It’s become clear over the course of the fifth (and penultimate) season of The Americans that this was a season about pushing Philip and Elizabeth to their breaking points. They were running half a dozen operations; their reliable contacts became less reliable; their son was changing without them realizing it, while the pressures of protecting Paige from their lives were piling on. And that didn’t even get into the operations that went bad, or the lives that were lost – or all the things going on outside of their knowledge.
No, that’s definitely a good idea for a season, and especially for the penultimate season of this show. And as I think back on the season, yeah, actually, a lot more happened than I remembered. So why on earth did it feel so dull? How does one of the most riveting, tense, psychologically complicated shows on television deliver such a fizzle of a season, one that ultimately didn’t even feel like place-setting for what was to come so much as it felt like a placeholder?
The fault can’t be laid at the feet of Matthew Rhys, or Keri Russell, or Holly Taylor, or really any of the show’s regular cast, all of whom continued to bring their A-game every week, delivering powerful performances even as non-events continued to pile up. And while there were issues with the supporting cast (more on that later), you can’t really fault the performances, nor the technical craft of the series.
(Spoilers for the season, such as they are, follow.)
What you can blame, I think, begins with those supporting characters, and the fact that there wasn’t one that stuck out or lingered with us. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker – this is a show about Philip and Elizabeth, after all – but the sheer number of characters, and the weak ways they were established, made it hard to truly care about any of them. Yes, Tuan’s decision to manipulate a teenager into suicide was nightmarish, but really, it was awful because of Tuan’s icy coldness, not because we cared about Pasha, who we barely knew. Yes, it was tragic that Philip’s long lost son got turned back, but because we didn’t really know him, and Philip never knew, the plot thread felt ridiculous and anti-climactic, as though the show started it and then changed its mind between seasons. Yes, it’s bad that Oleg is under investigation by the Soviets, but we don’t know his family, we don’t know the people he in turn is investigating, and the show felt lost in the weeds every time we ended up in Russia, apart from the odd glimpses of Martha.
Of course, it didn’t help that damned near every plot thread fizzled by intention. Pasha almost saw Philip…but went home and didn’t. The grain experiment could have been a threat to Moscow…but wasn’t. Philip might have lost it about the virus being used as a weapon…but he moved on, apparently. Pastor Tim saw the worst of what was happening with Paige…and everyone accepted it. Stan took ages to develop a source, and then apparently got bored with his own job, way after some of us did. And so on and so on. Every time the show felt like it was moving forward, the plot would stall and stop. And again, I see kind of what the show-runners were going for, but when they say that Philip’s son’s story was a complete and satisfying arc, I can’t help but roll my eyes.
And yet, for all of that, there were some undeniably great moments this season. Paige discarding her cross necklace…our first glimpse of Martha…the departure of Gabriel…that darkroom development of Tim’s diary…Martha and Gabriel squaring off in a tiny Moscow apartment…that shocking moment of revelation when we see what Tuan has done…that gut-wrenching interrogation of a Nazi collaborator…these moments and others were legitimately great, and on par with the show at its best. But they were so surrounded by so much material that felt inert and dead that they lost impact, to the point where I had started to forget some of them before I started writing this. And that’s a serious problem, particularly when your show-runners are arguing that this wasn’t solely a setup season, but largely a self-contained season.
I still hold that The Americans was never outright bad this season – it’s too well made, too rich, too complex, to ever be that bad. But while they may have succeeded in their intent to show people stretched thin and overwhelmed by work and by pointlessness, that didn’t make for a satisfying season of television. I’m still excited to see what comes in the final season, and I still think it’s a great series. But as a season, this was a weak, frustrating set of episodes, one that I hope will benefit when people binge the show, but didn’t do much for their current fanbase.