When The Americans first premiered in 2013, few would have guessed — despite a strong premise, a veteran TV actress, and some hard-to-ignore ’80s tunes — that it would become one of TV’s greatest television dramas, the perfect slow-burn period piece to take the place of Mad Men after that show wrapped up in 2015.
Like Mad Men, The Americans has been more of a critical darling than an actual phenomenon, but the last few seasons did get some awards recognition, including an Emmy nomination for best drama and back-to-back acting nominations for Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. Their performances as Soviet spies posing as an American family anchor the series, which doubles as a serious exploration of identity, performance, ideology, truth, and domestic life.
Created by former CIA officer turned TV writer Joe Weisberg, the series runs at 75 episodes over the course of six seasons. Like so many of the best dramas before it, there isn’t a bad episode of The Americans. Some are just simply better than others, which is a testament to the attention, patience, and skill of the writers, directors, crew, and performers. Below, we’ve ranked of every single episode, starting with the run-of-the-mill installments and concluding with the very best The Americans had to offer.
75. “Mutually Assured Destruction” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Claudia (Margo Martindale), the Jenningses’ elusive handler, reveals to Elizabeth that Philip slept with Irina, an agent and romantic interest from his old life. But other than creating a parallel with Elizabeth’s unresolved feelings for her own past beau, Gregory, it’s slightly clunky in hammering down the idea that no part of their lives would work without trust.
74. “Behind the Red Door” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Even before Elizabeth asks Philip to do to her in bed what he does to Martha, we understand that confusion is central to this second season. Philip, Elizabeth, Nina, and Stan adopt so many roles in their lives, it makes sense that they (and we) might eventually get lost in them. “We are spies,” Nina says at one point, which is all fine and well to discuss in a performance-studies class, but detracts from the season’s difficult-to-follow arc.
73. “Pests” (Season 5, Episode 2)
Season five was often criticized for being too much of a slow burn. While I’d argue it’s essential to feel the boredom and exhaustion that the Jennings feel after so many years, Pests is simply too heavy on the exposition. When Gabriel tells Philip and Elizabeth that they’ll be going to Topeka to see if the United States is trying to create a strain of grain that would leave the Russians hungrier than they already are, it’s a good door-opening, but we’re left wanting.
72. “In Control” (Season 1, Episode 4)
“In Control” is almost a bottle episode, something of a reprieve from the building tension to focus on an event that truly shook up the world. It tells of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and like Mad Men’s own dealings with historic, monumental events — the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. — “In Control” disrupts with a purpose. Looking back, this episode ties in nicely to season six, where Elizabeth’s inability to question her authority figures finally comes to a head. But at this point, when she assumes that the death of the president will bring on a coup or an all-out war between the Soviet Union and United States, it feels a little rocky.
71. “Arpanet” (Season 2, Episode 7)
The Oleg and Nina story lines are wonderful, proof that The Americans is as thoughtful about its secondary characters as it is about the Jennings and Stan. Oleg teaching Nina how to lie for a lie detector test, by clenching her anus, is golden. (This show does have a sense of humor!) But when it comes to Philip and Elizabeth’s growing conflict with Andrew Larrick, this episode falls short.
70. “Walter Taffet” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Directed by Noah Emmerich and featuring amazing work from Alison Wright, whose Martha is on the verge of being discovered as a mole by the FBI, “Walter Taffet” is more transitional than anything. It’s never dull, but like several of The Americans middle-of-the-run episodes, it’s mostly setup for what’s to come.
69. “Cardinal” (Season 2, Episode 2)
Buildup always seems to mark the weakest of The Americans’ episodes (in relation to the series’ best, of course). The season-two opener offered a shocking blow to the Jennings, who were confronted with a mirror of their reality: They find their friends, fellow sleeper agents posing as an American couple, slaughtered, along with their daughter. “Cardinal” isn’t so much filler, but it is definitely more of a mood piece, an episode that reinforces the dangers of the job and its consequences.
68. “Echo” (Season 2, Episode 13)
A lot is uncovered in season-two’s finale, but what rings as most surprising isn’t so much the resolution of Andrew Larrick’s cartoonish villainy. That’s actually the weakest element of the episode. He captures Elizabeth and Philip, ties them up, and they still manage to kill him. It unfolds swiftly, almost comically so, which feels unfair given how much time the series had given to Larrick this season. It’s only at the end, when we discover that the KGB has a new pilot program to bring second-generation kids into the mix, that things get spicy. Paige, they’re coming for you.
67. “Pastor Tim” (Season 4, Episode 2)
With all the intensity and brutality that dominates the latter half of season four, “Pastor Tim” is quieter. After all, it is an episode about deliberation. It could’ve been titled “What to Do About Pastor Tim?” because this is the serious question that haunts Philip and Elizabeth, who have discovered that Paige told her beloved pastor that her parents aren’t exactly travel agents. It’s a delicate episode, proof that The Americans would never just kill someone off because it’s convenient.
66. “Immersion” (Season 5, Episode 8)
The scene where Elizabeth tells Paige about her rape — the most effective scene in “Immersion” — brings up a recurring question about child-rearing that’s all the more complicated when the parents are Soviet agents. There’s a possibility that Elizabeth is at once manipulating Paige by divulging such information, but also that she’s eager to show her daughter how strong she has become despite adversity. She’s not afraid and doesn’t want Paige to be either. However, the Paige question between Philip and Elizabeth is a little rehashed.
65. “Duty and Honor” (Season 1, Episode 7)
Philip and Elizabeth are physically apart, which rarely works. It’s probably why the episode’s strongest scene is when Elizabeth, missing her husband while he’s on a mission with the former love of his life, Irina, asks him to come home. Keri Russell is sensational here, simultaneously jealous, lonely, guilty, and upset that she can feel all of that for a man she’s telling herself she can’t love. But Philip is angry after learning that Elizabeth reported on him — something that brilliantly comes to bite Elizabeth in the final season — and “Duty and Honor” feels like his sort of revenge trip.
