Monday, July 15, 2024

The Americans Kicks off the Final Season with Ideological Divides

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I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so conflicted about the final season of a show. The Americans has told a fascinating tale of marriage and spy craft consistently standing among the best shows on television. On one hand, I anxiously await the conclusion of this story. However, probably more than any show I’ve ever seen, I don’t want to leave these characters behind. If the writers could find the stories, I could spend forever watching the Jennings family and their friends live their lives.

Unfortunately, all things must eventually end. It will be my pleasure to cover this final season here at The Fandomentals. Let’s get to it before I start to ramble on too long.

A Change in Pace

Season 5 of The Americans was a controversial one. While long on incredible character development, the plot moved at a glacial pace frustrating too many fans and didn’t satisfy them with the conclusion to numerous subplots. Most were willing to forgive the slow season in hopes the final season provided said satisfaction.

Whether that was always the intention or not, the season six premiere felt almost like a direct response to season 5 complaints.

Did you dislike the indirect, thematic connections between the characters last season? Now they’re all connected in the plot as well and meeting up personally. Didn’t think there was enough spy work? Basically this whole episode revolved around spying. Wanted more tension between Philip and Elizabeth? I’d say having one spy on the other qualifies, and Philip’s retirement has clearly created a distance between them. Did you find the food supply plotline vague and uninteresting? Now we’re back to a nuclear doomsday and the fate of the Soviet Union as the stakes.

While I loved season 5 and found some of the criticisms towards it baffling, I admit The Americans is capable of better. This show has proven its ability to simultaneously move the plot and the characters forward at the same time. “Dead Hand” felt like a return to the best of seasons 3 and 4, where the two wove together in ways where one could not move forward without the other.

I don’t know if Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields wrote this season aiming to address season 5’s criticisms of the slow pace, but it sure felt like it. Nowhere does this feel more evident than in the time skip. The episode never really mentions it. You’re not even told how many years have passed. The episode moves forward and trusts in the audience to pick up on the time skip and how it has affected the characters.

The same applies to the main plot itself. The Americans has always excelled at managing complicated bureaucratic plots without bogging down in the actual bureaucracy. In fact, this is probably one area where season 5 didn’t quite live up to expectations. The food plot focused so much on bureaucracy that it couldn’t help but bog down in it. The slow pace couldn’t help but delve in, either. Season 6 will have to be bureaucratic as well. It’s literally centered on an international negotiation between bureaucrats.

Not once did “Dead Hand” feel that way, though. Whatever happens in these disarmament negotiations (which we all know, or can after ten minutes on Google) is secondary to how it affects the characters. Their central role is to create scenarios for Philip and Elizabeth to make decisions creating the actual tension of the season. Maybe season 5 failed to connect that tension to the plot as well as previous seasons. Season 6 wasted absolutely no time. Maybe the details prove hard to follow, but the show trusts you’ll pick up enough to know why the characters act how they do and what it all means.

The Great Divide

It also helped that “Dead Hand” spent so much time connecting the growing ideological divide in the Soviet Union directly to the growing divide between Philip and Elizabeth. Honestly, it not only works for the plot moving forward this season; this divide is the perfect final conflict for these two people. It’s everything we’ve seen through 5 seasons coming to an inescapable conclusion for both their mother country and their marriage.

From the beginning, The Americans has made clear where Philip and Elizabeth stand regarding Western influence. Philip has always been open and accepting of the American way of life. The dishonesty and death of the spy game took its toll quickly and had him talking the possibility of defecting back in season 1. He always stayed loyal to his home country, but ideological belief did not drive his loyalty. He stayed true for Elizabeth and his family. Every season since has seen him struggle to stay true until season 5 finally gave him the opportunity to quit.

I was not the least bit surprised to see him thriving in “retirement”. He’s line dancing and growing the travel agency and steeping himself happily in American life. If he had his way, this would be the rest of his and Elizabeth’s life. Even better if it was life in the Soviet Union. He does not look back on his childhood in his home country with wistful nostalgia or longing.

Elizabeth, however, does. While she certainly recognizes the harsher aspects of her upbringing, she still views the American way of life as weakness and their influence on the world as harmful. Her spy work is very much rooted in ideological loyalty to the Soviet Union. It’s why she has always been the more brutal of the two. She is willing to take lives and make tough decisions Philip anguishes over. It’s why she proved receptive to the idea of Paige becoming a spy where Philip threatened his superiors over it.

I’m not the least bit surprised that she went along with this plan to protect the Dead Hand project. She always believes the worst in America (and isn’t exactly unjustified) and would not view these disarmament negotiations in good faith. She’s a hardcore believer in the way of the Soviet Union she grew up with. America is a direct threat to her way of life. Yes, she is finally approaching a potential breaking point in her ability to continue spying, but the justice and necessity of her mission is not in question. Just her ability to personally continue.

Framing this ideological divide between the two alongside a growing divide within the Soviet Union is just brilliant. This has always been the central conflict of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. Their future will always be in doubt until it is solved, one way or the other. How they managed to avoid facing this divide between them for so long, I don’t know. With Philip enjoying retirement and Elizabeth approaching a breaking point, they won’t be able too much longer. What will that mean for their marriage? I dread the answer but can’t wait to find out.

They’re not the only ones who will have to answer this question for themselves, either.

Oleg, much like Philip, has always proved receptive to America. It’s fitting that he finds himself as the potential guide placing Philip against the believers in the old way that Elizabeth represents. Paige has grown up in America yet now works as a Soviet spy, and will have to decide for herself where she lands between the two. Stan stands in a position similar to Elizabeth, where he is a hardcore believer in protecting America from Soviet “evil” worn down by the long years in the fight. What will he do when he presumably finds out his best friends were the enemy?

“Dead Hand” was such an effective table-setter for this final season of The Americans. It brought everyone together (literally in most cases) to face the same central question faced by the countries they fight for. Character and plot were so in-step from the very beginning. It was just a finely-tuned, well-trimmed piece of effective storytelling.

Whatever doubts season 5 may have created for the unsatisfied, I think this episode should have placated them. The Americans has been one of the best shows on television for its entirety. Season 6 looks like it will be the finale we deserve.

Other Thoughts

  • Arkady got a promotion! I’m happy for him, yet incredibly fearful. I fully expect some fan favorites to bite the bullet this season and he’s a prime suspect.
  • Elizabeth is still hiding the gruesome side of the biz from Paige. Understandable, but she can’t keep it up forever. At some point Paige will have to answer the question of whether she has the stomach to take a life. I’m so worried for her.
  • Elizabeth is also hiding that Paige is her daughter from her other operatives. Can she possibly keep that up?
  • The naval officer who interrupted Paige was incredibly creepy. Who takes someone’s ID to force them on a date to get it back? Gross.
  • I really got a kick out of Henry the hot-shot ladies man hockey star. Can this kid please distance himself enough that he isn’t affected by whatever happens with his family?
  • I really, really hoped that Martha was Oleg’s wife. Let that woman be happy, damn it!

Images courtesy of FX

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