Today’s The Americans analysis is going to be structured differently than what you’re used to around these parts, but hopefully my rationale makes sense when all is said and done. There are only so many weeks in a row that I can talk about how well Keri Russell is playing Elizabeth’s downward spiral, and there are much more important things I want to get around to now that we’re a few episodes into this final season.
As many of you know, I don’t watch a lot of “prestige dramas.” I never warmed up to Breaking Bad, Mad Men didn’t interest me at all, and The Sopranos was before my time and never beckoned me to discover what all the fuss was about years later. All those male-driven antihero dramas just seemed too depressing to keep watching every week for years on end. Life can be hard enough; I didn’t want the media I consumed to be another source of doom and gloom.
And then I discovered The Americans.
What made that show different? Why did I fall so deeply in love with what many people have called one of the bleakest shows on television when I couldn’t stomach other similarly dark dramas? Obviously the fact that its main antihero was a woman made it immediately more compelling to me. Elizabeth Jennings drew me into her messed-up mind in a way that Don Draper, Walter White, and all the men who came before them never could. But it was so much more than that.
It was the fact that, from the pilot, this has been a show about two broken people learning how to love each other. It has always been a show about a marriage. But even beyond that, it has always been a show about humanity. It’s a show about the things that makes us human—our need to connect with each other, our need to find some level of truth and honesty with another person, our desire for intimacy. From the moment Philip chose killing Elizabeth’s rapist over turning him in and Elizabeth then chose telling Philip the truth about herself over following their orders to never mention their pasts, The Americans has always been a show about choosing people—flesh and blood and warmth—over hard and cold ideals.
That focus on the connections between people has kept The Americans from being too dark. Even at its lowest points—the death of Nina, the sad story of Martha—there was always an underlying sense of humanity amid tragedy. Nina was killed in a brutal way, but she died because she chose friendship over following orders and betraying a good man. And Martha’s life was shockingly spared in no small way because Philip had come to care for her. Also, she may have ended up in Russia, but she didn’t end up alone. Her dream of being a mother was realized in the form of an orphaned Russian girl the KGB arranged for her to adopt.
It all comes back to people. On a show about warring ideological forces, the human beings on both sides are shown to be exactly that—human beings. And human beings have a desire to connect with each other, to build relationships and develop intimacy and form families.
That’s what made The Americans different for me. It was a show that ventured into very dark territory, but it balanced that darkness with humanity. Even when the show seemed bleak, it never became completely nihilistic. It never preached the idea that nothing matters because everything and everyone is terrible (which would have been an easy thing to preach given the subject matter). In fact, it seemed to be preaching the opposite: There is meaning to be found in even the saddest lives and most tragic stories. But that meaning isn’t found in something intangible like patriotism or even idealism; it’s found in the relationships we form with each other.
Nowhere was that message projected more loudly and more clearly than in the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. From the start, the show could have been a depressing nihilistic slog: We’re essentially watching two people doing horrible things for what we know is the losing side in the Cold War. But their story has never really been about that. Even as we watched their situation grow more perilous and we watched the two of them becoming increasingly burdened by what they were asked to do, we were also watching them find a meaning to their lives and their partnership beyond their cause. Their role as spies had a greater purpose than just fighting a losing battle; it led to a real marriage—a genuine human connection.
That’s why the much-maligned fifth season of the show will always be one I look back on fondly. Where many people saw only plot stagnation and increasing bleakness in the form of Philip’s growing sense of discontent and depression, I saw a story about a woman learning how to love her husband even as he was pulling away from the cause that brought them together. Season Five was, in my opinion, an intimate and moving study of Elizabeth finding some meaning in her life independent of her job and her cause. Her choice to marry her husband as herself—not the self the Center created but the truest version of her—was the most meaningful act in five seasons’ worth of character development for Elizabeth. Their marriage was just for them—the KGB couldn’t find out about it—and that made it the kind of daring act of love that, on this show, is heroic in its humanity.
The same could be said for Elizabeth’s choice at the end of that season—to sacrifice her professional partnership with Philip because she could see that spying was destroying him as a human being. It was the most human and compassionate thing we’ve ever seen Elizabeth do—acknowledging that his mental and emotional well-being mean something not just to him, but also to her—and it was the culmination of years of growth. It was the very antithesis of a nihilistic moment: It was the admission that Philip means something more to Elizabeth than a partner in spy work; his life has value beyond what he can do for Russia, and she sees that.
All of that beautiful character and relationship development that was presented to us in Season Five has made the start of Season Six a bit jarring, to say the least. I can appreciate the tragic irony of it all: Elizabeth’s most humane and loving act became the catalyst for her descent into the almost inhumanly disconnected figure she is in 1987. But just because I can appreciate it, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
The Americans has always been heavy, but it never felt completely hopeless. Even when it’s seemed clear that the entire Jennings family will never make it out of all of this alive, there was always hope that their fate might be like Nina’s—tragic but meaningful, not for political reasons but for personal ones. And I still fully believe the show will end this way—with the human connections between characters being the most important thing when all is said and done. But it’s become harder this season to hold on to that belief.
The divide between Philip and Elizabeth has been handled brilliantly by the actors, but it’s made what’s always been a hard show to handle border on “too tough to take” territory. The setup for a final showdown of Philip vs. Elizabeth is clearly there, and while that’s always been an option the show could take, it’s an option that makes the entire journey we’ve been on feel not just tragic, but also meaningless.
On the surface, the differences between them have always hinted at the potential for explosive conflict, but on a deeper level, the show seemed to be building a story about the bonds that mean more than ideologies. My gut says that this will still ultimately be the direction the story takes in the end, but sometimes my hope for it feels as fragile as Elizabeth’s current mental state.
The Americans has always been a Cold War drama with a surprising amount of warmth, and that’s what’s kept me watching even when bodies were being shoved in suitcases and people were being killed on buses to the sounds of “Tainted Love.” That’s what made me connect with these characters, and as this show has taught me, those connections are never meaningless or without worth—even if they break your heart in the end.