64. “Martial Eagle” (Season 2, Episode 9)
“Martial Eagle” is all about enraging Andrew Larrick, which happens very early on when a mission goes south and Philip is forced to kill several guards at a military base. But this is about Philip, too. Normally the face of calm, when Philip explodes he really explodes, which he does when he rips up Paige’s Bible. The brilliance in this moment is twofold: Here’s a father losing control of his daughter to this institution, yes, but there’s also a clear envy he has for Paige’s ideological purity. Imagine if Philip knew he could be saved? Given all we know about Larrick and what will become of him, “Martial Eagle” is just about getting from point A to be B.
63. “Yousaf” (Season 2, Episode 10)
You know you’re making a good ’80s show when you get Pete Townshend to record an original song for a tense action sequence. For all the talk of The Americans as metaphor, it’s also straightforwardly a brilliant spy series, as evident in a scene in “Yousaf” where Elizabeth takes a trip to a hotel pool to strangle Javid Pervez, the head of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Covert Action Division. This is all to make room for Yousaf, a Pakistani intelligence agent whom Philip has prepared his asset Annelise to seduce. Making room is key to this episode, which sometimes feels more like a standard procedural crime drama than what The Americans actually is: a rich drama that can do it all!
62. “Divestment” (Season 3, Episode 8)
When Nina was sent back to Russia, it was hard to imagine what The Americans would do with her. It’s to the credit of “Divestment” that Nina continues to be one of the greatest television characters of all time, a woman whose motivations and allegiances are always shifting. She’s a self-preservationist, so even when she gets ten years shaved off her treason sentence by gaining the confidence of and then betraying her roommate in prison, we can’t help but root for her — even if she, seemingly at least, epitomizes the opposite of Stan and the Jennings.
61. “The Colonel” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” is a more than suitable closing song for “The Colonel,” a season finale that does all that a finale should do. Elizabeth has to heal from her gunshot wound, and we are left to wonder what will happen to her marriage once she returns; Nina — now playing triple agent — will continually be put at risk; and Stan’s professional and personal life are turning him upside down. It’s all good closing stuff from a solid first season, but also proof that The Americans will continue to blossom.
60. “Crossbreed” (Season 5, Episode 6)
An alternative title to “Crossbreed” could be “Adieu, Frank Langella.” Gabriel announces his retirement to the Jennings in this episode, a suggestion that season five not only marks a fatigue felt by Elizabeth and Philip, but that their work has genuinely taken its toll on Gabriel. He recently had to make the difficult decision of turning Philip’s son away, after the boy traveled all the way to the U.S. to find his father. It’s grueling work, but what seems to be eating Gabriel is a love for Elizabeth and Philip and a knowledge that even if they survive this all, what’s left of them is already so fractured.
59. “The Walk In” (Season 2, Episode 3)
It’s bad timing for Paige to get curious. Elizabeth and Philip just found their friends dead, and now Paige decides to take an impromptu trip to the elusive Aunt Helen, Elizabeth’s alleged great-aunt and the only living relative Paige has been told about. She’s desperate to connect to her roots, reaching to fill a void that Elizabeth and Philip — as good as they are at their cover — are unable to fill.
58. “The Committee on Human Rights” (Season 5, Episode 7)
Paige, in the most moving part of her training this season, gets to meet Gabriel. That meeting culminates in Gabriel giving too-little, too-late advice to Philip and Elizabeth: Keep her out of it, he says, then we cut to a lot of other astute observations about what these parents are attempting to put their daughter through. The cleverly titled “The Committee on Human Rights” is a contained episode where we must reconcile the fact that these parents (“the committee”) will ruin their daughter’s life (“human rights”).
57. “Operation Chronicle” (Season 2, Episode 12)
Although Martha is a pawn destined for a lonely life, it’s important to remember she’s also sharp, aware of her needs and desires, and can see through one of Clark’s greater deceptions. “I love everything about you,” she tells Philip in disguise. “I even love your toupee.” This is the best thing about an episode that otherwise moves about a little unrealistically, particularly as Larrick gets closer to the orphaned Jared Connors and the Jennings.
56. “Salang Pass” (Season 3, Episode 5)
“Salang Pass” contains one of the more memorable and horrific scenes in the history of The Americans, which is saying a lot. It’s not a murder even, but something that feels both obvious and unexpected. We know, from the pilot, that sex as a manipulation tool is essential to being a spy, but a flashback here takes this concept a step further. Philip and Elizabeth were trained to sleep with anybody, even if their target ends up being someone like Kimmy, the teenage daughter of a high-ranking CIA official that Philip is forced to fraternize with.
55. “A Roy Rogers in Franconia” (Season 4, Episode 12)
William’s cover is about to be blown, but the crux of this episode deals with the aftermath of Paige witnessing Elizabeth kill a man who was trying to mug them. Now that Paige sees what her mother is truly capable of, her understanding of their duties will be more convoluted than ever before. Morality and the Jenningses’ relationship to it has always been touch-and-go, and it’s about time Paige gets the hang of that.
54. “I Am Abassin Zadran” (Season 3, Episode 12)
In a move that mirrors Martha’s escape in season four, Paige runs away to Pastor Tim’s house. She needs a night off, and when Philip and Elizabeth come for her, she lashes out and essentially has to be dragged back home. Their qualified reminder — “You asked for this truth” — is not enough to placate her, and her outrage feels like a plot point for a next step: Elizabeth wants her to come meet her dying mother.
