There are things this world cannot do without: Philip Jennings looking mournful; Elizabeth Jennings being ferocious and brave; Claudia, a one-named operative from Moscow, doling out spy assignments with a twinkle in her eye as she stirs a pot of Russian stew.
At the end of its final season, TV fans will have to soldier on without all of these characters, because “The Americans” is almost over. If it’s any consolation, one of the show’s core messages, which is usually conveyed in the most compassionate and moving way possible, is that life is often deeply unfair.
Despite the sweet, even kind fatalism that powers this show’s very Russian soul, the final season sets out at a brisk pace, even as it makes a series of callbacks to the show’s first year. And as it progresses, “The Americans” continues to make room for the kinds of nuanced situations — and silences — that have long set it apart.
During the course of that half-decade, this addictive drama grew ever more sure of itself, and more reliant than ever on the faces of its stellar cast and the melancholy mood created by its perceptive directors. After decades spent in service to Russia, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) still don’t agree on the promise and peril of the American experiment. They love each other profoundly, but they are separated by gulfs that are both political and, at times, personal. They would die for each other, but how far would the other go to serve the Soviet cause? On that point, both remain unsure of each other’s capabilities, even as their devotion to their marriage takes on the contours of an epic tragedy.
With all that as subtext, what more is there to say? And so, at times, “The Americans” wisely lets its quiet interludes do the talking — or rightly puts its faith in its killer song choices.
On the diplomatic front, by contrast, plenty of talking is happening all over Washington, D.C., in 1987, which is where Season 6 begins. Just as the perestroika faction is making things dicey among influential Russians — Philip and Elizabeth among them — Russians and Americans are coming together for arms negotiations. When we last saw the Jennings, a burned-out Philip had opted out of the spy game for good, so Elizabeth has been shouldering the considerable burden of espionage work on her own, and there’s no one better at conveying exhausted but implacable resolve than Russell.
Elizabeth continues to be her daughter Paige’s tutor as the younger Jennings continues her education in the world of covert operations, but her training is not all Russian soaps and hearty old-country soups. Elizabeth has to come down on her daughter hard when she makes rookie mistakes and puts herself and the entire team in danger. A lesser actor would try to make Elizabeth seem more likable when she is reprimanding her daughter. But Russell trusts that her character’s willingness to be stringent with her child will do the work of conveying Elizabeth’s deep love — and eternal fears. Ever the spine of the Jennings family — and an increasingly important operative for her country — Elizabeth remains convinced she is right to support Russia unequivocally, even as she gets drawn into machinations that make her even less able to trust her husband — and her superiors.
Elizabeth, like many other characters on this show, holds on to a few scraps of optimism, not in spite of being a realist, but because of it. When everything else is so fraught, she needs to think that something will be better for someone, somewhere, thanks to her efforts. So she clings to the belief — promoted by Claudia — that, although Paige is helping out now with somewhat dangerous operations, her future will be less dangerous than her parents’ past. The idea is that once she finishes college, Paige will live a life of safety as a low-key operative quietly embedded in an influential position in American society.
But what proof does Elizabeth have that Paige’s Russian handlers will allow her to avoid doing the kind of dirty work she and Philip have had to take on? Elizabeth doesn’t look too closely at this belief — or delusion — just as Philip tries to cling to the idea that focusing on the couple’s travel agency will ensure a prosperous, normal life for his family. “The Americans” hints — with gentle humor, as is its way — that the travel-agency business isn’t long for this world, given the imminent rise of discount travel and internet travel sites. It’s a measure of the show’s ability to create deep investment in its characters that it’s hard not to worry about how Phillip — who’s working hard to motivate his expanded sales force — will react to the decimation of the other task he devoted his adult life to.
Also heartbreaking, somehow, are breezy scenes of Henry Jennings (Keidrich Sellati) phoning home from boarding school to report on his hockey team’s wins. Henry remains blissfully unaware of the unsolvable problems that the rest of his family is grappling with — but how long can that state of happy obliviousness last? In this drama’s world, no one gets to be innocent for long. But one of the things that truly makes “The Americans” great (again) is its nuance: No one is fully guilty either.
Every character has understandable reasons for the risks they take, and for wondering if the sacrifices they are asked to make are far larger than the ones they signed up for. Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) have tried to distance themselves from their espionage pasts, and their wariness about being pulled back into the spy game is understandable. On this show, leaving the great game is never depicted as a weak or purely self-serving act. True cowardice, these characters understand, lies in refusing to make real choices or face the consequences of one’s decisions. But this season, even more so than ever, few people are operating with the information they need to choose wisely, and terrifying uncertainty lurks everywhere.
The show’s meticulous construction of ambiguous choices is one of the finest achievements in recent television history. Sometimes precise and measured storytelling can be dry and arid, or lacking in passion. But showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have made the examination of difficult moral options, and the often good intentions of complicated people, collide in believable and bittersweet ways for six seasons.
There should not be a seventh year; the fifth occasionally lacked the forward momentum to power through all 13 episodes. The fact that the Jennings’ story is ending gives this season much of its dramatic heft and importance, as characters who haven’t seen each other in ages come together again, and as each choice in each personal and political maze carries more finality.
It’s appropriate that this great show is finishing its run. And it’s a terrible thing as well. Creating a scenario in which we’re unable to look away from the collision of sad truths and noble realities is, of course, a fitting way for “The Americans” to go out.