If you wait long enough, every plot will become relevant again.
The Americans, which returns to FX tonight, was a 1980s period piece when it debuted five seasons ago, and unless you read its core concept in terms of metaphor, it didn’t make modern sense. The Cold War ended in the early ’90s; post-9/11 paranoia was about Middle Eastern sleeper agents living among us, not Russians. And now here we are in 2017, living amid accusations that Russia interfered in the presidential election to favor Donald Trump, a candidate sympathetic to their political ambitions and business interests. The Americans plugs into all those news reports in a general (albeit accidental) way, by building on its core story of married spies, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who pose as suburban travel agents while committing acts of sabotage, surveillance, and assassination. But as the first few episodes of season five unfold, The Americans connects in subtler, more disturbing ways. (If you don’t want to know anything else about the plot, bail out now.)
Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have thrown a lot of plot or structural curveballs since The Americans began, but season five, which is set in 1984, begins with one of the most brazen yet: Rather than go back to the Soviet Union, as the couple were told they might have to do in season four, they’ve created a second family identity, posing as an airline pilot and flight attendant who got married and adopted a teenage Vietnamese boat person (Ivan Mok). Phillip and Elizabeth maintain this cover remotely, with the kid, a vehement anti-capitalist, turning lights on and off to make people think they all live together in the same house.
The KGB has the couple investigate a U.S. plot to destroy the Soviet Union’s grain crop and befriend a dissident Soviet agriculture expert who has become an adviser to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The dissident’s denunciations of his former homeland are so stinging that we can see Elizabeth and Philip, normally cool customers in an undercover situation, struggle to keep calm and reply in character. “I don’t know how you guys let a piece of shit like that get out,” says their pretend son. “You should’ve put a bullet in his head a long time ago.”
But there’s more going on here than a variation on the show’s narrative usual. Weisberg and Fields’s drama has always been obsessed with how ideology affects daily life, and it seems to have doubled down on that obsession in season five. The stress fractures in the Jennings’ marriage have always been mainly ideological: Philip maintains a certain idealism about the United States even as he works to undermine it, while Elizabeth is a true believer who thinks the American version of capitalist democracy is evil and must be destroyed. But the political discussions between Philip and Elizabeth — as well as between the Jennings and their allies, bosses and objects of deception — are ultimately about how to implement ideology: how far you go to achieve your objectives. Elizabeth seems unmovable and can be shockingly ruthless, but her purity is attractive, in a way. She’s politically uncomplicated and does not see nuance, but at least she isn’t continually second guessing and doubting herself. Philip is more pragmatic but also more optimistic and sentimental, and for all his lethal skills, there are times when he seems just a bit too nice to be doing this job.
These differences come to a head in the new season. In articulating them, The Americans echoes conversations that are occurring in the United States about the fate of this country. A surprisingly large portion of the new season takes place in the former Soviet Union, where Oleg (Costa Ronin) has taken a job with a KGB task force that’s trying to eliminate corruption in Soviet government and business. Oleg’s superior blames the endemic corruption for the current food crisis, and for other problems as well; it’s surprising to think of the KGB as the only honest organization in the Soviet Union, but strange times make for strange labels. Oleg’s discussions with his superior officer and his contacts with people on the street drive home the idea of Russia as a cesspool of corruption that runs on theft, bribery, favor-trading, and intimidation. The country is rotting from the inside out.
Funny thing, though: The more time you spend in 1984 Moscow on The Americans, the more you feel as though you’re reading current headlines in American newspapers about the Trump administration, which has christened a private country club in Florida the “winter White House” and doubled its membership fees, and which still maintains a stake in NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice (where Trump is executive producer) as well as innumerable private construction and hotel projects in countries that have official business with the Trump administration. Trump, of course, is merely the most visible and repugnant emblem of how things have always been done in communities across the United States. To watch The Americans is to ask how different we truly are from the nations we’ve labeled as enemies, regardless of what kind of government they practice or in what time period the story is set.
On a more intimate level, Philip and Elizabeth are stymied by the relationship between their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) and neighbor Matthew (Danny Flaherty), the teenage son of divorced FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). This is truly a Romeo and Juliet situation: The Jennings are afraid that their daughter is literally sleeping with the enemy, but when they try to push her away from Matthew, it only drives her closer. Stan, too, is more tightly entangled with Philip and Elizabeth than ever before. He watches their kids when they’re out of town and is becoming a shadow second father to them. It seems only a matter of time before he figures out that these travel agents aren’t what they appear to be, and that he’s been a fool for not figuring it out sooner.
The new season feels even more dire and tense than season four, and that’s saying a lot. Even daylight scenes have a middle-of-the-night feeling, because so much of the action is furtive and dangerous. There are many images of decay and rot (one of which attains an almost David Cronenbergian level of horrible beauty) that connect with what’s happening to the characters and the governmental structures they serve. But here, as always, The Americans does complex work that never calls attention to its complexity. The associations and connections are there if you care to make them, but the show maintains plausible deniability as a good spy should, walking briskly from scene to scene as if it’s just here to get the job done and get out.