53. “Dimebag” (Season 3, Episode 4)
In “Dimebag,” Philip is expected to seduce the impressionable Kimmy despite his reservations. This is the birth of Philip’s sleazy “Jimmy,” a pot-smoking cool guy who impresses the teenage Kimmy. Well, that and Yaz. Because Matthew Rhys is so fantastic, we can see through all the grime and KGB expectations to know what he’s instinctively doing with Kimmy. It makes sense, then, when he decides to gift Paige a Yaz record for her birthday. Yaz is awesome, but Philip’s gift is tinged as an icky, last-ditch attempt to keep his little girl on his side.
52. “Stealth” (Season 2, Episode 11)
Larrick is getting closer to the Jennings. He kills Kate, their new, young handler after they got rid of Claudia at the end of season one. Knowing she’s in trouble, Kate leaves Philip and Elizabeth a message on a paper towel — very Spy 101 — and they’re surprised to learn that Jared Connors is a target.
51. “IHOP” (Season 5, Episode 9)
We are gifted with another crushing Martha scene that, on its own, would probably propel “IHOP” to one of The Americans’ greatest outputs. Martha, now living a solitary life in the Soviet Union, has gotten by. This much we learned earlier this season, but now that Gabriel is back, we get a full, wonderful reunion. She’s eating a baked potato — food is scarce, as we’re told again and again all season — but with her new, regimented life comes perspective. “I understand everything now, Gabriel,” she lets him know before shooing him from her humble apartment. It’s both sad and hopeful. Martha is tough and will manage. She always has.
50. “Comint” (Season 1, Episode 5)
Off the bat, “Comint” confirms that the show’s greatest strength is its character work, and this goes beyond Philip and Elizabeth. We have Nina, now a KGB agent at the Rezidentura who is blackmailed by Stan into working for the FBI. We sense immediate conflict in Stan, a testament to Noah Emmerich’s ability to play horny, serious, macho, and vulnerable in one expression, but also to the show’s writing. The way he works Nina is incredible, and even though The Americans is just five episodes in, it’s obvious that this man is so good at certain aspects of his job, yet so clueless about how his lack of emotional intelligence could be his professional and personal undoing.
49. “Glanders” (Season 4, Episode 1)
Flashbacks are in and out in The Americans, but the one we see of Philip as a child — his first kill, when he stones a bully to death — is tough, especially when these ghosts take him to an EST meeting. Philip does the best he can to talk about his trauma in “Glanders,” even though he’ll never be able to actually open up about it.
48. “The Oath” (Season 1, Episode 12)
There’s a cheesiness to “The Oath” that, in theory, should put it much lower on this list, but the episode is a feat of acting, even if it verges on silly. Martha convinces Philip to get married, so we are provided with a sham marriage, during which Elizabeth and Claudia disguise themselves as Clark’s sister and mother. The usually inscrutable Claudia is all hugs and maternal warmth, Elizabeth’s wig is outstandingly awful, and Martha’s obliviousness feels out of a Greek tragedy. It’s brilliant pastiche, and every time The Americans toys with humor, it’s hard not to imagine wacky scenes like this on an old ’50s TV show.
47. “Baggage” (Season 3, Episode 2)
Every once in a while The Americans leans into the snark, and that comes here in the episode’s title, “Baggage.” It’s a reference to all that Elizabeth, Philip, Stan, & Co. must emotionally carry, but also to the gory scene — unmatched in the Americans until the ax scene in season six — when Philip and Elizabeth must break Annelise’s bones so that they can shove her into a suitcase.
46. “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” (Season 5, Episode 4)
With Elizabeth pushing Paige into believing that Mother Russia is the greatest — an irony considering she doesn’t know what modern Russia is like after being away for so many years — Oleg’s own dealings in Russia reach a new high after seeming like a weak point. He sees corruption in the Soviet Union, and a wealth disparity that Elizabeth would like to believe only exists in the States. The elite eat like kings while the rest of the country starves. When Oleg threatens a grocer for selling black-market items, we’re as unfazed as she is. What’s he going to do about it?
45. “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow” (Season 4, Episode 3)
The obvious highlight of “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow,” besides its title and the mental image of the entire Jennings clan at EPCOT, is Young-hee Seong, the first asset we get in The Americans who truly makes Elizabeth pause and think. Ruthie Ann Miles plays her with a contagious warmth and wit, and even in Young-hee’s first appearance, Elizabeth is changed. She is forming a kinship that’s fresh, new, and obviously dangerous for a woman who has, up until now, been almost too good at turning off her emotions when it comes to work.
44. “Born Again” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Elizabeth’s motives are often questionable, but “Born Again” provides a sincere moment between mother and daughter that reminds us how starved she is to connect with Paige. A cynic may exchange that word with control, but hearing her tell Paige a softer version of her relationship with Gregory, explaining that she has a past as a civil-rights activist, is huge.
43. “Covert War” (Season 1, Episode 11)
This episode’s death is significant for Elizabeth. General Zhukov, the Russian general who gently guided her to make a lifelong commitment to spycraft and marry Philip for her cover, is killed. The standout scene is a haunting one, a flashback where Zhukov delivers a powerful metaphor, as Elizabeth shares her apprehensions about her newish marriage and Zhukov speaks tenderly about his dog: “He isn’t particularly smart. He isn’t pretty. But I love him, because I take care of him. Every day. And he, in his way, is taking care of me. If you are taking care of something, Elizabeth, one day you will discover that you love this creature and your life will be empty without it.”
42. “The World Council of Churches” (Season 5, Episode 12)
Parenting overwhelms Philip and Elizabeth to the extent that they’re reaching out to Pastor Tim for advice. It’s about the kids and how they would do in Russia, yes, but it’s also about a lot more. These most human anxieties are intensified when Tuan — the son they have taken on as a cover — maniacally decides to drive Pasha, his supposed friend, to suicide. It’s too much, even for Elizabeth. Their decision to save Pasha’s life, risking their own in the process, speaks more about their current preoccupations than ever before.
