How does the best show on television get even better in its new season? Well, it doesn’t really have to. Though The Americans has steadily gotten more intense and more nuanced with each passing season, Season 5 starts off quietly (relatively), with the confidence of a show that knows what it is, what it wants to say, and can benefit from years of setup.
For example, in Season 4 we learned through William’s storyline just how gruesome a biological weapon can be. In the Season 5 premiere, we return to the issue with a new visual shorthand. One long sequence about it is essentially acted out in a series of nods and grunts (in a way that reminded me a little of that infamous crime scene from The Wire). Similarly, a subplot about Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) protesting the CIA going after Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) after he has returned peacefully to Russia doesn’t need a lot of exposition, and doesn’t receive it. Those two, through their relationships with Annet Mahendru’s Nina, went through something unique and exceptional, with Oleg putting himself on the line in a way he would only do once. It’s a very personal thing that viewers can share in, a reference to something that we get that cuts to the core.
Perhaps The Americans’ greatest continued success has been making us care so deeply for characters that we shouldn’t naturally like. Russian spies, for instance. Yet what makes Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the exceptional duo of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) so compelling is not the spycraft that they engage in, but in the very human moments of their marriage, partnership, and relationship. The circumstances surrounding them are extraordinary, but it’s brought home again by the show’s recurring theme of identity. Elizabeth counsels Paige (Holly Taylor) that in a relationship, “you don’t share everything. You hold some things back. Everybody does.” In this case they’re talking about Paige not spilling the beans to Matthew (Danny Flaherty) that her parents are Soviet spies, but the advice is true regardless.
When Matthew questions Paige, who seems more fragile and uncertain this season than ever before (so much so that even Stan picks up on it), he asks if it’s something going on at home. She wants to tell him, but can’t for so many reasons. “I’m having a fight with my mom,” she says finally. “About what?” “About everything in my life, how it always has to be her way.” I’m almost completely certain that I said these exact words to a friend at Paige’s age as well. And though my parents aren’t KGB, it was still complicated as I, like Paige and every other teen on Earth, figured out how to live under certain rules while finding my independence. The way The Americans balances these almost mundane truths with its global stakes continues to be masterful.
This season, those global stakes have moved from biological weapons, for the most part, onto agricultural ones, as Gabriel (Frank Langella) tells Philip and Elizabeth the U.S. is attempting to unleash something on the crops it sends to the USSR, or on the USSR’s crops themselves, that will poison them and cause a famine. The Jennings use this emotional plea to try and win Paige over, but she questions their methods of befriending someone through a false alias, and wonders if that will also be her, always hiding from real relationships. But the new mission also raises questions for her parents, too, particularly Philip, who has always been more skeptical than Elizabeth when it comes to an unwavering support of Mother Russia. On a trip to Oklahoma City, Philip looks out across the fields and muses, “we have this. Why can’t we grow enough wheat to feed our country?” Elizabeth distracts him, and they dance to a country song on the radio, but his doubts remain as he thinks back not only to his childhood, but to the anti-Soviet comments one of their marks constantly repeats.
In all of these ways and others, The Americans continues to be a deeply complicated but beautifully nuanced portrait of a family. The family isn’t typical, but their dynamics are. It’s what makes the formula for the show, if you can even dare to call it a formula, so compelling. There’s action and tension and incredibly cold and brutal violence (that is also swiftly effective), but alongside it are parents and teenagers sparring, fears over emotional infidelity, over job security, and about complicated adult friendships. It’s muted, tense, and in Season 5 it takes its time. It’s building to something else, and while we don’t yet know what that is, there’s no reason to be suspicious. It is not the catastrophe the Jennings are waiting for (Able Archer, perhaps?), but it will surely be astonishing, and never more relevant.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Still one of the best, if not the best show on TV.
The Americans Season 5 premieres Tuesday, March 7th on FX.