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Josh Reviews The Americans Season Five

After the end of The Americans season four, it was announced that the show was being renewed for two additional seasons that would wrap up the story.  I love that, in today’s television landscape, more and more serialized dramas are being allowed the time to end their stories properly, on their own terms.  (Yes, of course great shows are still cancelled before their time, but let’s focus on the positive of the minor miracle that this terrific show, which nonetheless has a relatively small weekly audience, has been allowed to tell a complete story over the course of six seasons.)  If there is any downside of this final two-season extension, it’s that season five has a ton of setup for the final season that hasn’t paid off yet, whereas most earlier seasons felt more complete to me.  That being said, this was still a tense, nail-biting season that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I cannot wait to see how this all wraps up in the final season next year.

We’ve seen plenty of collateral damage before from the work of Soviet spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), but season five of The Americans dug deeply into exploring the impact their work has had on the children in their lives.  Paige (Holly Taylor) has lost her innocence and her sweetness, spending much of this season in something resembling a shell-shocked daze.  (The revelation that she spends many nights sleeping on the floor of her closer was horrifying.)  The episode “Darkroom” showed us plain as day the permanent damage that Pastor Tim was convinced Philip and Elizabeth had done to their daughter.  Meanwhile, after a while in which Henry (Keidrich Sellati) had almost completely dropped out of the show, the character popped back into the foreground this year, suddenly seeming to be far more put-together than his older sister, who previously had always been the best student and the most responsible one.  But looming over all those scenes of a happy Henry, who was excelling in school and finding a great relationship with his friend Chris, was the Sword of Damocles represented by his parents’ secret.  It’s hard to imagine Henry’s life not being destroyed by whatever goes down in the show’s final season.  Then there is Philip’s Russian son Mischa.  The first half of the season spent a lot of time with lonely Mischa’s desperate quest to find the father he never knew, an effort thwarted by Gabriel and the Centre.  This season also introduced us to the young Korean agent Tuan.  At first I just pitied Tuan for all the time the poor, lonely kid had to spend all alone in that house, with his fake parents Philip and Elizabeth too busy to spend much time with him because of all their other assignments, despite Tuan’s repeated pleas that their “cover” required their presence with him in their home.  By the end of the season, my pity turned to horror as we learned how twisted and cold Tuan was, with his plot of encouraging Pasha to attempt suicide in order to convince Pasha’s parents to return to Russia.  Which brings us to poor, pitiful Pasha, so miserable because of his parents’ defection that he almost kills himself, and who is ultimately nothing more than a tool to Tuan.  It’s shocking that Philip and Elizabeth fail to see in Pasha the fate that likely awaits their kids if they return to Russia, as they spent much of the latter half of this season planning to do.

The show also continued to emphasize the brutal nature of Philip and Elizabeth’s work.  This is important, because when a show is this far into its run, an audience has likely developed a great affection for its lead characters.  It’s easy to start rooting for them no matter what, because they are the show’s “heroes” and we the audience love them no matter what.  Luckily, The Americans is a smart enough show to consistently combat that.  The show has taken pains since the very beginning to never romanticize Philip and Elizabeth’s work, and to show us the brutal, ugly side of what they do, I am glad that they continued to place an emphasis on this here in season five.  Watching Philip and Elizabeth murder that poor scientist in the grain lab was terrible, but that paled before the brutal gut-punch when Philip and Elizabeth discover that the Center had gotten things completely wrong, and that far from trying to destroy the Soviet crops, these scientists were working to improve them.  I was also taken aback by Elizabeth’s murder of the elderly Natalie in “Dyatkovo”.  This was no evil Nazi collaborator, this was a child caught in an impossible situation who did what she had to in order to survive horrible events that had taken place forty years earlier.  For Elizabeth to murder her and her husband in cold blood was shocking.

We’ve known since the very beginning of the show that Philip’s heart wasn’t in the terrible work that he and Elizabeth have been doing.  In those early seasons it seemed plausible that Philip could one day defect to the U.S.  It was interesting this year to finally see Elizabeth come to the realization that perhaps it was time for them to leave their bloody business.  The idea that the Philip and Elizabeth might return to Russia was an interesting new twist, even though I doubted that was really where the show was going to end.  (And sure enough, the season finale gives the Jennings a compelling reason to remain in the States.)  Still, that was an interesting development in the latter part of the season, following the events of “Dyatkovo,” as we saw both Philip and Elizabeth begin to make peace with the idea of finally returning to the Soviet Union, even as we viewers could gasp at their incredulity in thinking that their kids would go along with that plan and that everything would be fine.

