they were getting comfortable enough to bring Paige into the fold? Is having their daughter meet their handler a mistake that Philip and Elizabeth will come to regret? Gabriel’s foreboding last words are chilling: “You were right about Paige. She should be kept out of all this.” It’s as though he can see what’s coming, and he doesn’t want to be around for it. Sending Alexi back to the Soviet Union took a toll on Gabriel’s conscience. Just what is it that he’s hoping to get out of the way of?
The Dead Drop
- We’re over half a season without an appearance by my all-time favorite The Americans character, mail robot. Bring back mail robot. THAT is how you kickstart the show!
- I love the uncomfortable interplay with how successfully Elizabeth was able to seduce her hippie agriculture scientist while Philip suffers through a “relationship” with the accountant.
- Oleg may as well be on a completely different show, but damn if I don’t love his scenes. Can we get a webisode where he, Arkady, and Martha hang out and drink vodka?
- I, for one, think Stan Beeman deserves to be fired from his current role with the FBI. He’s kind of terrible at his job. He’s never noticed the spies who live across the street, and I’m not 100% sold that his new girlfriend isn’t a spy either. I can’t imagine that he is. The only way the show’s ultimate resolution makes any sense is if Stan goes after Elizabeth and Philip.