There was a lot of talk about “The Americans” last season as a step back. The series had been regarded as one of the very best shows on television just one year earlier. While the series didn’t push the boundaries it normally had, the decline was surprising for the critical community. Rather than push the boundary in the penultimate season, “The Americans” was able to do some extensive character work that sets up it’s final season in incredible ways. Philip (Mathew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) have been drifting apart. It’s been a slow burn and subtle process that’s gone on for seasons. Now, as we enter the final stretch, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg have begun to lay out their master plan. The result is the start of one of the great final seasons in television history.
We pick back up with Philip and Elizabeth as far apart as they’ve been since the first season. Philip is out of the spy game and trying to go straight. The family business is struggling, but he wants to provide a life for Henry (Keidrich Sellati) away from being a spy. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is working missions and helping Claudia (Margot Martindale) train Paige (Holly Taylor). Elizabeth isn’t just working one mark, but several, including stealing assets for an operation so secret, she’s given cyanide tablets to keep the secret. Each has their own problems and issues, but it quickly becomes clear that this more than just a tiff between each other. There’s a real war going on between them and neither recognizes how destructive this schism may become.
As usual, Russell and Rhys are at another level. Each is among the very best on television, and this might finally be the year that Russell wins that elusive Emmy. She is given so much to do in the first few episodes, she absolutely dominates the episodes. This is the best that Russell’s ever been, silently showcasing her talent from beginning to end. Something is slipping in Elizabeth, and for the first time, her cognitive dissonance is showing. It’s a rawness we haven’t seen, and Russell sells it.
Rhys is once again proving he’s one of the best dramatic actors on television. Sitting out the events of the season is killing him, but he knows he can’t jump back in. He’s scared about what this means, but he also cannot verbalize any of it. As always, he shows his emotions a little too freely. Ultimately his arc puts him in a compromising position between devotion to his wife, and devotion to his country. This time, he doesn’t just look helpless. He is helpless.
One of the nice things about the fifth season was the development that needed to occur for Paige (Taylor). Taylor turns this into a solid performance this season, something the show needed this season. Her relationship with Elizabeth and Philip is different now, but more important is her determination. She could become the next Elizabeth with more training, making her an interesting piece as we move towards the finale. Martindale is also back to play. She’s won Emmys for this role before, but now she’s contributing more than usual. She’s officially a principle this season and rewards the audience with many great moments early. Martindale will be in the mix come Emmy season, especially if things go south for our favorite Russian spies.
One of the big changes this season is the eerie way in which life imitates art. As we continue to swirl in a political atmosphere where Russian interference is a buzzword, “The Americans” leans into it. There are crossings, double-crossings, and subterfuge going on from each corner. Nobody can trust each other, and the world is beginning to slip. Reagan is brought up more intensely, this time as a slipping President in decline. Gorbachev is seen as too weak by some, resulting in a rogue conspiracy that can lead to nuclear annihilation. The parallels are subtle, but important for audiences to take from.
Once again, all the political intrigue and espionage is taking place within the walls of a family drama. To call the show a Russian Nesting Doll is maybe too on the nose. Yet the blending of politics, drama, emotion, and conspiracy makes this show the very best drama on television. Hats off to Fields and Weisberg, who should take their seat at the table with Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner, and David Chase. They have landed one of the greatest television series in history.
“The Americans” might not be for everyone. Slow burn television rarely is. However, the accomplishment of the drama has resulted in one of the most complete series in the golden age of television. The question that looms now is whether the series will get its due. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. “The Americans” should be in the discussion of the best television shows ever, and that is more important than any award it may receive. Doesn’t mean we can’t hope.