41. “Tchaikovsky” (Season 6, Episode 2)
Elizabeth is overextended, as we discovered in the season-six premiere with her heavy lids and heavier smoking. She’s doing it all without Philip now, she has Paige — a real agent — to consider, and everything is clearly taking its toll. Elizabeth (and Keri Russell) is amazing at her job, but is she starting to flail?
40. “A Little Night Music” (Season 2, Episode 4)
What’s so unfortunate about “A Little Night Music” is that it doesn’t linger too long with Elizabeth and the soft, romantic Navy man she attempts to seduce in order to gain information on Larrick. What’s so palpable about their relationship is that we see Elizabeth — consciously or not — concoct an identity that’s not too far from the truth. She tells the young man that Larrick raped her and that she’s looking for justice. Elizabeth’s moments with the sailor, so gentle and full of genuine feeling — yet another testament to Keri Russell — also showcase why Elizabeth and Philip are great at what they do. It’s a cliché that holds true about the best liars needing to put a little bit of truth in their stories.
39. “EST Men” (Season 3, Episode 1)
“Should we tell Paige or not?” dominates a majority of season three, and Philip, who doesn’t want to bring his daughter into a life he already he isn’t so sure about, is reaching. Everything is set up as usual here: the upcoming missions, a new handler in Gabriel, and a continuation of Martha and the other innocents the Jennings have unwillingly brought along for the ride.
38. “Clark’s Place” (Season 4, Episode 5)
While Philip and Elizabeth wait on orders about what to do with Martha, what to do with Pastor Tim, and what to do with years of built-up anxiety, it’s poignant that “Clark’s Place” ends with relief. Elizabeth is obviously affected by Philip’s attachment to and affection for Martha, so it may be a little heavy-handed when the episode ends with them having passionate, much-needed sex to “Under Pressure.” But it’s a reminder to nurture a marriage, even when your fake wife is at risk of being imprisoned for life and your daughter’s pastor may have plans to put you there too.
37. “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov” (Season 3, Episode 11)
Elizabeth and Paige take a trip to visit Elizabeth’s dying mom, a trip that is both Center unapproved and opportune when it comes to Paige’s indoctrination. Like so many moments in the series, it’s difficult to discern when Elizabeth is parenting and when she’s manipulating. (She’s always probably doing a little bit of both.) There’s a part of her that obviously wants her daughter to connect with her mom, but there’s also the knowledge that Paige will be pacified upon meeting a relative and having a sense of Elizabeth’s background.
36. “Open House” (Season 3, Episode 3)
“Open House” has one of the show’s single most remarkable scenes, which rests on an ever-growing trust between Philip and Elizabeth, but also on tight direction and Russell and Rhys’s chemistry. In the season-three premiere, Elizabeth gets beaten hard while on a mission, and despite putting it off, she has a tooth that needs to be removed. She can’t see a dentist for obvious reasons, so in the garage, Philip steps up and yanks Elizabeth’s tooth out. There’s complete trust here. Not just because they’re partners in crime, but because they’re partners in life.
35. “Darkroom” (Season 5, Episode 10)
“Darkroom” ends with Bauhaus’s “Slice of Life” and a scene that is equal measures chilling and heartwarming — so, a typical closer for The Americans. Paige’s training is going so well that she gets a little cocky and takes photos of Pastor Tim’s diary, revealing an entry where he says he worries for her soul. It turns Paige against him, turns her inward and to her family, and the scene of Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige in a darkroom reading the diary pages is both sweet (in that it brings the family together) and tragic (in that Pastor Tim’s words are not malicious and come from actual care and truth).
34. “Rififi” (Season 6, Episode 6)
The film Rififi seems like an obvious choice for Elizabeth’s foray into serious cinema. Okay, film isn’t actually a new interest for Elizabeth, but Rififi happens to be on-point because it’s one of the best heist movies ever, and because its director — as explained by Jackson, the Senate intern Elizabeth is trying to seduce — was blacklisted in the United States during the McCarthy era. This is also a Thanksgiving episode, and naturally, the holiday dinner is fraught with discomfort. While Elizabeth is suspiciously absent, Stan, newly enraged after the murder of Sofia and Ginaddi, gives a rousing toast to American exceptionalism. His obliviousness has never looked so sad.
33. “Trust Me” (Season 1, Episode 8)
The interrogation scenes feels a little too Mission: Impossible, not delicate in the way The Americans usually is, but the shock of it all is a turning point in season one. Elizabeth beats the hell out of Claudia, warning that she’ll destroy her if she ever betrays them again. (She doesn’t lie; her threat returns in season six.) Still, it’s not as upsetting as the realization that the only reason the interrogation happened is because Elizabeth has been reporting on Philip and his wavering allegiances. It’s not the last time that a spy will spy on a spy.
32. “March 8, 1983” (Season 3, Episode 13)
Nina is one of The Americans’ trickiest characters. We often don’t know why she does what she does, but here we settle into all that she’s been through. She’s always belonged to someone, and unlike Elizabeth, she’s never been okay with that. Her conversation with Baklanov, whom she should be manipulating, lets us see how tired she is of playing the games. “They only have my body, you understand?” His words are as empowering as they are dooming.
31. “The Midges” (Season 5, Episode 3)
The Jennings teach Paige an intimate technique, resulting in a great, tender moment: In any time of crisis, they tell her, she should rub her fingers together and think of them. It’s sweet, in a sense — a Wizard of Oz-esque “no place like home” sentiment — but also disturbing because it’s a veiled threat. If she can’t get her act together, can’t keep her cover around Matthew, Stan, and everybody else in her life, she’ll expose them all.
