Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Americans Ends Season 5 with Strong Characters and Little Action

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The fifth season of The Americans has come to an end, and the finale fit the previous 12 episodes for better or worse. I suppose no one should be surprised. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields made a creative decision this season leading to incredible character development but a startling lack of exciting set pieces. Various pieces moved around with the implication of blowing up the status quo without ever quite doing so.

“The Soviet Division” won’t change anyone’s minds about season 5. It was yet another masterpiece of acting and character writing lacking in the mortal danger some have wanted.

Spoilers for 5×13 “The Soviet Division” and all of season 5 below

Episode Review

I must admit to some surprise in the moment at Elizabeth’s inability to leave the spy world behind and return home. The entire finale structured as one long goodbye. Philip said goodbye to Kimmy and silently did the same with Stan and his suspicions of Renee. Elizabeth said goodbye to her house. Paige said goodbye to Pastor Tim. The Eckerts said goodbye to the Morozovs and Tuan. Alexei said goodbye to his family.

The Jennings had made up their minds. They would return home. All those connections holding them back were being handled (harshly in Henry’s case). Only they had too many, and the least expected of them reared its ugly head to keep the Jennings in America. Kimmy has played little role in the show since season 3 ended. She was still around, and Philip was still making the visits to collect the tapes of her father. They had moved into a stable relationship positioning Philip as a positive parental figure in her life.

We saw Kimmy so little, though, that the couple of scenes including her felt more like a reminder of something still happening than an important part of the plot. The Americans has never been a show to simply drop and forget something, even if the subplot feels superfluous. Of all the things which could keep Philip and Elizabeth in America, she ranked near the bottom of the list.

Yet again, The Americans proved the strength of its writing by bringing the seemingly unimportant Kimmy plot into the catalyst needed to stop the Jennings family from returning home. Elizabeth can’t just leave when she has access to the recordings to the man leading the Soviet Division. Philip’s loyalty to Elizabeth stops him from dumping the damn thing, knowing it would destroy their chances of leaving the spy life behind.

They both hit their breaking points, the moment of no return, and both made the decision which will decide the rest of their lives.

The emotions swirling around Philip’s admission about the Soviet Division and Elizabeth’s inability to leave made for a powerful final scene in an episode full of powerful scenes. It was all but confirmed that Elizabeth was only willing to leave America for Philip’s well-being. Her awareness of Philip’s increasing uselessness was made clear to us and him. You could even argue she felt relief. I can’t be the only one who read her looking at her closet full of clothes and realizing everything she was leaving behind.

And, of course, now we have Philip stuck in America by his own doing and his love of Elizabeth. How will he react now, especially to Elizabeth’s assertion that she doesn’t need him for spy work? He has always been an insecure and possessive man. I can’t imagine he’ll be content to stay home and play caretaker while Elizabeth risks her life.

And yet, I also wonder if he feels relief as well, and relief is the reason he told Elizabeth about the tape rather than chuck it in the water. Philip has never quite romanticized home the way Elizabeth has. He remembers hard times. He recognizes American superiority in many areas. Going home was never quite about home, it was about leaving the danger and death of spying behind.

While he may be initially satisfied with scaling back his personal involvement in spying, both he and Elizabeth are fooling themselves if they think such an arrangement will work for long.

It was a wonderful cap to a season focused on the difficulties of releasing all attachments and also on the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth. “The Soviet Division” gave us terrific closure to most of the season’s main plots. Philip and Elizabeth, Paige, Henry, the Morozovs, Stan and Renee, each received the time they deserved and finality to the events of the season while also transitioning to next season.

Unfortunately, I know it won’t be enough for those hoping some shakeup of the status quo would throw the future of the Jennings family into immediate doubt.

Looking Back on Season 5

This has been the complaint all season. For all the fantastic character development which has occurred through this latest season of The Americans, it all occurred around a startling lack of mortal danger for any of them. There were very few dangerous missions to undertake. At no point did anyone’s life feel in danger. There were no car chases, no shootouts, and hardly any bullets fired at all.

Episode after episode featured similar talks in similar settings to the point where it was easy to view them as repetitive and tune out. The differences in the conversations didn’t matter because people were sick of seeing Philip and Elizabeth in a car. They were sick of Paige moping. They kept waiting for the buildup of all these moments into something explosive.

These scenes were not really any different from previous seasons. The difference was the lack of spy missions which typically broke them up. Without it season 5 consisted of conversation after conversation. It’s no surprise this made for a highly divisive season some will view as a disappointment.

Unfortunately, this has overshadowed a remarkably well-written season that shook these characters to their cores. It’s a real shame.

