If watching a TV show is like being in a relationship, The Americans is the closest thing to a domestic partnership that modern TV drama has ever given us. If you live with a lover long enough, you know them so well that verbal explanations become unnecessary, in bed or out. You can get across a question or an intention, or signal appreciation or disapproval, with a look — or a refusal to look. You can tell what mood the other person is in just by seeing how they close the door and hang up their coat when they walk in. You can feel what the other person is feeling. Whether you choose to say something depends on whether the partnership is doing poorly or well, and how willing you both are to live in reality.
The Americans, which begins its sixth and final season Wednesday night on FX, understands this dynamic, and its deep investment in the physical details of marriage may explain why so much of its premiere is dialogue-free. This is a talky show that has always made space for music montages, many of them brilliant, but the first three episodes sent out for review suggest that the storytellers are doubling down on showing. The opening montage — set to one of the most beautiful pop songs of the ’80s, Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” — unfolds for four straight minutes with very little audible dialogue, just shots of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) going about their routines in 1987, on the eve of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union working out the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which in retrospect heralded the beginning of the end of the Cold War. After last season’s disagreements about the future of their marriage in relation to their spy work, Philip has left the spy business, and is now concentrating on their travel agency, which is so successful that it seems incorrect to refer to it as a front. Elizabeth is still a soldier for Mother Russia. We see her conducting photo surveillance of U.S. government officials, and showering after a tryst with a contact (she’s still doing honey-trap work, apparently, even after she and Philip expressed a wish to move away from it).
This sequence is all the more beautiful for being understated, in performance as well as filmmaking. The actors simply do whatever their characters would do in that situation, and the camera watches them. Not a single shot calls attention to itself (even a surprising angle on Philip looking down through the open sunroof of his car has a tossed-off feeling), and the editing is unobtrusive, carrying us from point to point. The music is in conversation with the images, teasing out the subtext in ways that seem obvious at first (the refrain keeps referring to “the war between us”) until you realize that nothing has been defined for us. There’s a deep feeling of unease and sadness coursing throughout, but it remains mysterious because it’s unstated. At a moment near the end when you expect a heart-to-heart talk (from a lifetime of exposure to TV drama generally, not just this show), The Americans gives us a wordless exchange of glances instead. But you can’t exactly claim that things were left unsaid, because you read this couple’s faces like words on a page.
The series brings back a lot of familiar images and situations, in a full-circle maneuver characteristic of TV dramas as they head into their farewell stretch. There’s a cameo by the FBI’s mail robot and a scene of Philip line-dancing in a country-western bar, and you could even argue that the opening montage is an off-kilter mirror of that bang-up introductory section from the pilot, set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” (Fleetwood Mac makes a return appearance in the premiere episode, although it’s a different song with a different feeling, and it’s slotted in a different place.) But the emphasis is mainly on Philip and Elizabeth; their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is off at boarding school and has become a formidable hockey player; and their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is following her mother into the spy business but has been repeatedly assured (not too convincingly, to us viewers) that it’ll be a more cerebral and detached sort of espionage work, far removed from transactional sex, theatrical disguises, emotional manipulation, torture, murder, and other Jennings specialties. There are return appearances by Oleg (Costa Ronin), who’s been out of the spy business for three years and now has a wife and baby in Moscow; his former handler Arkady (Lev Gorn); and the Jenningses’ regular handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), who has styled herself as a surrogate grandmother to Paige when she’s not tutoring her in the basics of espionage and politics. The emphasis on children — not just Paige and Henry, but Oleg’s baby and various other offspring, living and dead — makes us think about the cycle of generational succession. What will the future look like? How will its shape be decided? If the characters have to pick sides in an ideological or emotional conflict, which will they choose?
Thematically, a lot of the story lines echo the final season of The Sopranos, which saw various characters trying (and mostly failing) to escape their professional and moral trajectories. Philip wanted out for a very long time and finally got what he wanted (for the time being, anyway). It’s clear from the physical and spiritual exhaustion etched on Elizabeth’s face that she’s been thinking about getting out as well, but she’s such a die-hard Soviet believer that she seems incapable of taking the bold step that her husband took, or even of convincing herself that it’s necessary. In what feels like a secondary mirrored plotline, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has tried to extricate himself from counterintelligence work by moving to a different department, where he’s relieved to be dealing with murderers, drug dealers, and corrupt politicians. But his connection with Oleg via their imprisoned and executed ex-lover Nina (Annet Mahendru) all but ensures that he hasn’t seen the last of the spy game.
The show is filled with characters who are defined by their willingness or inability to change. This is subtly paralleled in the political details embedded in the scripts by co-executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who write the first two episodes. The hard-liners in the KGB resist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to reform and liberalize the country, just as skeptics in President Ronald Reagan’s White House look askance at what they perceive as an old Cold Warrior going soft. There are throwaway lines alluding to Reagan’s memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that his inner circle hid from the public, as well as his concern with what his legacy would be. (Surprisingly, to some, he didn’t want it to be one of confrontation and belligerence.)
Philip and Elizabeth seem positioned for their own battle of ideas. It’s obvious that some part of Elizabeth wants to get out, and get Paige out too. She has always been depicted as the tougher, more dogmatic member of the union, but she’s better at acknowledging contradiction and ambiguity than we tend to give her credit for. “It’s easy to see things as black and white,” she tells Paige. “But the world is complicated. And the sooner you get this, the better off you’ll be.” But whether she can overcome a lifetime of conditioning and actually change is an open question. Are she and Philip headed for some kind of separation, be it by geography, divorce, or death?
There was a time when I would have considered that unthinkable. But I was a high-school senior in 1987. It seemed like the Cold War would never end. It was a time of jingoistic movies like Red Dawn, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Missing in Action, and the sleeper hit of 1987, No Way Out, about a Navy officer trying to uncover the identity of a Russian spy posing as an American. ABC dropped tens of millions of dollars on the mini-series Amerika, about the USSR taking over the U.S. mainland. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag lowered for the last time above the Kremlin, and the USSR was no more. No union is guaranteed to be permanent. Till death do us part, the marriage vows say. The death could be physical, philosophical, or emotional, but the specter remains ever present.