There isn’t another show on television that does as much with silence as “The Americans.” Whether it’s in brief reaction shots or in whole scenes, the FX drama doesn’t need expository dialogue to communicate its complex stories and characters. Season five’s first three episodes each feature an extended wordless sequence, with one in the premiere “Amber Waves” clocking in at about 10 minutes. But these aren’t gimmicks: the lack of sound works within the world showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have created. Silence is necessary in the missions that Russian spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) undertake in their efforts, and it builds tension in these longer scenes. It also works thematically in a show where what people say to each other can rarely be taken at face value, and what is left unsaid and what happens in the quiet moments matters even more. All this points to how Weisberg and Fields trust the intelligence of their audience: they don’t have to explain everything, and they require your full attention. They reward that attention with what continues to be televisions’s best drama, full of big questions, rich performances and so many great wigs.
If the three episodes available to press are any indication, the fifth season will focus on food’s role in the cold war. Philip and Elizabeth are investigating a possible American attack on the U.S.S.R’s already meager wheat supplies, which finds them forging a friendship with bitter Soviet expat Alexei Morozov (Alexander Sokovikov) who works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) has returned to Moscow and is investigating corruption within grocery stores. On the surface, it doesn’t seem nearly as sexy or dangerous as last season’s plot line about bioweapons, but “The Americans” is never about the surface.
The theme of food is everywhere, from Alexei’s delight at American portion sizes to Elizabeth’s insistence that Stan (Noah Emmerich) add vegetables to the dinner he serves her children. But it isn’t just about food: it demonstrates the gap between the average American experience and the Soviet one, as well as the impact that poor nutrition and starvation have at both the individual and the national level. It also continues one of the core questions of “The Americans”: how far will people go in service of their country and their beliefs? Would the U.S. really cause the starvation of millions in the U.S.S.R.?
This season also extends its exploration into the relationships between parents and their children. Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) learned about her parents’ true identity in season three, and she continues to struggle with the gap between who she thought her parents were and who they actually are, as well as the trauma of witnessing her mother kill a man who attacked them. Her relationship with Stan’s son Matthew (Danny Flaherty) would be confusing enough for a teen, but the added complexity of keeping her parents’ secrets safe may prove too much for her – and Philip and Elizabeth. In their new identity to infiltrate Alexei’s circle, the Jennings also have a new (fake) son (Ivan Mok) who is taking to spy craft far better and more quickly than their real children. Weisberg and Fields also haven’t forgotten about Mischa (Alex Ozerov), Philip’s son from a pre-Elizabeth romance.
For all its intensity, seriousness and deft use of silence, “The Americans” remains unafraid of lightening the mood with witty dialogue, whether in the casual interactions between BFFs Philip and Stan or in the wry observations of handlers Claudia (Margo Martindale) and Gabriel (Frank Langella). This show knows its characters, and it expects its audience to as well. It’s not a drama where you can drop in and expect to understand what is going on or why something is funny. Instead, it makes the time investment on its viewers part worth it.
The series is slated to end after season six, and if these episodes are any indication, fans are in good hands with Fields and Weisberg. They gamely introduce new plot lines and characters at this late stage, but threads from previous seasons still appear and move the story forward, making loyal viewers gasp with joy, if my experience is any indication. We’re also not worried that when season six’s finale airs that we’ll have unanswered questions plaguing us as we continue to obsess over this truly special show for years to come. [A]