30. “Amber Waves” (Season 5, Episode 1)
“Amber Waves” closes with a long, harsh scene in darkness. Gabriel says that the Soviets still need the Lassa virus, and the only way for Elizabeth and Philip to get their hands on it is to exhume William Crandall, the KGB illegal who infected himself and died in FBI custody in season five. As they dig and dig, the monotony of their effort is a brilliant opener for a season that’s all about the dirty work and the unromantic side of the business.
29. “Persona Non Grata” (Season 4, Episode 13)
William’s insides are melting at the end of “Persona Non Grata,” and although he doesn’t betray his fellow comrades to Stan (who can only watch as the first Directorate S agent he’s ever met dies), he does reveal a little too much in his feverish state. In a brilliant bit by Dylan Baker that simultaneously feels like part of a delusion but also part of William’s resentment and envy of Philip and Elizabeth, he tells Stan that the spies look like everybody: “A couple kids … American Dream … never suspect them … she’s pretty … he’s lucky.”
28. “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
A lot of care is put into The Americans’ pilot, which has the difficult task of convincing audiences that this show will satisfy their cravings for political intrigue, period detail, and nuanced depictions of married and family life. It begins with Fleetwood Mac’s booming “Tusk” to narrate a tense mission, then weaving in and out of Philip and Elizabeth’s contradicting lives. One minute, Elizabeth serves breakfast, and the next, she’s checking up on a captured defector in her car trunk.
27. “Mr. and Mrs. Teacup” (Season 6, Episode 4)
Elizabeth takes a sick Erica — played by a spectacular Miriam Shor — to a World Series viewing party at a family friend’s house to spy on visiting Russians. Erica, obviously too sick for the party, vomits all over Elizabeth in an utterly dismal scene. It makes Elizabeth look crueler than usual, and although the full consequences aren’t super opaque, Erica’s determination to teach Elizabeth marks a shift in a woman who usually is about action first, thought later.
26. “Dead Hand” (Season 6, Episode 1)
Seeing Paige on a mission is rough, but not as rough as watching an exhausted Elizabeth clean up the mess after her capable daughter does something reckless. With Philip in retirement, the women lead the fight against the Americans, but the essence of this season premiere is that everything has become quite muddled. They’ve changed because they’ve been at this for some time, but also because relations between the U.S. and the Russians, now under the more diplomatic Mikhail Gorbachev, are improving.
25. “Munchkins” (Season 4, Episode 10)
The sudden death of Agent Gaad, who is taking a long-needed vacation with his wife, is a blow. He’s found by KGB agents on assignment from Rezidentura chief Arkady Ivanovich, and when they try to question him, he slips through a glass door and dies. Everyone is affected, including the Russians, but The Americans needed an episode like this to push forward an idea about the war raging between two sides: As much as you may try to avoid them, there will always be casualties.
24. “Gregory” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Morality has always been a huge component of The Americans. From the get-go, it seemed reductive to think of Philip and Elizabeth’s line of work as serving good or evil. A diplomatic summation of the Cold War is that both sides did some truly despicable things in the name of ideology (even though, as Americans, we are taught to think about the Cold War as a fight for all that is good). Derek Luke’s Gregory Thomas, a black man who was one of Elizabeth’s early recruits, is a pivotal addition to this first season, not only because he’s in love with Elizabeth but because his leftist politics — anti-Vietnam, fighter for civil rights — put him more in line with the Russians than the Americans
23. “Comrades” (Season 2, Episode 1)
For a season that’s arguably the show’s shakiest, “Comrades” is a sensational opener. Elizabeth is back from visiting “Aunt Helen” — that is, she’s healed up after being shot — and her relationship with Philip is on the mend. Paige, in the early days of snooping around, walks in on them 69ing, a scene that’s comical but also genius. Walking in on your parents having sex is a pretty mundane suburban experience, but it’s also an acknowledgement that The Americans is moving in a different direction. Philip and Elizabeth are a team now, stronger than before, and late in the episode, when they discover their friends Emmett and Leanne Connors murdered along with their daughter, it ruptures the illusion of the perfect family with an active sex life we’re asked to imagine.
22. “The Deal” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Sandra Beeman offers some advice in “The Deal” that — like so much on this show — comes back into play in the final season. It’s still good counsel without that context: On her journey of self-care, of listening to herself, and not putting up with Stan’s coldness, Sandra takes up painting. “Drawing helps you find the parts of your soul you’ve lost,” she says, foreshadowing the horrific paintings that Elizabeth witnesses when she’s pretending to be the nurse of a dying artist in season six. It’s no accident that Elizabeth is told to take up drawing around the same time she’s losing her mind to the job.
21. “Urban Transport Planning” (Season 6, Episode 3)
Philip isn’t taking on any more missions, but he’s tight on money. The travel agency isn’t doing well post-expansion, and he isn’t sure he can afford to pay for Henry’s private-school tuition anymore. The juxtaposition between Elizabeth’s operations with Philip’s problems are stark. He is supposedly living the American Dream — but with all the challenges of capitalism that come with it and none of the romanticized comforts.
20. “Dinner for Seven” (Season 4, Episode 11)
“Dinner for Seven” is a tease, a proper surprise of an episode as Elizabeth and Philip make progress with Paige. After being attacked by a man trying to mug them, Elizabeth immediately goes into spy mode and kills him, leaving Paige to weigh how honest her parents have really been with her. Even with this sudden shock, the most glorious scene is shared between Oleg and Stan, whose evolving relationship is a series highlight. They started out as a reluctant duo trying to get Nina back into the States, but over time, a mutual respect and friendship blossomed between them. That’s why when Stan tells Oleg that he doesn’t want to take revenge for Gaad’s death, and that he doesn’t want Oleg’s blood on his hands. It’s the moment that reminds us how much Stan has changed from the dutiful, black-and-white agent who murdered a KGB operative to avenge his first partner.
