DVD Review: The Americans Season 6
(Warning: Oblique spoilers for previous seasons of The Americans follow.)
The Americans is a high-concept television series in which the initial premise could have led to any point on the spectrum of quality. In lesser hands, the tale of two Russian spies living undercover as subversives in the United States could have been reduced to stupid action sequences or cheesy camp. But, like most of the other great television series of the past twenty years, The Americans took an idea for a show that bore a high risk for failure…and then succeeded spectacularly. The first two seasons were highly entertaining spy thrillers, but around season three (reviewed here), the show found its heart and soul by realizing what the true theme of the series was: an American tragedy.
As the series progresses throughout the 1980s, the stakes go beyond the machinations of the Cold War and move to a more personal level. Most of the central characters have to deal with a crisis of conscience, and as the sixth season unfolds, each character has to make a series of moral decisions, many of which will have crushing emotional repercussions.
Ultimately, the most poignant linchpin of the series became the battle for the soul of Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), the daughter of the Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell). Paige began the show as an innocent teenager, grew increasingly troubled by her parents’ secrets and lies, and once Philip and Elizabeth let her into the secrets of the family business, she was drawn slowly but steadily into the world of espionage. By the start of the sixth season, she is an active and willing Soviet spy in training, but she’s still in the dark as to the sex and violence that are critical to her parents’ missions. Though the end of season five implied that Elizabeth had completely won over her daughter’s allegiance, the sixth season takes its theme from one of the greatest critics of the U.S.S.R.: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In a famous essay, Solzhenitsyn exhorted his readers to “Live Not By Lies!” As the sixth season reaches it end, Elizabeth’s falsehoods start to crumble, and Paige finally makes a decision as to where she belongs, leading to a character arc conclusion that is both emotionally perfect and utterly devastating.
While his daughter is drawn ever deeper into the murky world of spycraft, Philip is allowed, at the end of the fifth season, to retire from his work as an active spy due to psychological burnout from the job. This final season focuses on Philip Jennings’s American dream. Freed from the grind of espionage punctuated by murder, he’s finally able to pursue his own leisure activities and devote himself to making his travel agency a success. Unfortunately, his business acumen isn’t as skilled as it could be, and Philip’s other goal, to spend more time with his beloved family, is thwarted by Elizabeth taking up all of Paige’s free time with the family’s secret business and his son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) going off to boarding school. This absence leaves Henry perhaps the most mentally stable and truly happy member of the Jennings clan. Rhys won a well-deserved Emmy for magnificently playing a man disgusted with himself and seeking a level of happiness he knows he hasn’t earned, and trying to save both his children without his wife being aware of the fact.
Additionally, Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship is strained like never before, as we come to realize just how deeply their connection was based on being partners in spycraft. It’s not clear how much Elizabeth understands and sympathizes with Philip’s need to leave the business, and how much she resents—even despises him—for walking away, though it is strongly implied she gets a powerful sense of satisfaction from drawing him back into her world of espionage.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth continues to be a willfully blind zealot, an agent so fanatically devoted to her cause that she can rationalize away every ruined life and drop of blood shed. One of the most agonizing aspects of the show to watch has been the way Elizabeth, in disguise, has ingratiated herself into the lives of unsuspecting individuals for ulterior motives, leaving either dead bodies in her wake or people who wish they were dead. Often the most destructive villains are the ones who think they’re heroes. Elizabeth has always justified her actions as necessary for the “greater good.” Whether she finally allows the scales to be lifted from her eyes or if she continues to lie to herself as convincingly as she lies to rest of the world will be left to the viewer to discover. Russell’s performance allows Elizabeth to show definite signs of unraveling as her cigarette consumption rises and her temper develops a hair trigger.
The breakthrough performance this season comes from Noah Emmerich as Stan, who has always been strong as the FBI agent unaware that his best friends are enemy spies, but who reaches far greater heights in this last season, particularly in the final episode. Elizabeth always put being an agent above her own humanity and, in an incredibly tense scene in a parking garage, Stan must make a similar choice. Whether he was right or wrong in his final decision is a matter for debate.
Viewers need to start at season one and then proceed forward until they complete the series. The Americans has no weak seasons and hardly any sub-par episodes. The final episode is that rare creation: a thematically perfect ending that remains true to the trajectory of the series while refraining from providing an overly tidy wrap-up of every character and plotline. Longtime fans should be aware that many pivotal characters from the first five seasons do not appear and are not mentioned in the final season. This knowledge gives new meaning to their final scenes in season five; at the time, it wasn’t clear that these quasi-happy or quietly tragic scenes would be their last. Viewers should therefore not expect some familiar faces to turn up to drive the plot or make a simple cameo; the ultimate fates of most of the cast are left up to the fans’ imaginations.
The more viewers know about the Cold War era, the better prepared they will be to watch the show. Individuals who were aware of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist Norman Borlaug will have unraveled the secrets behind the wheat development plotline from season five long before the characters on the show did. Likewise, the more one knows about the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and the timeline behind that, the deeper significance throwaway dialogue and plot point hold. Comments made during the final episodes will provide hints as to what fates await major characters in the years to come. Knowledge of the time period also allows viewers to fill in blanks that are only lightly sketched by the show.
As The Americans ends, we are left with a creative triumph that puts less emphasis on geopolitics than on the lasting emotional devastation wrought by broken hearts and shattered souls. The series has always shone the brightest when it put the personal above the political, and the final season is no exception.
The Americans: Season 6
20th Century Fox