One of the few knocks on The Americans, which just finished its excellent (if low-key) fifth season last week and is sure to garner Emmy nods for stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, has been that the show moves so deliberately that it can be hard to keep its many plot threads straight. While I would argue that this kind of slow roll is a huge dramatic plus for the show, it also makes for the best kind of bingewatching.
Perennial Emmy buzz notwithstanding, there is little reason to bingewatch season 5 of a highly serialized, tightly plotted show like this one if you have not already seen the prior four, though that is easily fixed with a subscription to another video service that rhymes with Schlamazon Crime, and I cannot recommend more highly that you do that right now. The Americans’ reputation rightly precedes it as being terrific — and it is — but it seems to be one of those “I’ve been meaning to watch that” shows that never quite makes it over the hump into the cultural conversation.
As someone who has been watching since the beginning, and haranguing nearly everyone I come into contact with that YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW, IT’S THE BEST (and if you are still reading this, I suspect that this describes you too), I am very leery to give anything away, so I am going to keep it as spoiler-free as I know how.
Season 5 is a departure from previous seasons, in that it ramps down the global stakes in favor of a close focus on the emotional toll their work is taking on deep-deep-deep-deep-cover Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, and on their newly recruited daughter Paige. Still in the throes of a teen romance with the boy across the street — whose FBI-agent dad is just one of the many facets of Philip and Elizabeth’s assignment — Paige ended season 4 by seeing her mother kill a pair of muggers with her bare hands, and believe it or not her emotional freight only gets heavier.
Her parents, meanwhile, begin the season dealing with the fallout from the Glanders operation, when fellow Russian “illegal” William decided to infect himself with virus rather than let it be weaponized. The Centre, it will come as little surprise, does not want to let it go at that, which leads the Jennings to begin to see things in a different light; their next operation takes them to Topeka, Kansas, and has them confronting an American plot against the Russian food supply every bit as monstrous as Glanders. But this operation is not like the others. Meanwhile, Stan and Oleg each deal with their own consequences from the Glanders operation — Oleg committed treason by tipping Stan off to William’s activities, which led to William’s suicide — as Stan makes a new acquaintance who sets off Phillip’s Spidey-sense. And oft-forgotten younger son Henry Jennings finally comes off the bench for a plot that complicates matters enormously.
Past seasons of The Americans have tended to focus a 13-episode arc on an overarching mission — last season it was Glanders, in season 3 it was Martha and recruiting Kimmy while wrapping their heads around recruiting their kids, season 2 was about stealing stealth aircraft technology — but season 5 sets itself apart by taking a step back from the high-stakes spycraft and boring into the Jennings’ emotional states. Phillip has wanted out since season 1, and the events of season 5 do little to change that, but the introduction of a few new characters — including Tuan, a Vietnamese refugee-turned-Russian-spy, whose commitment and ruthlessness makes him sort of like the son Elizabeth never had — and the return of Claudia, the Jennings’ second-favorite handler, serves to clarify things and point toward the final act. Oh, and if you thought you had seen every wig and costume combination in their arsenal, I am happy to report that you have not.
Season 6 has already been confirmed to be the series’ last; I can’t overstate how dramatically satisfying this show has been through five seasons, thanks to its careful plotting, its attention to detail, and above all the stellar performances across the board (Matthew Rhys seems to have a limitless number of variations on “miserable but resigned”) and I have no doubt it will stick its landing. I feel like a crazy person, telling everyone I meet to watch this show, and once you get up to speed, you are very likely to feel the same.
Season 5 of The Americans is available on-demand on FX through July 4, 2017.