19. “The Clock” (Season 1, Episode 2)
Philip and Elizabeth poison the son of the Defense Secretary’s housekeeper, Viola Johnson, in order to blackmail her into putting a recorder inside a clock in the secretary’s office. They say that only they have the antidote and that her son will die if she doesn’t do what she’s told. Faith comes to a play a giant role later on in The Americans, especially when we see Paige embrace religion, but its presence here is astonishing. When Viola resists and speaks of having God, Elizabeth is unnerved. Faith is difficult to penetrate in their line of work. You can’t manipulate and blackmail people as easily when they believe in a higher power. The irony is that Elizabeth is critiquing something about herself: her ability to put the mission first because she believes in something larger than her own life.
18. “Dyatkovo” (Season 5, Episode 11)
For all of this season’s talk about wheat, a distraction in “Dyatkovo” is welcome. Philip and Elizabeth are tasked with killing a woman who betrayed her fellow Russians to help the Nazis, and who now lives in the U.S. with her husband. There’s some apprehension, not so much to do with the woman in question, but the fishy details surrounding her. There aren’t photos of her and it’s hard to verify her existence. The surprise about “Dyatkovo” is that the KGB is right, and Philip and Elizabeth do find the woman who committed vile crimes against the Russian people. Yet killing her still feels impossible, and even though Elizabeth does the job, after she finishes it she immediately tells Philip that she’s ready to go home.
17. “The Soviet Division” (Season 5, Episode 13)
Season finales can often feel like a post-climax reflection, but “The Soviet Division” has plenty of energy in its twistedly romantic gem of an ending. After Pasha slashes his wrists and Elizabeth and Philip save his life, their mission is mostly a success. Pasha and his mom will return to Russia. But Tuan is not content, and he angrily confronts the couple about their sentimentality, reprimanding them for “certain petty, bourgeois goals.” Elizabeth’s response showcases how much she has changed over the seasons: She tells Tuan that he won’t last in this business, that he can’t do it alone and needs an ally. We then cut to a talk with her and Philip on a bench, as she tells him that he can stop doing this if he wants. “I don’t want to see you like this anymore,” she says. The sentiment is beyond sweet, even though she isn’t heeding her own warning.
16. “The Great Patriotic War” (Season 6, Episode 5)
Philip realizes that Elizabeth is out of control. The morning after she has sex with him, she asks if he would get Kimmy — who is about to go to Europe for vacation — to enter a communist state, where she’d be taken hostage so that the Russians can get access to her CIA-official father. In response, Philip displaces his anger with Elizabeth by showing up at Paige’s apartment and fighting her. “The Great Patriotic War” concludes with Philip completely betraying Elizabeth by warning Kimmy about what will happen in Europe: “If somebody tries to get you to go to a communist country with them, don’t. Okay? Don’t go.”
15. “New Car” (Season 2, Episode 8)
The second season balances a lot of plot, with varying degrees of success, but there’s a poignancy that distinguishes “New Car” from the rest. When Henry is caught breaking into a neighbor’s home to play video games, he takes remorse to a new level and basically wails to his parents, doing his best to convince them he’s not a bad kid. It’s superb writing, seeing Henry, who ultimately did something minor, beg his deceitful killer parents for forgiveness.
14. “Safe House” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Given that he’s this macho FBI man, The Americans plays Stan pretty level-headed. He has his baggage, of course, like infiltrating a white supremacist group before hunting down spies. But his uncontrollable anger — which Noah Emmerich lets us know always exists, even though he keeps it mostly at bay — finally possesses him after the death of his partner, the lovable Chris Amador. Stan ends up kidnapping and killing Vlad, a lowly agent at the Rezidentura. It’s an eye for an eye, and “Safe House” is all about what we do in the face of profound loss, be it divorce or the unjust death of someone we held dear.
13. “Lotus 1-2-3” (Season 5, Episode 3)
Just when we’re supposed to think that Elizabeth and Philip are on a righteous assignment to stop the Americans from creating a crop-killing pest, “Lotus 1-2-3” hits them hard: Agri-Corp is trying to feed people around the world, not starve them, which means Philip killed yet another innocent for nothing. It’s one of many low blows in the episode, which functions as a preview to the final season. Not only is the KGB’s error horrifying, but Matthew Rhys’s reaction to the truth is one of his finest moments on the show. His eyes well up, but he doesn’t lose it. Instead he shuts off. It’s his creeping guilt, for sure, but it’s also Philip coming to terms with something he has known for a while: The country he fights for isn’t always right.
12. “Travel Agents” (Season 4, Episode 7)
It makes perfect sense that Elizabeth is the one to find Martha after she flees the safe house. Keri Russell shows us Elizabeth’s deliberation as she contemplates the best way to handle this frantic woman. She has a gun at the ready, but she does the most humane thing possible instead, for Philip’s sake, all while being true to herself: She knocks the wind out of Martha with a blow to her stomach. Philip is grateful, but not as pleased as Elizabeth when he tells her that he’s always loved her.
11. “Stingers” (Season 3, Episode 10)
The one where Philip and Elizabeth finally tell Paige about being Soviet spies. This revelation could have been written so many ways, but their talk — wisely set in the kitchen, the most performative space in the Jenningses’ home — is a series peak. Parents bringing their kids around the table to divulge information, or vice versa, is a customary experience. “The talk” could be about anything, but every moment of their conversation is so meticulously written and consequential. Philip begins by saying, “We were born in a different country,” a cop-out that Elizabeth qualifies with “the Soviet Union.” It’s Elizabeth’s phony explanation that makes their scene first-rate. “We fight for people who can’t fight for themselves,” she tells Paige. It’s laughable because she’s coating a truth with another lie, but it’s also harrowing because there’s a sense that this is a lie or exaggeration Elizabeth has been feeding herself ever since she joined the KGB.
