Despite all the numerous wigs, elaborate disguises, and covert missions, “The Americans” has never really been about espionage or even the tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the 1980s. Instead, when you strip all of that away, it’s simply about a marriage: one that just happens to be between two Russian spies in the Cold War. That focus has never been more clear in the first three episodes from the sixth – and final – season of the FX series from Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. Sure, fans of the series (who have never been quite as numerous as the nearly perfect show deserves) will be witness to elaborate plots that tie into real-world events and timelines, but the relationship between Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is the show’s heart and soul.
With the season premiere “Dead Hand,” Weisberg and Fields move the show three years into the future into 1987. The entirety of Crowded House‘s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” plays over the opening montage, underlining the struggles in Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. Seasons five’s “Darkroom” found the couple getting married for real and at the strongest point of their arranged union, but this first episode and the other two made available to press show how long ago that was in the world of the show. Philip is out of the spy game, spending his time and energy at their travel agency (but for real this time), while Elizabeth continues her service to Mother Russia.
She has also brought daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) deeper into the family business and educates her about her home country with the help of her handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), with Russian movies and dinners of traditional foods like zharkoye. However, Elizabeth must keep her new mission, tied to the upcoming Washington Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, a secret even from Philip, serving to build a wall between them. Meanwhile, though Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has left the Counter Intelligence team at the Bureau in favor of a role at the Criminal Investigation Division, he cannot fully extricate himself from his work there. His BFF Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who is away at boarding school, is still blissfully unaware…of pretty much everything.
With only three episodes available to press out of the sixth season’s ten total, it’s tough to gauge how satisfying of a final year this will be for Weisberg and Field’s show. But with these early hours, there’s at once an air of nostalgia and one of forwarding momentum. Favorites from past seasons, including Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) (!!!) and the FBI mail robot (!!!), make appearances, but this isn’t simply a victory lap that reminds us what we love about the drama. “The Americans” has never asked simple questions or offered easy answers. Instead, it’s dealt with big moral questions of what characters on screen will do in service of what they believe is the greater good, with the audience feeling equally unsettled in where we should stand on what we’re watching.
The showrunners are working toward an endgame that appears to be worthy of their creation, which is one of the best shows of this decade. But if these three episodes – “Dead Hand,” “Tchaikovsky” and “Urban Transport Planning” – are any indication, that endgame isn’t just the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R.; it’s looking more like Philip versus Elizabeth. There’s love between them (evident both in the words spoken as well as in the always-strong chemistry between real-life partners Russell and Rhys), but they no longer share a common career and a larger goal. “He has his life, and I have mine,” says Elizabeth with a heartbreaking lack of sentiment that is true to the character. The dynamic between them is continuing to evolve, even this late in the game, speaking well of the world built by Weisberg and Field.
It feels silly six seasons in to repeat how layered the performances are from Russell and Rhys, but not enough praise has gone to Taylor. As budding Russian agent Paige, she really shines here. The young actress has always displayed a talent and depth that merits the show’s increasing focus on her character, but what’s most evident here is the difference that three on-screen years of growth make. Paige in 1987 carries herself entirely differently than the high school student did in 1984; she’s matured and it’s clear without her even speaking.
As fans themselves echo the chorus of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” as the show nears its finale, we should still feel lucky to have gotten six seasons of this truly special series. It was never a ratings champ, and even the Emmys and Golden Globes rarely recognized it with major awards nominations (“This Is Us” and latter-season “Downton Abbey” are totally worthy, apparently….). But “The Americans” is a morally complex show that rewards close viewing, demanding every bit of its viewers’ attention. It isn’t just the plots that would please John Le Carré devotees or even the ethical quandaries it raises, but it’s the series’ grown-up approach to relationships that sets it apart from everything else on TV. [A]