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The Quiet ‘Americans’

How a fawned-over TV show frittered away years of goodwill with a limp fifth season

(FX)
(FX)

The good news about Tuesday night’s season finale of The Americans is that it included the show’s best scene all year. The bad news is that the scene involved a character who’d been all but killed off last year. Ooooh, look out, spoilers ahead.

Martha, the tragically oblivious FBI secretary who unwittingly married a Russian spy, spent several years obliviously enduring the rawest deal on prestige television, non–Game of Thrones division. It made your heart, your soul, your very spleen ache; it made you root for a happy ending even in the face of pervasive impending doom. Last year, in Season 4, she finally learned the truth, in a dour and unshowy manner one might call heartbreakingly anticlimactic.

This is not a show of wild shootouts and volcanic melodrama: The Americans is slow, and comically sober, and exquisitely morose, a maudlin tableau of beautiful people sulking and making disturbing mouth noises. Martha took the awful truth in a melancholy sort of stride, and trudged directly onto a plane to Russia, exiled and abandoned, presumably never to be seen again. The show’s longest-running and gnarliest character arc was over. The ugly truth about Season 5 is that dramatically speaking, nothing came close to replacing it.

This was meant to be The Americans’ year, the triumphant payoff after all of those Emmy snubs and Best Thing on TV You’re Not Watching think pieces. In 2016, the Emmys finally got on board, while stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, playing titular super-spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, officially became TV’s cutest/hottest real-life couple. Also, the notion of Russians undermining the American government went from a quaint historical oddity to something a little more, uh, topical.

It is to the show’s credit that it made no attempt at a winking Donald Trump joke — again, not their style. But Season 5 was largely a bust, the drama inert, the plot movement so halting things appeared to be moving backward. You profoundly felt the absence of both Martha and, for that matter, Nina, the fan-favorite low-level KGB officer who met an even more definitive end in Season 4. The eerie whooshing of that vacuum was deafening all year, drowning out even the disturbing mouth noises.

Meanwhile, Philip and Elizabeth spent all year underscoring the point that their work was no longer remotely sexy at all. In the season premiere, they spent fully 15 minutes digging a hole; one of their biggest operations this time involved midges and wheat, a sort of dramaturgical heat check, as though showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields had a running bet about who could make the most boring possible thing halfway interesting. (Oleg, the heartbroken high-level KGB agent, one-upped everybody by heading back to Russia and spending all season investigating grocery-store fraud.) The midges/wheat situation required our super-sexy Russian spies to frequently travel to Topeka, Kansas and canoodle with reasonably sexy and totally oblivious sources, but the show was at great pains to underscore how dull and soul-crushing that work was. Even the flashiest and most titillating parts of espionage are painfully dull now.

Which makes sense on a dramatic level: This show was, from the onset, a slow-burning “the noose is tightening” thing, its early playfulness and prurience logically falling away as the stakes and the body count rose. But Breaking Bad, for example, managed to burn brightest as its timeline got darkest, whereas The Americans now just feels suffocating, deflating. It is no longer any fun watching these people have no fun.

Martha intruded on this gloom exactly three times this season. First, an early shock cameo, the camera lingering on her for just an instant at a sparse Russian grocery store, just to establish that she was still alive, and still on the payroll. More recently, she got a full scene with Gabriel, the wizened KGB handler now retired and back in Russia by choice, just to establish that she quite reasonably hates her new life, and hates most of the people who forced it upon her. But in Tuesday night’s finale, her Russian tutor offered to let her adopt an orphan, and it was one of the only times I’ve smiled at this show all season, and definitely the only time I teared up. Sheesh. Look at this.

(FX)
(FX)
(FX)
(FX)

It is a profound relief to know that The Americans is not averse to giving a major character an at least partially happy ending; it’s an even greater relief to know that the show is still interested in provoking emotional catharsis of literally any kind. Little that occurred in Season 5 pushed the plot meaningfully forward. Paige, as the dour Russian spies’ even dour-er teenage daughter, is still the show’s main character and most intriguing unresolved question, but mostly she just moped and broke up with her boyfriend and took some maternal boxing lessons and finally mercifully brought the Pastor Tim saga to a long-overdue end. Her brother, Henry, transformed overnight from a meme-worthy afterthought to, apparently, a Rhodes scholar. Stan, as the oblivious divorced FBI agent, talked some trash to his superiors but is now mostly stuck waiting around to find out if his new girlfriend is a Russian spy, too. The season’s only overt attempt to replace Nina or Martha as major characters was Tuan, a Vietnamese teenage spy and Jennings cohort so hardcore he goaded a bullied Russian kid into a suicide attempt. But he had too little time, and too little emotional ambiguity, to work with. He was the only person this season who remotely seemed to enjoy what he was doing, the exception that proved the ineffectiveness of the rule.

(FX)
(FX)

Last year, The Americans made a big show of announcing a definitive endpoint: two more seasons, and that’s it. We are halfway through that endgame, and no closer to understanding it. Even the season finale’s big anti-cliffhanger — Philip and Elizabeth consider fleeing with their family back to Russia, but she can’t bring herself to do it, even though he’d apparently love to — undercuts the show’s early theme that Philip had grown to love America. I’ll keep doing the spying and killing, and you can just live here, is the deal his wife essentially offers him, and that frankly sounds pretty appetizing, for him if not for us. Martha was this season’s undeniable high point, but the fact that it took her only two and a half scenes to pull off the heist is a bad omen indeed. It’s unclear where this show is ultimately going, but reasonably clear that it didn’t really need anything that happened this season to get there.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the location that the spies travel to. It is Topeka, Kansas, not Omaha, Nebraska.