The Americans: A Superb Tragedy

With a final season still to go, and the collapse of the USSR imminent, the Jenningses will be forced to come to terms with the fact that they’ve sacrificed everything for the losing team

The fifth season of The Americans (FX) kicked off earlier this week with a Russian rendition of the patriotic hymn “America the Beautiful.” Vladimir Putin is reigniting the Cold War in 2017, but peace between the US and the USSR — at Russia’s great expense — is just around the corner in The Americans. Capitalism is winning, and every Communist — in Russia, at least — knows it. Our amber waves of grain are cultivated by planes and tractors. Their desiccated crops are hauled by exhausted babushkas, if they’re not too busy pushing broken farm equipment across muddy fields. The lines outside the state-run stores are train-long, and there’s little on the shelves that hasn’t already spoiled. But starving in one’s home is preferable to the failing Communist regime’s other dystopian elements: gulags, assassinations, the malaise of virulent corruption. “I HATE RUSSIA!” bellows a recent defector (played by Alexander Sokovikov), in case you haven’t gotten the point yet.

For new viewers intrigued by The Americans because of current events, I beg of you: Start from the beginning. In keeping with the rest of the series, the first three episodes of the new season build, meticulously and sublimely, on what came before. Last year, the period drama tantalizingly suggested the imminent unraveling of the USSR by exploring how individual agents, including spies Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys), chose to follow their consciences instead of their instructions in reluctant subversions of the KGB’s top-down authority. True believer Elizabeth second-guessed her handler’s orders regarding her friend/mark Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles). Far more damagingly to the Russians, KGB director Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) informed FBI agent Stan (Noah Emmerich) of a high-risk biochemical weapon the Russian government had developed.

Given the USSR’s calamitous decline, it’s only fitting that the regime is turning on itself, like a hunger-mad desperado turning to cannibalism. The Jenningses are tasked with spying on fellow Russians, perhaps for the first time. The season premiere lands us in the midst of several storylines: Elizabeth and Philip are surveilling the defector Alexei with Tuan, a Vietnamese ally (Ivan Mok); tracking down a bio-weapon the American government may be using to ravage Russian agriculture; and continuing to worry that their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), will accidentally reveal their identities. (Sorry, fans of Henry; the Jennings’s son is, as usual, nowhere in sight.) Elsewhere, bureaucratic bungling proceeds in making Oleg and Stan’s working lives in the KGB and the FBI, respectively, into exercises in soul-crushing patience as their superiors choose to look, rather than do, good.

Since the pilot, I’ve believed that The Americans has to end with the fall of the USSR — and the Jenningses’ coming to terms with the fact that they’ve sacrificed everything for the losing team. With the series slated to end next year, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re getting there. The first stage of grief is denial, which is where we find Elizabeth and Philip at the outset of Season 5. Elizabeth agrees with Tuan that Alexei deserves a bullet in his head for his disloyalty to his country, and Philip joins them in scoffing at the defector’s complaints about crowded apartments and shut-down bowling alleys back in Moscow. But when Tuan proclaims, “One day, the U.S. will destroy the USSR, just like they did Vietnam,” the temperature in the car drops. Be careful not to knock down your TV or your laptop when you reach out to give Philip and Elizabeth a hug as they gulp down that possibility.

The vise that’s been closing on the married spies for the past four years gets palpably tighter here, with all the devastating heartbreak it portends. Growing up in post-war Russia, Philip and Elizabeth knew what it was like to have nothing. And, as tough as they are, it’s impossible not to wonder whether they could survive such hardship after decades of American plenty — and whether they’d willingly subject their kids to such stark deprivation. Philip notes that it “wasn’t the right time” to return to Russia with his family a couple of seasons ago — another refusal of reality, as if any time would be. Their quest to find the wheat-ruining pest has denial written all over it too: The U.S. may have engineered a famine in Russia — or the Communists might need a convenient scapegoat on which to blame their inability to feed their own people. It’s exquisite anguish to watch them reject the realization that the homeland and ideology they’ve been fighting for mostly exists in their minds. That’s the mark of a superb tragedy: You can’t wait for the fall.