The Americans’ Penultimate Season Was Its Messiest, Most Depressing One Yet

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Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX Networks

“It adds up,” says Frank Langella’s weary KGB handler Gabriel, not long before leaving the spy game and heading back home to Russia near the end of season five of The Americans. There’s been too much lying, too much killing, too much pretending that it’s all normal and that it takes no toll on his psyche. He’s done. He talks a bit about the tendency to rationalize evil, when he admits committing atrocities after the war: “I believed I was working in service of a higher purpose, but I was just scared.” The whole season is about the damage done, and what you decide to do (or not do) after you’ve assessed it. Gabriel got out. He proved to be an old canary in this coal mine. By the end of the season, we’d see several major characters expressing a wish to get out of their respective Cold War jobs, on both sides of the KGB-FBI divide and on both sides of the Atlantic. As goes Gabriel, so goes The Americans.

The season begins with KGB agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) using their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to spy on both her left-wing activist pastor, Tim (Kelly AuCoin), and her boyfriend, Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty), son of the family’s FBI-agent neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich). One of the most chilling moments between father and daughter comes when Philip tenderly tells the distressed Paige, who broke up with Matthew to avoid compromising the family, “In time, you’ll get used to these things.” But he comes around, employs introspection and EST to sort through all the corpses he’s piled up and all the other misdeeds he’s committed, and engages Elizabeth in a serious talk about getting out: What it would entail, how it would affect the kids, what it would do to their identity as well as their lifestyle. He doesn’t want Paige to become like him. Neither, ultimately, does Elizabeth. Nor does Gabriel, if the look on his face when he admits his failings is any indication.

This was the most depressing season of a great series whose mood runs the gamut from melancholy to soul-sick — admittedly not the sort of description that’ll lure new viewers — and the fact that it saddened me so much makes me wonder if its virtues aren’t produced by what I characterize as flaws. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened in a TV show I like: Messier seasons often do things to us that neater seasons don’t, maybe because we’re too busy dog-paddling through the soup of odd choices to stand back and admire the storytellers’ exquisite judgment. Season five of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’s series was my least favorite overall: My current ranking from greatest to least is 4, 3, 2, 1, and then 5. A few of the subplots felt needlessly repetitive and drawn out, though not unnecessary; there’s a difference between a slow burn and running out the clock, and I’m not convinced that every decision here was in service of the former. There might’ve been 9 or 10 solid episodes’ worth of story, but not 13 — an assertion I’ve never made about this show before. (Intriguingly, season four didn’t technically have enough story to fill 13 episodes, either, but they got around the problem by capping their ongoing arcs in episode eight, fast-forwarding a few months, and starting the next leg of the journey with five episodes to go.) There were moments when it felt a bit too much like a TV show dealing with TV-show problems, like how to integrate Stan into a series that’s become increasingly Jennings-centric, and what to do with the Jenningses’ other child, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who rarely seemed like more than an afterthought even during the early years. (The solution to the Henry problem — boarding school — would’ve seemed like an obvious narrative patch if the writers hadn’t brought it around again in the finale, in a wrenching scene that finds Philip telling the boy that he can’t go because it would split the family apart. That the family requires unity because it may be relocating to Russia is a topic that dad isn’t prepared to broach.)

Still, The Americans’ ability to focus every scene and subplot on a single guiding idea every season paid off in a big way here. Season five of this show was about the psychic price of reflexive loyalty to the tribe, and what happens when you wise up and realize the price is too high. At times, it reminded me of the sixth and final season of The Sopranos, which began with a mob soldier announcing that he wanted out, and hanging himself after being told he couldn’t quit, then continued with its mob-boss hero getting shot and realizing, probably subconsciously, that he couldn’t leave either and was probably too lazy (in every way) to try anyhow. The last few episodes of David Chase’s series were about luck running out, often bloodily, for some characters, while survivors made peace with their delusion and mediocrity and shambled on. The moment when Philip and Elizabeth realize they can’t leave the U.S. because an eavesdropping target has been given a major promotion is staged like a soft-spoken, let’s-just-talk-it-out moment, but it’s so unsettling in light of what’s come before, for them and for other major characters as well. “I’m tired of feeling shitty,” Stan confesses to his new girlfriend, explaining why he wants to transfer out of his division and get away from all the spy stuff. (She tries to talk him into staying, of course.)

Two, season-long organizing metaphors were about corruption in all its forms: governments producing genetically modified diseases to destroy their enemies’ food supplies, only to see them turned against them; and the Soviet government punishing a potential whistle-blower, and intimidating KGB operative turned anti-corruption investigator Oleg (Costa Ronin) to protect their rotten status quo. “These people. They’re more powerful than you think — more powerful than KGB,” another reluctant source, a food distributor, tells Oleg. “They control all the food everywhere. They make deals; they take care of each other. Everyone needs them. Even the party.” These machines run in perpetually reinforcing cycles. They grind up anyone who tries to stop or even pause them. And even those who would seem to have a vested interest in defying their inevitable patterns end up embracing them instead, often out of self-preservation or simple reflex. “Your lives are mechanically programmed,” Philip’s EST instructor tells his group, and the key to enlightenment “is knowing the truth … accepting that you are a machine.”

One of the Jenningses’ many targets, a traitor who lured Russian soldiers to their deaths during World War II, got out, in her own way, and lived a long, peaceful life until Philip and Elizabeth tracked her down. Philip hesitated to pull the trigger, so Elizabeth did the deed, killing both the woman and her innocent husband. Elizabeth has always been the more patriotic and cold-blooded one of the pair, but even she began to soften and express regret and fear toward the end of the season. In the penultimate episode, she resists Philip’s instinctive rush to stop a source’s troubled teenage son (and an asset cultivated by their fake son Tuan, played by Ivan Mok) from attempting suicide — which theoretically might have sent his mother back to Russia, with or without him, one element in a complex plot. But in the finale, she speaks to Tuan — who wrote a negative report on the Jenningses, excoriating them for acting on “petty bourgeois concerns” — in language tinged with regret, caution, and traumatized wisdom. “It’s too hard, the work we do, to do it alone,” she says, urging him to pressure his handlers to send him a mate. “One day, it will come crashing down. You need someone, a partner to do this with, to get through it with.” A mate is a person whose job it is to give a damn only about you. Not the state, not the party: you. That’s why Philip took her to that warehouse to get properly, formally married, to assert that their loyalty to each other was stronger than the claims of their masters.

“If you didn’t have to serve your country like this,” Paige asks her mother, “what would you want to do?”

“I’d want to be a doctor,” she replies.

Good luck with that.

The Americans’ S5 Was Its Messiest, Most Depressing One Yet