We’re one episode away from Season 5 finale of The Americans, FX’s critically acclaimed drama about a family of deep cover Russian spies living in Virginia during the height of the Cold War. And from there, we’re only one season away from the show wrapping up for good, an ending that producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have supposedly had in mind since starting the show in 2013. The fact that they’ve been guiding the show’s twisty narrative toward a set resolution for five years of betrayals, character deaths and spy craft that would make even John le Carré ‘s head spin is impressive, though I can’t imagine that there’s anything like closure or contentment in the 11 episodes to come. The Americans‘ take on historical drama has always been too sober and clear-eyed to offer any of its main players an easy out or peaceful ride into the sunset. And this season, arguably one of the its best, has set up the show’s multiple story lines to meet varying degrees of conflict, resistance, and potentially catastrophic failure.
Over and over again The Americans has asked what cause is worth devoting your life to, killing for, sacrificing your family’s happiness for? Is it country? Wealth? Religion? Season 5 has been about the toppling of those idols, how doubt and disillusionment can lead to a loss of faith. For Phil and Elizabeth, both lifelong loyal soldiers for the Soviet cause, it’s gotten harder to pretend like the things they’re asked to do for their country are justifiable. For their teenage daughter, Paige, her belief that religion would save her is being replaced by her new knowledge about her family’s identity and her understanding of how that makes them strong and noble. But even that faith is being built on the lies they tell her, the same lies they were told to be recruited. And so ultimately there is no one to trust, nothing to believe in. The imperfect authorities and institutions at the head of both sides of the Cold War are laid bare by the end of this season, as the show exposes both the crumbling and corrupt Soviet bureaucracy and the vapid materialism consuming the United States. Against that backdrop we see Phil, Elizabeth and everyone around them struggle to make choices about who to be and how to move forward in a world with so little certainty.
Except for Henry. Henry’s gonna be alright I think.
These days, when we throw around the word “dark” about a show or movie, we’re usually talking about a propensity for some really gruesome violence, an anti-hero with a particular edge, and/or an impressively high body count. And The Americans certainly has its share of “holy hell – are they really going to do that” moments – Phil and Elizabeth, our Soviet spy couple extraordinaire – take out plenty of people (enemies and bystanders) in the course of their “work,” not to mention that their collection of bad wigs is truly trauma inducing. But The Americans is dark in another way too, a way that’s fundamental to the show’s perspective on the world. It’s the idea that all of us, Soviet peasants standing in line for flour, middle class American kids playing video games after schools, spies and FBI agents covertly plotting each other’s deaths as they wave hello from neighboring houses in the suburbs – is lost and alone in this postmodern world, and that nothing can save us from that. It’s an existential horror that makes the thought of seeing another head bashed in pale in comparison.
The final episode of Season 5 of The Americans air this Tuesday, May 30th on FX