Warning: This article discusses details of Season 5 of “The Americans,” including what happened on Tuesday night’s finale.
What the heck happened to “The Americans”?
The complaints started early in Season 5 of FX’s critically acclaimed Cold War spy drama, up through Tuesday night’s underwhelming finale. Because I’ve praised the show to the moon since it premiered, it is now my duty to deliver the harsh but comradely criticism: “The Americans” wasted valuable time this year, becoming a show about people staring off into the distance, stirring tea, keeping their thoughts to themselves and worrying quite a lot about grain supply. In fact, the most memorable scene this season came during a very, very protracted task of digging up a grave — depicting literal minutes of monotonous, silent shoveling. It turned out to be a metaphor for the entire season.
It’s not that “The Americans” has fizzled out; it’s just that it has been slow and sort of groggy lately about the story it wants to tell. It ought to have used these 13 episodes of the penultimate season to work viewers up into an absolute wall-climbing tizzy, as it has done so well in the past — setting up the pieces for the planned conclusion next year, in which we will at last see the fates of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a pair of deeply embedded Soviet spies who live the American Dream in mid-1980s Northern Virginia while they steal some of the nation’s most classified secrets.
This season tested the patience each week of even the most committed fan, with story lines that trailed or were never allowed to bloom, even if these minor twists are part of a well-engineered blueprint kept by creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg.
Every tantalizing thread was snipped before it could unravel:
- The meeting that never happened between Philip and his older son, Mischa (Alex Ozerov) who arduously journeyed to America over a few episodes, only to be intercepted and sent home. Why tease us?
- The question of whether the new aerobicizing girlfriend of FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is a Soviet spy. If only she was: It would have helped this season a lot.
- This season’s longest con, which had Philip and Elizabeth posing as airline employees Brad and Dee Eckert, who, with their adopted teenage son Tuan (another spy, played by Ivan Mok) befriend a Soviet defector and his family. All it really accomplished was to lead us smack into “13 Reasons Why” territory, as Philip and Elizabeth rushed to prevent the defector’s teenage son from committing suicide. (They got there! Just in time! Big whoop!)
- The idea that the smartest person in the Jennings household is, of all people, their younger child, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who is begging to go away to boarding school. (Nyet was Philip’s final ruling.) Does Henry crave escape because he’s figured out the truth? Has he told his good buddy, Agent Stan, who feeds him instant Lipton noodles and pizza? Agonizingly, “The Americans” just would not go there.
Instead, the show would go to Moscow this season — a lot. Oleg Igorevich Burov (Costa Ronin) glumly accepted his new task of investigating corruption in Soviet grocery supply, which is about as exciting as it sounds. We also got to see Oleg’s mother stir a lot of borscht or whatever’s on the stove that night. Life in Moscow in 1984 looks a lot like that old Wendy’s commercial of the Soviet fashion show (“Is next — evening wear! Very nice!”), which could have been fascinating with a little more action. The added subtitles don’t bother me, but do make it tough for multitasking TV junkies to tweet and concentrate at the same time. (Does anyone tweet about #TheAmericans anymore?)
The killer disease that caused so much stress in season 4 did get weaponized by the Soviets and used in Afghanistan. So that happened. And all those covert trips Philip and Elizabeth made to Oklahoma and Kansas to chase a killer strain of wheat — oh, never mind. Having former FBI secretary Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), a fan favorite, show up in a few glimpses as she struggles to assimilate to life as a Muscovite was satisfying — especially because viewers would have otherwise asked for all eternity: Whatever Happened to Martha? — but lacked added value.
Part of “The Americans’” problem this season is also what makes it such an intelligent show: It is determined to weave its stories together, referring to past characters and situations that other shows would have long forgotten in a fifth season. There is still the sense that any character could yet pull out the brick that brings the whole thing crashing down.
Philip and Elizabeth decided it was finally time for their 16-year-old daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to meet their boss, Gabriel (Frank Langella). Shortly after, Gabriel decided to retire and move back to Moscow, and his parting words to Philip cautioned against bringing Paige into a life of espionage. Gabriel said that she should have never been informed of her parents’ secret life. (Now he tells us? After we’ve spent all this time grooming Paige for her anticipated future as a teen superspy?)
Once more viewers were encouraged to fret over Paige’s youth minister, Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), and whether he would blow the family secret. After Paige brought home a roll of pictures she covertly snapped of pages from Pastor Tim’s diary, it seemed briefly and even happily possible that we would at last see Philip and Elizabeth solve the Pastor Tim dilemma once and for all. (Ideally, it would involve a sedan trunk and another shovel.) Turns out, we went through all that just to have the pastor and his panicky wife shipped off to South America on a godly mission.
The news isn’t all bad. We are still talking about an intelligent, thoughtfully written drama that can be fascinating even when it’s flat. And “The Americans” can still do a beautiful musical montage, as demonstrated in Tuesday’s episode, when Philip, Elizabeth and Paige are each seen in moments (set to Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”) that emulate the bourgeois life they’d leave behind once the Jennings flee to the Soviet Union.
Because up until the final moments, it seemed that was the plan. Philip and Elizabeth are ready to retire back in the USSR, dragging their children with them. Then Philip was listening to one of those surreptitious CIA recordings that he obtains by posing as the skeevy older man who hangs out with a teenage girl (Julia Garner) whose father is, as we say, highly placed. Philip hears something really big and knows he and Elizabeth finally have an inside track on what could be the biggest get of their mission.
So yet again, “The Americans” changed its mind and circled back around. The time for staring off into the distance is now over. When the show returns next year to wrap things up, it owes its viewers the adrenaline rush they deserve.