While it may not make for a thrill ride getting your blood pumping, The Americans did arguably its best character work to date in bringing these characters through this journey. While the many different plots of the season may not have led to action, they were used to near-perfection to bring everyone to the points where they ended the season.

The wheat operation may not have led to considerable plot progression, but it led them to the Topeka contacts. The Topeka contacts may not have led to much excitement, but it created the circumstances leading to Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding ceremony. Piece by piece the reasoning behind their mutual decisions were set in place. Paige began the season loathing her parents and the secret she kept. She ended it firmly on their side. Stan may have had little happen in his FBI work, but he ended the season ready to walk away from counterintelligence altogether.

Oleg began the season returning home for his parents and ended it on the verge of arrest. We met a new character in Tuan and a new family in the Morozovs. Over the course of the season we saw them all fall apart. Philip’s disillusionment turned from questioning the spy life to feeling finished with it entirely. Gabriel finished the same journey and returned home.

So much of this tied expertly into the other plotlines as well, weaving the season’s themes into every plotline. The Morozovs showed the potential future of the Jennings family fleeing to the Soviet Union. They tied into Oleg’s story and the mix of patriotism and disillusionment with Soviet corruption. The wheat operation and Mischa’s failed trip to America did the same. On the other side of the pond, Stan faced the same disillusionment with the methods of the FBI.

And, as usual, so much of this tied into Philip and Elizabeth’s final choice. The Americans went to great lengths to make the audience understand how they reached this point and why they chose what they chose. It made clear why Philip could no longer continue as a spy. It made clear how Elizabeth reached a point where she wanted to protect Philip in ways she wouldn’t have when The Americans began. I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this season not fully understanding the motivations of these two.

This focus did reach a point where I can understand some frustration, even if I didn’t experience it myself.

Not everything led where I hoped. Mischa in particular feels like a wasted opportunity so far, and I hope something more comes of his story. As much as I loved seeing Martha and appreciate her connection to Gabriel, following up on her doesn’t quite feel necessary at the moment. And having so much setup without ever delivering something explosive does feel somewhat disappointing considering how good The Americans is at delivering tense situations.

Season 5 will definitely split opinions considerably. As wonderful as it was, it definitely falls behind the incredible third and fourth seasons. Both those seasons managed the same fantastic writing while also delivering exciting set pieces and the mix should rank them above season 5. There’s a part of me sad that they didn’t take more advantage in an awards season which won’t include Game of Thrones and probably presented the best chance for this wonderful show to win some well-deserved awards. While still great, I can’t imagine this season should win over Better Call Saul’s stunningly impressive third season. It definitely shouldn’t win over the beautiful, heart-wrenching finale season for The Leftovers.

Make no mistake, though, The Americans still remains one of the best shows on television. Even in an excruciatingly slow season lacking the usual exciting spy stuff of previous seasons, the characters kept me fully engaged. The wonderful acting and writing worthy of their performances made everything work. I’m sad to see it go, the first of an unbelievable spring television season.

Final Thoughts

  • Elizabeth and Paige’s training session in this finale makes me wonder if Elizabeth will start trying to gradually replace Philip with their daughter. Paige didn’t seem very bothered by having her lip split by her mother.
  • Speaking of Paige, she seemed very much on the verge of telling Henry the truth. Their shared scenes together make me think she will tell him next season. Probably after he goes on a tirade about not being allowed to go to his school.
  • Renee gave Stan about as passive a motivational speech to remain in the FBI as passive motivational speeches come. I’m more suspicious than ever about her. She sounded exactly like Philip and Elizabeth.
  • Nina’s shadow continues to linger over Stan’s entire life. He has struggled all season with working a new agent. Now he admitted it’s because he doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to another agent. Much like Philip struggled with Deidre because of Martha.
  • I am so torn on whether I want Martha to adopt a kid or not. A large part of me feels she would recognize the manipulation involved soon after and grow to resent what the child represents. On the other hand, she could do a wonderful thing for a child that needs a chance and perhaps find some true peace that she deserves. And she did consider adoption before with Clark.
  • It’s been so easy to forget throughout the season that Tuan served his own agency and had his own concerns. He fit in so well as the son of the Eckerts. The frank “declassification” between him and Elizabeth was a rude slap of truth about the relationship between them.
  • Tuan did show some remorse about Pasha. Or maybe it was all a show for Pasha’s benefit. He’s so good at this that I couldn’t tell.
  • Will the FBI agent watching the Morozovs matter later?
  • I just want to say again how happy I am about Philip and Kimmy’s relationship. I worry about next season, though. Kimmy will not handle it well if she finds out the truth about him.

Images Courtesy of FX

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