10. “The Summit” (Season 6, Episode 8)
In his recap of “The Summit,” Scott Tobias writes that Elizabeth is “both the Angel of Death and the Angel of Mercy.” It’s the most astute observation about Elizabeth, considering this is when Philip finally tells her that he’s been spying on her. Before he does, however, we see her kill Erica, the cancer-ridden artist who has been begging for death all season. Taking her out of her pain is an act of goodness that’s swiftly overshadowed by the subsequent scene, when Elizabeth takes photos of covert papers in Erica’s husband’s briefcase while he’s upstairs saying his good-byes to his dead wife. Still, even Jackson, the Senate intern who is smart enough not to believe Elizabeth’s cover, gets off easy. When we roll around to Philip’s confrontation, it’s all the more believable, an overdue slap in the face for Elizabeth that, in less capable hands, could have rung insincere. Elizabeth is disillusioned and as hard-headed as usual, but his questioning actually strikes a chord.
9. “START” (Season 6, Episode 10)
Considering this as just another episode of The Americans, and not as one that has as much weight as a series finale, “START” is still stellar. The inevitable confrontation with Stan appears early on, when he traps Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige just as they plan on escaping to Russia. He is stoic, so overwhelmed by the betrayal that he mostly stays silent as Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige attempt to maneuver their way out of the situation. It’s The Americans at its most quintessential. There are none better than the Jennings when it comes to toying with other people’s feelings, and the parking-garage scene reminds us why they’ve been able to get away with everything for so long: They haven’t treated their years in America like an act. They feel real love for Stan, even as they’re trying to escape him and the life they’ve faked for so long. And then, in the last scene, the series takes its final bow by considering what it must be like for parents to suddenly realize they’re empty nesters. The stakes are much higher here, of course, but the sentiment of being alone and deciding to be alone together is sincere. There’s no “I love you” at the end of The Americans. Instead, Elizabeth says, in Russian, “We’ll get used to it.”
8. “The Day After” (Season 4, Episode 9)
Whether it intends to or not, “The Day After” forces viewers to take a step back. We are watching an episode of television, but Stan, the Jennings family, and the rest of the United States are watching their possible future in The Day After, a fictional 1983 disaster film that hypothesized a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The experience is simultaneously humbling and triggering, which makes it a fitting complement to Elizabeth betraying Young-hee. She gets Young-hee’s husband alone, drugs him, frames the whole scenario like they’ve had an affair, and then disappears. It accompanies the showing of a film that should be a come-to-Jesus moment for Elizabeth, but The Americans was never going to shy away from the fact that fear is not enough to keep Elizabeth from her duty. The scene with Young-hee’s husband cuts to scenes of Philip teaching Paige how to drive, which only magnifies the absurdity and cruelty of Elizabeth’s actions. It’s essential that the episode concludes with her unexpected breakdown.
7. “Chloramphenicol” (Season 4, Episode 4)
There’s a world in which Elizabeth’s softening up with Philip — triggered by a fear that she’s dying from exposure to Glanders disease — could register as unbelievable. But the honesty lies in the details. Facing possible death, Elizabeth doesn’t think about how she could have behaved differently, but what her family can do once she’s out of the way. “You can just raise them here to be Americans,” she tells her husband. “It’s what you want, what you’ve always wanted.” She would never do it herself, of course, and that’s what makes it all the more honest. Meanwhile, Nina’s awful, inevitable fate is the true gut punch in “Chloramphenicol.” Before she’s executed — mere seconds after receiving her death sentence, with a bullet to the back of head — we get a dream sequence that’s as lovely as it is edifying: Nina sees herself free, leaving the prison with Anton Baklanov. Her death is cruel, but for her soul, it may be alright.
6. “Only You” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Gregory’s death unfolds slowly and beautifully, in an exceptionally directed sequence that plays to Roberta Flack’s sorrowful “To Love Somebody.” Like Nina, Gregory essentially kills himself because he feels stuck, because he’s about to be discovered and the option of living his remaining years in Moscow is unfathomable. Like Nina, Gregory is not free. He’s technically an American citizen, but he’s a black man in a country that doesn’t have his interests at heart. There are few characters worthy of complicating the romance between Elizabeth and Philip, but Gregory — more than anybody on The Americans — embodies a doomed hero. “To Love Somebody” opens with the mournful words, “There’s a light, a certain kind of light / It never shines on me” that reflects the injustices he has been put through in his life.
5. “Harvest” (Season 6, Episode 7)
“Harvest” is an episode about Elizabeth and Philip and not much else, as they commit to the show’s greatest and most dangerous mission. Not only because the Center is demanding the near-impossible extraction of a fellow spy in Chicago, but because Philip makes a choice that causes Stan to be suspicious of the couple for the first time since he snuck into their garage in the first season. At its core, “Harvest” double downs on the Jenningses’ most primal motivations: Elizabeth will do anything for country, and Philip will do anything for Elizabeth. The Chicago sleeper agent is killed in a scuffle, as is another agent who works with Elizabeth. To cover their tracks, Philip has to do something terrible: He uses an ax to chop off the arms, legs, and head of the agent who died in the field so that she can’t be ID’d. It’s torture hearing Philip bring the ax down on this woman’s head until, finally detached, we hear the sound of metal scraping concrete. He said he was done. Look at him now.
4. “The Rat” (Season 4, Episode 6)
William is a foreboding presence in “The Rat,” the bearer of harsh news for Philip. They meet on a bench — so many of The Americans’ most telling conversations take place on benches — and he delivers a dead rat infected with tularemia, a new biowarfare virus that Philip is supposed to hand over to the Russians. The KGB swears it’s protective, and while Philip has been skeptical for some time — more so now that Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the Center don’t want to extract Martha — William’s warning is as petrifying as it is obvious. “Our bosses don’t know what they’re doing. You figured that out, right?” he says, perhaps not realizing that he’s confirming what Philip has felt for years. So he tells Martha that he is KGB; the sudden outpouring of honesty is the right thing to do, even though by doing it he puts himself, his family, and his kids at risk. The idea of trust is seen again in a clever conversation between Agent Gaad and Stan, who are just learning of Martha’s deception. Gaad, so full of sadness, wonders how he was blind to it all, and Stan earnestly replies, “We trust each other.” Of course, Stan is as much of a liar as anyone.