Much of the show’s supporting cast has been pruned away over the past two seasons.  I enjoyed seeing Oleg (Costa Ronin) step more into the spotlight this year (an opportunity created by the openings in the ensemble).  I’d thought that, with him returning to Russia last season, that Oleg might be out of the show, but instead his was one of this year’s most compelling storylines.  It was interesting to see, through Oleg’s eyes, the problems of the Soviet Union to which Philip and Elizabeth are oblivious.  This is an important counterpoint for the show.  It was also compelling seeing Oleg try to stay one step ahead of the investigations into what he did or did not do with Stan Beeman.  It’s great how Oleg, who started off on the show as a potential villain, at minimum an obstacle for Nina, has turned into one of the show’s most noble and sympathetic characters.  It was also great to see Oleg’s parents explored this season, and to learn more about their perspectives.

Speaking of the sections of the show set in the Soviet Union, I have got to mention Martha.  That glimpse we got of poor Martha, shopping all alone in the dreary-looking store in “The Midges” was amazing, and made me hoot with delight.  Had that been all we’d seen of Martha this season, dayenu.  But I enjoyed that Martha got a few additional meaty scenes this year, allowing us to see what her life is like in Russia.  Her scene with Gabriel was great, and I was moved by Alison Wright’s performance in the finale, when she is given the prospect of adopting an orphaned girl.

It was a surprising choice for Gabriel to return to Russia mid-season this year.  I was disappointed that the amazing Frank Langella would be leaving the show.  This season’s stories didn’t seem to be much affected by Gabriel’s departure and the return of Claudia (Margo Martindale), so I wonder why this was done?  Was this a scheduling issue with Mr. Langella?  Or will there be a reason in the final season why the writers wanted Claudia back in place as the Jennings’ handler, rather than Gabriel?  (Remember, the show began with Claudia as their handler; Ms. Martindale was only replaced by Mr. Langella after the first season because she got hired, at the time, for another show.)  I did like that Gabriel popped up a few more times in the season’s back half.  I hope he will have some role, even a minor one, in the final season.

Was that scene between Paige and Pastor Tim in the finale, together in the food pantry, the last we’ll see of Pastor Tim?  It’s pretty incredible that character managed to survive this long!!  I thought for sure he was a goner, two seasons ago.

I was surprised that we spent so much time, early in the season, following Mischa’s attempt to sneak out of the Soviet Union and into the U.S. in order to find his father Philip, only for that quest to be abruptly stopped by Gabriel and Mischa sent right back to Russia.  I did like the one scene we saw of Mischa in “The World Council of Churches,” in which we see that he’d managed to connect with Philip’s brother’s family.  Perhaps this can be the family that Mischa was seeking for himself.  Still, it’s hard to look back on this story and not see it as a big anti-climax.  I hope, at least, that if Philip and Mischa are never able to actually meet, that this story will prove to have some importance in the final season.  (I’d think Philip would be very pissed off to discover that the Centre prevented him from seeing his son.)

Speaking of storylines that didn’t seem to go anywhere, despite all the time spent on Stan and Anderholt’s efforts to recruit the Russian woman Sofia, I  don’t really understand who she is and what they were looking to gain.  I am assuming this story, and Sofia’s maybe-a-spy-Russian fiance, will pay off in the final season?  I hope so.

So… is Stan’s girlfriend Renee (Laurie Holden) a spy?  It sure seems that way from the finale, in which we see Renee try to convince Stan to stay in the F.B.I., which of course she would do if her purpose is to gain information from him.  The show was smart to put out there from the very beginning the possibility that Renee is a spy by having that be Philip’s original suspicion.  It’s good for the characters to be as smart if not smarter than the audience, rather than having the audience feel like we all guessed something way before it is revealed on the show.  By putting the possibility that Renee is a spy right out there, the show gave every subsequent scene with Stan and Renee an added layer of tension.

After two whole seasons, it was interesting to see young Kimmy again this year, and for Philip’s relationship with her (which he uses to spy on her father) to be thrust into such prominence again in the finale.  I’m glad to see some payoff to this creepy storyline, though I think it would have been a little more effective had Kimmy not disappeared for so long in the past few seasons.

It was also nice to see Stan’s son Matthew back in the story in a big way this season, as his relationship with Paige progressed and eventually fell apart.  (How creepy was that scene in “Pests” in which Elizabeth teaches Paige how to compartmentalize her mind when she is, um, getting intimate with someone?  Yikes.)

I loved the moment in “Dyatkovo,” in which Stan gives Henry a tour of the F.B.I. and we get a glimpse of the mail robot!  What a great callback.

OK, it’s time to wrap this up.

The Americans remains one of the richest, most compelling dramas on TV right now.  I cannot wait for the final season.

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