The Americans is one of the most quietly relevant shows on television, but not necessarily on purpose. The series took on a new meta-level importance with the election of Donald Trump, whose tenure has been marred by his ties to Russia, an ever-growing scandal that could eventually be his undoing. On The Americans, it’s the 1980s, our protagonists are KGB spies, and the Soviet Union is about to collapse. The relationship between Russia and America is the story’s central tête-à-tête; Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by the marvelously underrated Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, who should be bathing in Emmys by now) have spent five seasons deeply undercover, raising children and assimilating into suburban consumerism unchecked.
But in the season six premiere, which aired last night, there is a foundational change in the show’s status quo, and the mounting feeling that it will all soon come to a head.
The show hasn’t been flashy about its suddenly hot-for-commentary storylines. There are no cutaways to Vladimir Putin as he prepped for his role in the Saint Petersburg administration, or to Trump as his real estate business skyrocketed its way to Forbes covers. In general, The Americans is subtle with its brilliance; the pacing is never traditional, with big reveals dropping mid-season, sometimes mid-episode. Things are rarely convenient, and fan service barely exists. It’s also ripe with MacGuffins; Philip’s Russian son, for instance, was introduced as an obstacle, but then receded into the show’s linear notes, and is probably gone forever. And that’s life – sometimes we never learn about things we should, and sometimes answers are better left as questions.
The Americans understands this on a fundamental level, and that’s part of why its so magnificent. Yes, there is exciting spy stuff – wigs and guns and fast cars – but there is mostly pain, contemplation, and the mirage of familial order. Its sixth and final season, of which I have seen the first three episodes, is the show at its absolute best, emotionally and plot-wise. Here’s a run-down of storylines set up in the premiere that have set up what should be a triumphant grace note.
Elizabeth is closer to the brink of collapse
She was always the Jennings spouse with the most steadfast faith in Mother Russia, but this season is tempting Elizabeth’s drive. With Philip taking a sabbatical from spy work, Elizabeth has doubled-up on assignments. Years of devotion and hard work have landed her in a precarious spot; on a top-secret mission in Mexico, General Kovtun from Strategic Rocket Forces clues her into operation “Dead Hand,” which will trigger an automated strike on the U.S. if Soviet leaders are killed in an attack. Elizabeth needs to find out if Mikhail Gorbachev – the controversial leader of the Soviet Union – plans to trade knowledge about Dead Hand with the Reagan administration in exchange for ending the U.S.’s “Star Wars” missile-defense program. No one can know about this mission; not Philip, not even her KGB supervisor Claudia. Kovtun also gives Elizabeth a necklace containing a cyanide tablet, which she’s instructed to use on herself should she get caught.
Elizabeth regards the cyanide with a look of temptation. She’s exhausted from her extra work, she knows her home country is morphing into something unrecognizable under Gorbachev’s rule, and the weight of this new intel is dragging her marriage and sanity through the mud. Like the ricin in the final season of Breaking Bad, the poison looks like a ticking time bomb. But is it that, or merely another of the show’s clever misdirections? Is Elizabeth actually suicidal, or is she merely curious about what freedom death might offer? It’s sure to be an ongoing question this season.
Philip’s new role is incentivizing him in new ways
Philip, anxious about his spy work and its effect on his psyche, is officially out of the game this season. (Or so he thought – more on that in a bit.) Instead, he’s devoted to his travel agency, which has boomed in business in the show’s brief time jump. The office is new and expanded, their cliental is growing, and Philip is suddenly the sort of boss who makes passionate speeches about business protocol. He’s a little manic about it, but the work suits him; this is Philip as he always wanted to be. He even goes line dancing!
But he knows his decision to step out of the KBG has been hard on Elizabeth, and the guilt is sneaking up on him. He catches her secretly sucking down cigarettes, hears the sadness in her voice when she admits that she wishes she could go to their son’s hockey games. He’s torn apart by the implications of their mutual choice – Elizabeth was, after all, the one who convinced him to quit – and how what was meant to save their family might fracture it irreparably.
Their marriage is tested in a new and complicated way
The real gut-punch comes with Oleg’s re-arrival in the United States. He is sent by Arkady, now the deputy chief of Directorate S, to convince Philip to spy on Elizabeth. The KGB knows she’s working with Kovtun, and wants to know why. This sets the stage for a Mr. and Mrs. Smith type of story thread through season six. Will Philip oblige, effectively un-retiring from the KGB to work against his wife, or will he note the danger and step away? If he chooses to help, he’d work his way into Soviet good graces, but damage his family and relationship with Elizabeth forever. And Elizabeth is competitive and carnal; there’s no telling how she’d react if Philip betrayed her trust. Maybe the cyanide pill is for him, after all.
Paige is a full-on spy now
It’s probably unethical to root for an innocent teenager’s turn to the dark side of the KGB, but I think I speak for everyone when I say: holy shit, Paige is official a spy in training! Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, who found out about her parent’s true identities two seasons ago, is now working with her mother on small missions, and learning about Soviet culture. She seems to genuinely enjoy it, but she’s also unaware of how dark KGB work can get. For instance, when Paige flubs part of a mission by giving her I.D. to a security officer who flirts with her, Elizabeth secretly stabs the man to death later that night. Paige doesn’t know her parents sleep with other people, kill, and manipulate to get their information. She still sees it as humanist work. But her proximity to her mother, and growing curiosity, are early indicators that this will probably change. And what will happen when it does?
The music is better than ever
This is a fun one, but holy cow that soundtrack. The premiere episode opens with a montage set to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and the selection only gets better from there. Elizabeth’s meeting with Kovtun is scored by Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told,” which, as Scott Tobias notes in his recap for Vulture, was inspired by Yale professor Stanley Milgram’s controversial obedience study, called Experiment 18, which used the insinuation of high-voltage shocks to scare subjects into correctly answering a memory test. The song plays while Kovtum spells out the intricacies of Dead Hand and her mission; as Tobias writes, “The use of Gabriel’s song over Elizabeth’s Mexico trip is not even subtext. When we hear the chorus, ‘we do as we’re told’ repeated, that’s text.”
The Americans is full of great musical notes that carry complexity beyond pure sonic pleasure. But it’s also just-plain fun sometimes. Almost every season has a standout Fleetwood Mac mic drop, and the premiere has its best yet: a montage set to “Gold Dust Woman,” with Stevie Nicks’ husky voice slipping over Philip’s psyche like one of her famous black shawls. “Rulers make bad lovers, you better put your kingdom up for sale,” she sings, and it’s a taunt as much as a rhythm.
The episode also makes good use of the Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” and the next two episodes keep on with some of the best and most evocative tracks of the 70s and 80s. It will be fascinating to see what tunes might orchestrate the inevitable fall of the U.S.S.R. and the dissolution – or whatever the next step is – of the Jennings family. As long as it’s not “Blueberry Hill,” we should be good.
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from /Film http://www.slashfilm.com/americans-season-6/