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The Americans spent a season as TV’s best drama, but it’s ready for spy stuff again

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In “The Soviet Division,” the final episode of season five of the FX series The Americans, married travel agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings weigh a decision that affects countless families throughout the United States. The Jennings can’t shake the stress of their jobs, and it’s reflected in their home life in myriad ways. Philip is visibly unhappy—some might call him the unhappiest man on TV. Teenage daughter Paige is coming home with strange bruises. Their son Henry feels betrayed because his parents reversed course on sending him to fancy private school. Then there’s the matter of Tuan, their co-worker who masquerades as their adopted son. Tuan just nearly got his best friend killed, and the boy’s blood is on Philip’s hands now—literally. It seems like the time has come for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings to leave this all behind, to pack up the family and move far, far away.


For its first four seasons, these were the kind of stories taking place beneath the surface of The Americans—a family drama disguised as a spy thriller. But for the past 13 episodes, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields pulled the wigs and spirit gum off of their series and put the emphasis on the crises at home. But that couldn’t last forever. Sure as an eventual intrusion from their old nemesis Ronald Reagan, the spy stuff was bound to re-infiltrate The Americans. What once looked like an exit turned out to be an entrance into a whole new mission. To paraphrase another family saga’s polarizing final passages: Just when the Jennings thought they were out, they get pulled back in.

The news that Isaac Breeland is being promoted to the head of the CIA’s Soviet division is the reward for anyone who’s gritted their teeth through season five’s slower, more emotionally intimate proceedings. But for those of us who’ve dug this turn for the series, it’s a fitting conclusion to what’s been simultaneously the most trying and most enriching period in Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship. At the end of this tug-of-Cold-War, they remain in the game together. They’ve gained each other’s love, but they’ve lost some things in the process. Standing in front of her bedroom closet, Elizabeth is shocked to find that Tuan’s accusation is correct: She has been overridden by certain, petty, bourgeoise concerns. In the same montage, as Elton John bids farewell to the technicolor high life, Philip loses his regular racquetball partner, his continued suspicions about Renee signaling a more pressing loss. (Or do they? In laying the groundwork for next year, “The Soviet Division” includes a grace note of a scene where Renee persuades Stan to stick with counterintelligence, raising new question marks about the Jennings’ new neighbor.)


A superb piece of editing and direction, the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” montage depicts a loss of principles, a loss of allies, and a loss of innocence. The last loss applies to Paige, and it cuts the deepest: As Pastor Tim departs, so too departs the last vestiges of a Paige who wasn’t entirely sucked into her parents’ world. Henry can keep looking away from the TV when the president of the United States drops a “jk” about bombing the Soviet Union. His older sister no longer has that luxury. There is triumph in the steps she takes, unafraid and independent, from the food pantry to the parking lot. But that autonomy comes at a price: getting smashed in the face by her mother. Both are brave women, but both have had made sacrifices for that bravery.

In the garage, Elizabeth beams at her daughter, proud that she’ll continue volunteering at the food pantry after her religious obligations have lapsed. It’s one of several meaningful exchanges between parent and child in “The Soviet Division,” ones in which the hard truths exchanged make the scenes feel all the more real. This week’s “For Your Consideration: Keri Russell” moment arrives when Elizabeth sits down with Tuan to tell him “You’re not going to make it.” They’ve been pretending to be mother and son, but that dynamic is yanked out of the realm of make believe when Russell pauses and hunkers down, showing that Tuan is not the first grumpy youngster Elizabeth has dressed down. It’s satisfyingly frank, and then it’s sort of loving: To do this kind of work without a partner is to fail—she’s already seen it happen to William.

Whether she’s eliding or ignoring her deeper emotional connection with Philip is left hanging until the final moments of the episode, when she proposes a new arrangement, one that goes against the one she recommends to Tuan. “I’m making you stay,” she tells her husband, “and it just keeps getting worse for you.” Earlier in the episode, Philip sees a beaten down reflection of himself in Alexei, who’s facing a lonely existence if he stays in the States, and a prison sentence if he returns home with Pasha and Evgheniya. The title of “The Soviet Division” is a clever play on the episode’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” quandary, but the episode comes down firmly in favor of not forging ahead alone: Even Martha’s getting some much-needed companionship (and a fulfilled wish) in the form of the—how do you say?—“adorable” orphan Olya. If you have to sink into the quicksand, you might as well have someone alongside you, holding your hand.

And so it’s once more unto the breach for the Jennings, who can’t turn down the intelligence that’s turned up in the lining of Isaac Breeland’s briefcase. The best family drama on TV can’t deny its original reasons for being here: Philip and Elizabeth were spies first, then spouses. This new turn will test what’s built up over the course of season five, commitments to kin and country reinforced between the beats of the Cold War. The head of the Soviet division is simply too large a target to turn down. The family vacation is off, but the family business is still open. A wife tells her husband “I don’t want to see you like this anymore.” They have one another’s backs, but a divide is formed, as Elizabeth Jennings, an undercover KGB agent, gazes across a park bench at Philip Jennings, a travel agent.


Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Five, Week 13: B. You’ve served us well, Dee and Brad Eckert—and you hold up well under pressure, just as the hair of people in the airline industry should.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Five, Week 13: A. Contemporary soundtrack cues are for scene-setting and snapshot taking—like R.E.M.’s “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” playing for the cool kids in the Breeland living room.
  • When The Americans wants to say something, it does so with AOR: Fleetwood Mac, Roxy Music, and now, in the latest of a long string of killer musical montages, Elton John. When those opening chords of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” came on, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and strap on their glittery platform shoes.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Five, Week 13, Addendum: “The Soviet Division” contains a stealth needle drop in Reagan’s “We begin bombing in five minutes” gaffe. That leaked audio later formed the core of “Five Minutes,” a funky bit of sampledelica recorded by Bootsy Collins, Jerry Harrison, and Daniel Lazerus as Bonzo Goes To Washington. As satire, it’s got nothing on Negativland, and it’s not as adventurous as anything that Harrison’s Talking Heads-mate David Byrne recorded with Brian Eno on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. But damn if that ain’t a groove.
  • For further reading on how everyone has taken the wrong lesson from President Reagan’s radio-address snafu, you could take a long, hard look at your Twitter feed, or you could read Emily Nussbaum’s excellent “How Jokes Won The Election.”
  • Stan doesn’t seem to know what to do with that chicken, but I’m happy to see him eat something that didn’t come out of a box.
  • There’s a motif near the end of the episode of Philip reaching his hands out to make connection: With the railing at the river’s edge, where he almost trashes the Breeland tape; at the kitchen table with Paige, after he apologizes. It’s a little bit heartbreaking to see him and Elizabeth take a walk with their hands stuffed into their pockets.