When we last saw Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), the good-looking travel agents with the nice big house and the two cars and the all-American teenage kids, they were wrestling with some of the usual problems: they’d prefer their daughter not date the kid across the street, their son is practically raising himself because they’re working crazy hours, and their workload is getting so heavy that even their boss told them they should take a vacation.
The thing is, they don’t like their daughter dating the kid across the street because his dad is an FBI agent; they’re working crazy hours because they’re Russian spies embedded in a Washington, D.C. suburb, tending to multiple false identities and either killing or seducing nearly everyone they meet; and their boss — actually handler — wants them to take a vacation because another Russian agent was forced to infect himself with the catastrophically fatal Glanders virus he had stolen from a U.S. biowarfare lab when caught by the FBI in order to protect them.
It sounds like a lot of plot, and it is — in fact, I’ve only scratched the surface of everything that went on in season 4, but one of the things that makes The Americans the best show on television is its commitment to the slow burn. Events unfold at an almost painfully gradual pace, as they do in real life, but when things pay off two and three seasons after they were set up, they are that much more satisfying, as opposed to a plot-burning engine like, say, Nashville or Empire.
Last season saw Phillip forced to send his other wife, Martha, the all-too-lonely, all-too-trusting personal secretary to the FBI’s head of counterintelligence, to Russia when her office got close to pinning her for bugging the office at Phillip’s behest; Elizabeth ordered to carefully cultivate a new friend, Young Hee, in a doomed effort to find blackmail material on her husband Don to acquire information for the KGB before deciding there was nothing to find and seducing Don, thus destroying her friend’s marriage and her only friendship; daughter Paige forced into some junior spycraft in order to keep tabs on Pastor Tim, her youth group leader, after confiding her parents’ secret in a moment of panic and then taking an interest in Matthew Beeman, son of the FBI agent across the street, shortly before witnessing her mother killing a couple of muggers; and Stan Beeman made to end his uneasy alliance with Oleg Burov, a KGB agent whose conscience forced him to disclose the USSR’s development of a deadly biological weapon before heading back to the Soviet Union.
All these storylines have one thing in common: they started with the characters facing intractable problems that, to the extent they were “solved” at all, left the characters in an even worse place with even bigger problems. One of the miracles of this show is how expertly it continues to ratchet up the tension, making it increasingly difficult to see any kind of happy ending for anyone, no matter their national allegiance, illustrating the true theme of the series as a whole: the corrosive nature of mutual suspicion.
That theme continues in season 5, even if Phillip and Elizabeth’s vacation most definitely does not. In addition to managing Paige’s increasingly dangerous relationship with the FBI agent’s kid across the street, they’ve got to manage her PTSD from the incident with the muggers. Unbeknowst to them, Phillip’s son from before he and Elizabeth were sent to the US is on his way to find him. They’ve got new cover identities as an airline pilot and stewardess, complete with (another) giant house and an adopted Vietnamese son, working to get close to the family of a Russian defector apparently working on a plot to attack the Soviet food supply, even as Oleg, now safe back in the Soviet Union, begins an investigation into corruption in Soviet food administration agencies. “Everyone knows the Soviets don’t play by the rules,” Stan is told by a superior, and though the Glanders weapon was indeed beyond the pale, a U.S. attack on Soviet agriculture would be no more defensible. In the early episodes of season 5 (I’ve seen the first three), there is enough to keep the wavering Jenningses, who are finding it harder and harder to imagine any kind of Russian homecoming, in line. Though their younger child, Henry, is still in the dark about what his parents (and now his sister) are really up to and Paige has her doubts, Tuan (the fake Vietnamese adoptee) is like the hardcore true-believer disciple they never had, showing them that however difficult it may be to have to manage the truth for their kids, the alternative may be even worse.
For fans of The Americans, I don’t know what else to tell you except this is another season of The Americans, as tightly plotted and as unbearably tense as each season before it. For non-fans of the show, I would strongly encourage you to get caught up (seasons 1-4 are available on Amazon) in time for the end of this season and the sixth and final season coming next year. Superior writing, superior performances, superior soundtrack choices (Devo and Roxy Music both turn up in the early episodes) and superior disguises (at long last, Phillip gets to try out a cowboy look) make for superior TV. We all know what happened to the Soviet Union, so we all know where this story is going, but I wouldn’t miss the telling for all the tea in Russia.
New episodes of The Americans air at 10pm ET Tuesdays on FX and are available next day on-demand.