THE AMERICANS: Tuesday 10PM on FX
THE AMERICANS is inevitably one of those pieces of pop culture that feels more queasily topical these days (in this case, despite its 1980s setting), with its tale of Russian agents interacting with duped Americans and gaining top secret information for the good of the Motherland. The show itself, though, in what we now know is its next-to-last season, continues in its careful way, with time out every so often for a glimpse of shocking violence.
Season 5 tightens the focus on the interplay of spying and family, always a theme of the series but now explicitly running through all of its storylines. In the season premiere, written by series creator Joel Fields and co-showrunner Joe Weisberg, and directed by Chris Long, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are running a new operation in which they have an ersatz adopted Vietnamese son, and he’s the point person in befriending the son of a recently arrived Soviet refugee family, one in which the father despises Mother Russia as much as Elizabeth idealizes it. Meanwhile, although Philip doesn’t know it, his biological son is painstakingly making his way through the Soviet bloc to meet his father in America. In Russia, former KGB agent Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), now a government investigator, is on the trail of corruption involving crops that he’s already been warned may touch his friends and prominent family. And back at home, of course, is the most sensitive family subject of all, the increasingly complex relationship of the Jennings, especially Elizabeth, with their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), who knows that her parents are spies–if not the full extent of their ruthlessness–and who is both attracted and repelled by their actions, an ambivalence that makes her romance with Matthew Beeman (Danny Flaherty), son of the Jennings’ FBI agent neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich), something for her parents to worry about.
The Americans has also insisted on presenting its protagonists’ tradecraft with a patient attention to detail, and that’s showcased by the premiere’s set-piece sequence, an extended and nearly wordless depiction of Philip, Elizabeth and some colleagues exhuming the corpse of last season’s captured spy William Crandall, who poisoned himself with the virus he had stolen so that he would die before he could disclose the involvement of the Jennings or their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella). They slowly dig all the way down to his sealed metal coffin so that they can slice off a piece of tissue that will presumably allow them to duplicate the virus, and then, when one of the group falls onto the body, in the process cutting his hand and exposing him, Elizabeth remorselessly shoots him in the head.
The series has never been one to spare its characters, or for that matter its viewers, who have to be willing to parse narratives that are complicated both as storytelling and in their moral nuance, at a more deliberate pace than much of television allows these days. The ample rewards are plotting and themes that give fans something to chew on, and of course superb performances by the cast.
At this point in its run, The Americans isn’t looking for new devotees, and Season 5 assumes viewers will be fully versed in all that has taken place so far. For those viewers, the opener suggests that another season of its very singular excellence is in store.