For four seasons, The Americans has told a story about the waning years of the Cold War, and how it stranded two KGB agents in a country and a culture that’s profoundly affected their values. As such, it’s been easy to understand the show as a period piece, safely tucked away in an era of feathered hairdos, Devo singles, and packets of Lipton-brand Fettuccine Alfredo. But between June 2016, when season four wrapped, and tonight’s season-five premiere, allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election — and mounting evidence of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — might make the Cold War seem like a long game the Soviets are suddenly winning.
So how has all that affected The Americans? We’ll look for the parallels if and when they arise, but beyond some funny memes — my favorite imagines Elizabeth and Philip as waiters at Mar-a-Lago — its contemporary relevance has been a bit overstated. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who kick off the season by co-writing the script for “Amber Waves,” have never been interested in drawing on the past for commentary on today’s foreign policy with regard to Russia. The Americans evokes tensions specific to the Cold War, when the specter of nuclear conflict lingered in the air and families like the Jennings gathered around the TV set to watch The Day After, which articulated that worst-case scenario. It also addresses family values that are both particular to Elizabeth and Philip and universal to parents of any era who have to make difficult decisions about how to raise their children.
For now, then, let’s set aside any tortured connections to Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, and their conversations with the utterly forgettable Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, because The Americans is still The Americans, and the premiere hasn’t shifted an inch with our changing times. On the contrary, each season has felt like a section in a story that’s already been written, rather than one that’s been improvised or calibrated on the fly. No other show cares so little about hand-holding new viewers until they’ve caught up — or even about long-time viewers who may have forgotten a few details in the interim between seasons. That’s by no means a criticism, but even as The Americans has finally gotten the Emmys attention it was long denied, it hasn’t altered its trajectory a hair.
For starters, Weisberg and Fields delight in the grand deception of the pre-credits action in “Amber Waves.” Against the sounds of the Devo deep cut “That’s Good,” we’re introduced to two characters we don’t even know, Tuan (Ivan Mok) and Pasha (Zack Gafin), and we’re encouraged to make assumptions about them that turn out to be false. The disorientation of watching these unknown teenagers interact — Tuan, an immigrant with more experience under his belt, taking the desperately isolated Pasha under his wing — ends with the reorientation of Elizabeth and Philip playing the role of fake parents.
The contrast between the Jennings’ pretend parenthood and their real one is already fascinating, given the ease of one part and the torments of the other. As Elizabeth and Philip work to bring Paige into their secret world — which now mostly involves preventing her from blowing up the whole operation — they get a plug-and-play operative in Tuan, who has a great handle on Pasha’s psychological neediness and a proactive eagerness to stay on top of American culture. He calls The A-Team “stupid,” but he doesn’t want to be out of step from what normal high schoolers are watching. When the three of them have dinner with Pasha’s family, they each play their part in the charade masterfully, telling plausible stories of Tuan’s adoption and adjustment and their adventures as a globe-trotting pilot and flight attendant — jobs that will neatly account for their long absences from home.
At their real home, the headaches over Paige continue. In the final scene of last season, Philip ordered Paige to break up with Matthew Beeman, since a sustained relationship would risk more exposure than they’ve already conceded. But the order hasn’t stuck yet. In two shocking scenes — the encounter with the knife-wielding mugger and a dressing-down in the kitchen — Paige has been shaken and upbraided, but she hasn’t necessarily been convinced. She’s at a perilous age where she’s still a child, dependent on her parents and eager for their approval, but also inclined to question and rebel and become an independent being. Philip and Elizabeth have a difficult argument to make, and the best they can do for now is to frighten their daughter into compliance. Convincing her to embrace the Soviet mission is a bridge too far.
Philip doesn’t have the will or the strength to follow up on the Matthew situation, so it falls to Elizabeth, who says, “I’ll talk to her” with a steely resolve that Keri Russell has perfected over the show’s run. When Paige complains to her parents about the nightmares she’s been having, it’s on Elizabeth to put out the fire by teaching her self-defense. Their scene in the garage mirrors the last season’s kitchen scene: Paige doesn’t recognize the woman shoving her around as the mother who nurtured her all these years. She’s left wondering who the real Elizabeth is: this coldhearted operative stiff-arming her shoulders, or the person who comforted her and shielded her from harm since infancy? Paige is Elizabeth’s flesh-and-blood daughter, but there’s some role-playing here that isn’t far removed from her current assignment with Tuan. And that’s confusing for both of them.
Back in the USSR, meanwhile, food shortages expose some fundamental weaknesses: How can a successful country fail to feed its own people? Pasha’s father Alexei (Alexander Sokovikov) gripes over dinner about the hardships within the Soviet Union: the lines for food, an apartment crammed with three families, an economy that’s stunted by bribes. Philip and Elizabeth roll their eyes on the drive home, remembering much tougher times, like when Philip would eat onion soup or how Elizabeth’s mother withered away to ensure her children had food. But Alexei’s complaints are corroborated across the ocean, where a government official picks from a cart of pastries while ordinary people fight over spoiled meat and bitter harvests. If the Cold War is a battle for hearts and minds, we can see the Soviets at a clear disadvantage.
Hammers and sickles:
• The compare-and-contrast of grain harvests to the Russian version of “God Bless America” is a masterstroke. For that montage to come right after the opening credits sequence sets the stage for a season that’s bound to find the Soviets — and the Jennings operation — playing a much weaker hand.
• Oleg’s return to Moscow is already a stomach-knotting affair. Even if he’s in no immediate trouble, the task of probing elites for corruption automatically puts him in the crosshairs of the Soviet Union’s most powerful people. Of the major characters, his odds of survival are the lowest.
• Speaking of harrowing journeys, Philip’s son making his way through the Moscow airport and onto a bus in Yugoslavia with doctored paperwork is nerve-racking, quite apart from knowing that each step leads him closer to a father who isn’t remotely ready to receive him. That’s a ticking time bomb of another sort.
• “It’s hard to see them like that. Tuan struggled at the beginning, too. You just have to be patient.” Elizabeth is trying to reassure Pasha’s mother, but she’s also reassuring herself, too, about the difficulties she’s having with Paige.
• Stan knocking cheerfully on the Jennings’ front door with a six-pack of Miller Lite pays homage to Noah Emmerich’s character in The Truman Show, who also had a beer at the ready for his fake best buddy Truman. The friendship here is equally synthetic.
• The operation to extract the biochemicals from William’s body is deftly handled. Not many shows would take the time to linger in the arduous and fastidious process of digging up the body and carving out a sample, but it pays off in sustained suspense. The silent resolve with which Philip and Elizabeth decide to kill their South African cohort Hans after he cuts himself confirms the chilling effectiveness of their partnership.
• Did the Russians love their children too? On The Tonight Show last week, Michael Shannon revisited Sting’s question to rousing effect.