– “We’ll get another chance…to go home. It wasn’t the right time.”
– “What’s the right time?”
When The Americans received a two-season renewal back in 2016, the news was met with unanimous enthusiasm. Fans of FX’s acclaimed (but low-rated) spy drama were guaranteed two more years’ worth of stories, while TV critics applauded the fact that creator Joe Weisberg and Co. could carefully plot out their show’s endgame. That’s why it was a bit shocking — and more than a bit disappointing — to find that much of this fifth season felt like The Americans was saving all the good stuff for the end.
A quick catchup in case you’ve never seen The Americans: During the early 1980s, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) appear to be a picture-perfect couple. The married travel agents have a curious daughter named Paige (Holly Taylor), an easygoing son named Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and they live in a nice house in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. The only thing wrong with this picture is that Elizabeth and Philip are actually KGB agents, a fact that they’ve (mostly) managed to keep hidden from their kids and continue to conceal from Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI agent who lives in their neighborhood.
I say that they’ve kept their true selves “mostly” hidden because Paige first became aware of what her parents do circa season 3. Revealing bits and pieces of their Soviet past, ideology, and spy craft to impressionable, teenage Paige has been both a source of pride and a source of conflict for Elizabeth and Philip. I’ve said this before, but the most brilliant thing about The Americans is that the show has framed the incredibly complex lives of a pair of Russian spies as a family drama pretty much anyone can relate to.
Season 5, on the other hand, focuses on the soul-sucking toll Philip and Elizabeth’s extraordinary spy games take on their personal and professional lives. The tense and terrific premiere/“Amber Waves” concludes with the Jennings literally unearthing the deadly threat from season 4 with tragic consequences. And speaking of Philip and Elizabeth’s parenting skills, the pair spend much of the season posing as the adopted parents of Tuan (Ivan Mok), to help them get closer to a Soviet agricultural expert-turned-defector. As the Cold War continues to heat up — the season takes place between February and August 1984 — the pair uncover a potential plot involving biological warfare and wheat crops being sent to the USSR.
Paige is conflicted about her potentially dangerous relationship with Matthew (Danny Flaherty), the son of FBI agent Stan. Meanwhile, Stan feels responsible and conflicted about the fate of Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), the KGB operative with home he bonded over a shared love. (RIP Nina.) Stan also begins a relationship with a friendly, inquisitive woman named Renee (Laurie Holden), who everyone seems to agree is out of his league. Is there more to Renee that meets the eye?
The most frustrating thing about season 5 of The Americans is that the Renee question and several other long-standing story threads are seemingly punted until the final run of episodes. I promise I’m not the sort of TV watcher who needs all his answers *right now* or a cliffhanger at the end of each episode to keep me interested. The problem is that — with the end of the show in sight for fans — this fifth season makes some puzzling decisions in terms of doling out precious screen time.
For example, a significant part of the season follows Oleg on a new assignment as he investigates food chain corruption in Moscow…I promise it’s even less interesting than it sounds. More egregiously, the season tracks Philip’s first biological son Mischa (Alex Ozerov) as he embarks on a multi-episode odyssey to meet and connect with his father. It’s not a huge spoiler to say that Mischa’s journey comes to an unsatisfying conclusion for him…I just wish it wasn’t as much of a dud for us viewers too. On the other hand, formerly crucial characters like Alison Wright’s displaced Martha only get about a handful of scenes during the entire season.
The good news is that Weisberg (a former CIA officer) continues to nail the thoroughly cool, pre-cell phone-era spy games that Philip and Elizabeth specialize in. (Even as they continue to trot out increasingly ridiculous disguises.) Russell and Rhys — who became real-life partners after beginning work on this show — continue to give excellent, nuanced performers as married spies. They’re both fantastic for different reasons (Russell for her steeliness, Rhys for his sensitivity), but I mention them together because so much of the season — and the series — hinges on all the different ways Philip and Elizabeth balance each other out. (Their temperament, sharing the weight of their KGB duties, etc.) Season represents a sort of breaking point.
Taylor continues to evolve as an actor as both she and Paige are entrusted with greater responsibility. Season 5 is also the swan song for Frank Langella as Gabriel, Philip and Elizabeth’s paternal Soviet handler. Gabriel retires during season 5 of The Americans…and you’ll have to grab this DVD set to find out what I mean by “retires.”
The Americans: The Complete Fifth Season features all 12 episodes on four discs. The special features — Deleted Scenes, Gag Reel, and First Look — can all be found on Disc 4. I’ve given this show top marks during previous reviews, so if I sound a little disappointed here it’s because I’m absolutely grading on a curve. That being said, this set of episodes still contains plenty of the show’s trademark excellence. The sixth and final season is already underway and (I’m thrilled to say) off to a strong start!