When The Americans debuted, I immediately fell in love with the incredible cast and the evocative soundtrack, but I questioned the show’s ability to sustain itself. After all, if the deep-cover Soviet spies at the heart of the series get arrested or compromised, you don’t have a show anymore, so how much suspense can it really keep us in?
As the series progressed, evolving from high-concept thriller to layered, intense character drama, it became clear that that particular kind of suspense didn’t matter—at least not in the long run. The point was never whether or not they got caught; it was always whether or not they could keep their humanity. Five years on, the series is still asking that question, and it’s still very, very good at it.
In the early years of The Americans, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) were sometimes spies who also had to be parents, and sometimes parents who also had to be spies. As Season 5 begins, that line is continuing to blur as their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) becomes more engaged in their secret lives and they begin posing as parents to a young Vietnamese agent as part of a new operation. To make their lives more complicated, a Season 4 operation that left a comrade dead has come back to haunt them, and it provokes one of the most harrowing experiences the show’s given us yet.
As far as plot goes, I think I’ll stop there, because The Americans is still brilliant when it’s ripping away the old story like a Band-Aid to reveal the new bloody mess beneath. Even if they’re not always the point any more, the dirtiest parts of the spy game are still thrilling, and still masterfully executed.
The show’s also still one of the most flawlessly acted works on television, and it remains a crime that Rhys and Russell don’t get to have daily sword fights with the Emmys they should’ve long since won. They’ve navigated the shift from two parens keeping a secret to two parents trying to teach their daughter about their real lives (and possibly recruit her) with a poise and subtlety that other actors would’ve missed in a quest to go for the soapy throat of the thing. The ever-evolving complexities of their marriage still form a captivating spine for the series. The supporting cast, led by the great Frank Langella, continues to be excellent, but the real MVP over the last 15 hours or so of the series has been Taylor. Paige Jennings could have been an annoying voice in her parents’ ears, a nagging presence who’s more of an obstacle than a character. Instead she’s a tough, smart, vulnerable young woman upon whom the show now hinges, and the entire arc of last season woud never have held up without her. As Season 5 gets underway, Paige’s uncertainty still hangs over the show like a cloud, and Taylor’s still crushing it.
As Season 4 ended, Elizabeth and Philip were given a chance to get out, take their kids to Russia and abandon their double lives after years of service to their cause. Obviously they couldn’t, or the show wouldnt be back. But remembering that, and knowing that the series is set to end with Season 6 next year, makes me approach these Season 5 episodes differently. It’s no secret that Elizabeth has always had more conviction and more commitment to the work than Philip, and he’s straining to cope with last season’s seismic shifts and losses. Now, something bigger is approaching—something that could rock both the work and the family even more than Paige’s introduction to her parents’ true identities did last season.
How will one of the most carefully plotted and flawlessly executed shows on TV handle this as it turns at third base and heads for home? I don’t know. And as always with this brilliant series, I can’t wait to find out.
The Americans returns Sunday at 10 p.m. on FX.