3. “Jennings, Elizabeth” (Season 6, Episode 9)
One of The Americans’ more subversive elements is that it’s always been about Elizabeth Jennings. The idea of the male anti-hero has felt stale for some time, which is one reason why Elizabeth’s journey — which hits its highest stride in this penultimate episode (it’s named after her!) — is among the most exceptional character arcs in the history of TV. She’s gone rogue in “Jennings, Elizabeth,” which opens with a powerful flashback that illuminates what has always been her fatal flaw: She’s too black-and-white about things, which blurs her overall picture of the world. But in the present, “Jennings, Elizabeth” also proffers up two breakthrough sequences, scenes that are so rich and developed they could be one-act plays or fill entire episodes if the time was given.
In the first, Elizabeth tells Claudia she has foiled her plan to get rid of Gorbachev. Claudia, beyond disappointed, sits calmly as she berates Elizabeth for what she calls a betrayal. “You lied to me,” Elizabeth starts assuredly, in what will surely be on Keri Russell’s Emmy reel. “If you knew me, you’d know never to lie to me.” Claudia lied to her once, all those years ago, and it’s come back to bite her. The irony is that it’s all coming from the ultimate liar.
In the second, Elizabeth and Paige stand across the kitchen island from each other. Paige leans heavily on Elizabeth in season six, eager to prove to her mother that she is ready to give her life to the Soviet cause. But that all falls apart when she finds out that Elizabeth slept with a congressional intern for information. Elizabeth denies it, but Paige sees through the lie. She knows when her mother is lying by now, and after yelling at her for treating sex as currency, she walks away. Elizabeth is left alone, in a home she’ll soon realize is no longer safe.
2. “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” (Season 3, Episode 9)
Lois Smith plays an archetype in “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” She’s the old lady who knows it all, but she’s also an intuitive, kind woman who knows she’s about to die because she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it’s all the fault of the Mail Robot. After Gaad kicks and breaks the Mail Robot, Elizabeth and Philip go to the repair shop where they plan to bug the machine. It’s there that Elizabeth encounters Betty, the repair-shop bookkeeper. Elizabeth doesn’t kill her off right away, and a chunk of “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep” becomes a rare therapy session for her, since she can bare all of herself to this woman who will not see the light of the day.
Maybe — like with Erica in season six — Betty’s calm in the face of death allows Elizabeth to let her guard down. The elderly woman talks about her deceased husband, who fought in World War II, leaving as a Christian Scientist and returning an atheist. “What he saw, it stayed with him,” she says. Elizabeth tells her about her life and work, and hands her pills to take, which leads to the last bit of juicy, heart-wrenching warning. As Betty begins to drift off, she asks Elizabeth why she and Philip kill people. Elizabeth, saying almost word-for-word the response she gives Paige in the next episode, tells her, “To make the world a better place.” It’s how she rationalizes her actions, and because she knows Betty will soon be dead, there’s no deceit in her words. The Americans has never cared about good or bad, but it does care about what Elizabeth thinks about herself.
But Betty doesn’t die just yet. She has one more thing to say: “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.” It’s an omen.
1. “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (Season 4, Episode 8)
“The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” is the very best episode of The Americans. Not only does this Rhys-directed hour serve up a risky time jump, marking the “vacation” that Philip and Elizabeth take from their work on Gabriel’s recommendation, but it also tackles Martha’s departure. Her farewell is a solemn, almost noiseless event that clearly drains Philip, as he watches her step aboard a small plane and fly away forever. But the mournful and pensive tone of that opening scene doesn’t last, and Elizabeth and Philip eventually explode on one another. They’re at home, this mission is complete, and all their pent-up anger comes out in despicable ways.
Their fight, like most domestic spats, starts with a simple jab. Elizabeth begins by almost eulogizing Martha, calling her a “nice woman,” but then the fangs come out. “She was straight-ahead, uncomplicated. Simple,” she says, before telling Philip she attended an EST meeting. It’s not the kind gesture he thinks it is, but an opportunity for her to say what she thinks about Philip’s weakness. “It’s very American, the whole thing,” she says. It’s the absolute lowest thing Elizabeth can think about someone.
Yet, as steadfast as Elizabeth says she is, as much as she berates Philip, “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” doesn’t let her off that easy. She has to kill her asset Lisa; things with Young-hee get worse and worse; and even Paige is causing her tremendous frustration. When Gabriel offers a break, we see that her commitment isn’t so inflexible after all. A part of her wants to sit down by the TV with her family — the embodiment of Americanness — and watch David Copperfield try to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. “I could show with magic how we take our freedom for granted,” Copperfield says. “Sometimes we don’t realize how important something is until it’s gone.” It’s a warning, a suggestion, and a cue for the time jump that takes us to a near future where the Jennings, even for a brief second, are living out their lives as Americans.
Rhys directs this sequence as a reverie, as if the passage of time could actually fix everything. Roxy Music’s upbeat “End of the Line” plays as we watch a montage of mundane, suburban life. Paige plays mini-golf with Pastor Tim and his wife, Alice. Philip and Elizabeth play hockey with Henry. All is good. All is American. But then, when Paige gets home, Philip and Elizabeth are eager to grill her for intel on Pastor Tim and his wife. The gaze shifts. The anxiety is palpable. The Jennings family lives in a purgatory. There is no American Dream for them.