Saturday, April 22, 2017

"The Americans" — Mid-Season Recap

My friends, it is with a heavy heart that I must report to you that, as it passes its halfway point, I am less than completely in awe of a new season of The Americans. 

More (with spoilers) after the jump:

This should not be taken as an excessively harsh piece of criticism. It remains a show of numerous virtues, and one of the absolute best things on television. Come June and my annual list-making tradition, it will no doubt place somewhere (probably still very high) in the top 10. It's a victim in part of the impossibly sky-high expectations it has set for itself over the last two seasons. That 26-episode run from "EST Men" through "Persona Non Grata" is a perfect stretch of TV, or at least as close as any show has ever gotten to perfection for that length of time. It's a marvelous study in dramatic contraction, paring down the show's cast of principals ruthlessly while simultaneously doing its best to squeeze the life out of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings at every turn. There's also the matter of the remarkably executed Paige reveal and its subsequent (almost as remarkable) follow-up, in which she begins to get drawn further into her parents' world. The physical stakes for all concerned grew even more immense, of course, but it's the interior worlds of the characters—and the accumulation of strain on their psyches at what they are being asked to do—that provided much of the impact.

In this fifth season, though, the show has backed off a little bit on those interior stakes. Instead, it's begun to grapple more explicitly than ever before with the larger values at play in the Cold War conflict. And I'm not entirely sure how to feel about that. Certainly I think that U.S. vs. Soviet grain montage in "Amber Waves" remains probably the worst thing The Americans has ever done—an aesthetically intrusive interjection that paints this particular situation with a far-too-broad brush. And subsequent early episodes have featured long dinner table conversations with a recent defector, who repeatedly derides his previous Soviet life. Philip and and Elizabeth's new trainee Tuan, on the other hand, completely trashes the U.S. every chance he gets. There's a copious amount of pontificating going on from various sides here, and while Philip and Elizabeth (who of course have their differences on this matter) mostly absorb it without much direct comment, it nonetheless makes for a season that's at times more verbal and less subtextual than the previous ones.

To be sure, it's not as if these kinds of conversations are bad or written unnaturally. And with Paige—someone who hasn't wholly committed to any side at this point—having joined the fray, it makes a certain amount of narrative sense for this to be the time where Philip and Elizabeth reflect on exactly what they're fighting for as they try to explain it to their daughter. Still, those scenes haven't gripped me as much as usual, and not really because they're the first time I've ever really sensed the show's sympathies bending a bit too heavily toward the American/capitalist side of the equation. (To me, Paige's pastor introducing her to Karl Marx a few episodes later goes a long way toward making up for that, as does the fact that Morozov's family feels noticeably less at ease in their new country than he does.) It's more that I find them weirdly impersonal in a way The Americans usually is not. When this show is at its best, the missions seem to rattle around in the characters' minds constantly. They feel emotionally urgent in a way these mealtime and bowling alley dialogues just can't seem to capture.

Fortunately, there are also plenty of signs in recent weeks that The Americans hasn't lost that urgency and is letting it guide the action once again. Season high point "Lotus 1-2-3," with its crushing reveal about the grain project (and the innocence of the lab worker Philip and Elizabeth killed), has seemingly snapped everything into place, bringing the focus back to characters' haunted faces and their need for something, anything to hold onto amid lives weighted down with secrets, regrets, and past traumas. Matthew Rhys arguably gives his finest performance in that episode, his pain at this revelation giving way to one of his trademark looks of sheer weariness by the end. Paige's expression likewise seems more gaunt than ever before at the end of this week's also-superb episode, which sees her realize that one of those potential anchor points (her relationship with Matthew) could never really be anything of the kind, given the relationship's inescapable roots in deception. Even as she's only barely scratched the surface of everything her parents do, this moment proves to be another stark lesson for her in how much their tradecraft demands of them psychologically.

Scenes like that are the beating heart of The Americans and always have been, which is why it's been just a tad frustrating to see that heart buried at the beginning of the year under a mountain of somewhat less-compelling clutter—the aforementioned business with Tuan and Morozov, yes, but also just the greater focus on globe-hopping during the season's first third in general. Despite a riveting payoff, the four-episode journey of Mischa to America did not strike me as time especially well spent, especially given how spread out the rest of the season already is between Oleg in Russia, the ongoing trouble in Jennings-land, and Stan navigating both his own tasks and his new relationship with the suspiciously perfect-for-him Renee. The result of this is, for the first time I can ever recall, the feeling of certain scenes functioning as almost perfunctory check-ins—albeit flawlessly acted and directed check-ins, filled with smart visual choices and plenty of creeping tension—instead of the usual layered and emotionally revealing threads that are the show's bread and butter.

I wouldn't say The Americans has been stalling or wandering; the term "staging" would be more apt, as it's clear they're maneuvering the pieces into just the spot they want them. This show has been too good for too long for it to ever feel rudderless. But this is, for me, the first season to really bank on anticipation of what's to come at the (slight) expense of the here and now. The closest recent analogy might be the difference between the third and fourth years of Breaking Bad—both memorable, but the more classically gradual build of the fourth can't help but be a perceptible step down from a third season filled with tightly coiled episodes that always seemed one step away from causing the show to collapse inward on itself. That's not a big deal; Breaking Bad is still a pantheon drama that had a chance to be one of the two or three greatest ever before it botched its finale, and The Americans should be able to say the same going into its last season. But when I think of its hall of fame moments, I start with Paige in that kitchen demanding the truth in "Stingers" or perhaps Martha boarding that plane last year. I have a sneaking suspicion very little of what we've seen so far in season five—give or take a certain hole-digging scene—will make the cut.

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