“Are you having sex?” asks the undercover Russian spy of her sullen teenage daughter, as they stand in their closed suburban garage. The spy is holding a duct-taped throw pillow so the teenager can sullenly hammer at it with her fists. The unspoken answer is, Not yet, but this TV show is on FX, so it’s inevitable; the further subtext to this family-bonding-as-Rocky-training-montage workout is that the sullen teenager will also probably beat the crap out of someone real soon. Possibly in the same scene! And she definitely won’t enjoy it. Neither, dear viewer, will you.
Or at least, you won’t get the same prurient dopamine rush supplied by most other shows like this. As its fifth season premieres tonight, The Americans has trained its devoted fans to fear the prospect of absolutely anything happening, to anyone, at any time. This is a show about sexy, badass spies whose demeanors are so grim you feel bad for cheering when anything sexy and/or badass occurs; they are usually also wearing ridiculous wigs, but they look so forlorn that you feel bad for laughing. That’s what makes this show so utterly bizarre, and so indispensable.
The Americans’ time has come, due to a proprietary mixture of slow-burn deliberate excellence — critics loved it immediately, and last year the Emmys started to figure it out — and dumb luck. Extremely dumb luck. You are perhaps aware that Russia now regularly dominates the American news cycle, in a surreal, nightmarish Cold War reboot in which our old, vanquished foe suddenly seems to have the upper hand. It’s a “ripped from the headlines” situation in reverse. Previously, part of the exquisite tragedy here in watching Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Russian sleeper agents posing as a mundane nuclear family in early-’80s Washington, D.C., was the knowledge that their grim badasserie was futile, that their side loses, pretty spectacularly. You assumed, from the onset, that their characters, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, would meet a dire end, and likely they will, with exactly two seasons left to go. But the fate of their teenage daughter, Paige — who knows at least some of her parents’ secrets and is still grappling, sullenly, with where her loyalties lie — is undecided. You can guess what’s going to happen to most of these people, but not her, not yet. Like it or not, she’s the only major character on this show whose fate matters.
You roll the dice with preteen actors on long-running prestige TV shows: If you’re lucky, you get Mad Men’s Sally Draper, who blossomed over the course of seven seasons into the only character you didn’t hate yourself for loving. If you’re unlucky, you get A.J. Soprano. Canadian actress Holly Taylor was 15 years old when The Americans premiered in January 2013, and for the first couple of seasons, her Paige didn’t have much to do but ask a few impertinent questions and roll her eyes when she didn’t get any real answers. But in Season 3, she finally cajoled the truth out of her parents, though she took a little convincing. “Speak Russian,” she commanded, and, reluctantly, they did. (Though FYI, this is not the right translation.)
Some of my distinguished colleagues here at The Ringer are anti-Paige. They are forgiven. Yes, it is fair to say that she has done a goodly amount of sulking, post-reveal, and made the occasional catastrophic decision — such as when she immediately unburdened herself to a character named Pastor Tim, who is, somehow, still alive. But that mistake aside, there’s a little bit of the Breaking Bad Skyler White phenomenon happening here, a tendency to heap scorn on a (usually female) character for reacting reasonably to monumentally unreasonable situations. (Paige has a younger brother, Henry, who remains oblivious and gets basically no screen time.) She’s doing the best she can, and doing what we’d all likely do as a 15-year-old in that situation, which basically amounts to curling up in bed pouting and listening to Yazoo.
But as Season 5 dawns, she’s by far the most volatile and fascinating character, capable of anything, from melting down entirely to transforming into a killer superspy. She’s got a boyfriend now (their hug in front of his father, increasingly and delightfully unstable FBI agent Stan Beeman, is endearingly super-awkward) and is so plagued by nightmares she’s sleeping in the closet. She’s reading John Irving, and wearing Esprit tops, and reeling off sullen teenage bon mots like, “I’ll just be alone for the rest of my life, will that make you feel better?” And, yes, she’s apparently training as a cage fighter with her mother, in their garage.
You’d do most of the same things.
Given that the first three new episodes, at least, were likely filmed before the presidential election, The Americans isn’t yet making any particular hay of Russia’s remarkable contemporary comeback story: This season’s big mission seems to involve midges and wheat. Philip and Elizabeth both wear the same cowboy hat with the saddest possible facial expressions, and it’s somehow incredibly romantic. The third episode has a genuinely gorgeous music cue and, for devoted fans, a genuinely mind-boggling trip to the supermarket. If you’re caught up, you’re all in regardless. If you’re still hesitant, this likely still reads to you as a hostile foreign language.
Which is what makes Paige so jarring, and polarizing, and invaluable: Her character alone seems to grasp how ludicrous and unsustainable all this is. The Americans strives for gritty realism, to avoid James Bond fabulousness and cartoonishness, but this is still a show about Russian spies living in total secrecy across the street from an FBI agent. She thinks it’s as bizarre as you do. It’s hard to watch her struggle; OK, fine, it’s a little irritating, too. She is objectively the character least equipped to survive in such a hostile, claustrophobic environment, and she’s acting like it. But she’s also the only character with a legitimate chance of surviving. I’m rooting for her, but do so at your own peril: If she actually makes it through this, she’ll be strong enough to conquer us all.