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In Praise of ‘The Americans’ and What It Revealed About Russian-American Relations During the Reagan Years
March 27, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

First of all, no spoilers. Not here, anyway.

As The Americans raises the curtain on its final season, this is more of an appreciation of a dramatic series that hit the popular nerve in a way few others managed in the 65 episodes and six seasons it was on the air.

When the final word is written on The Americans, history will note that it premiered five years into the Barack Obama administration and departed one fractious, chaotic year into the Trump administration — and, more tellingly perhaps, six years into Vladimir Putin’s third term as Russian president, and about to embark on his fourth six-year term.

The Americans was set during the Reagan years, when it was “Morning in America” and the Soviet Union was headed toward dissolution, to become little more than a monstrous footnote in history.

During those early seasons, The Americans seemed almost quaint, a period drama set in a blurry, semi-idealized past, when Russian sleeper agents could take on secret lives as an all-American family in the suburbs of Washington, DC and, over time, blend in as seamlessly as blue jeans and apple pie. Never mind that their well-behaved, well-mannered children would one day become quarrelsome adolescents, questioning everything their parents stand for, only to find out that what their parents stand for is not at all what they thought.

The Americans is about a couple forced into a marriage of convenience for patriotism’s sake, who sacrifice a normal life for a fake life in another country, a country at odds with their own.

Even from the beginning, though, it was clear to anyone watching closely that The Americans wasn’t going to be about the couple, Elizabeth (Nadezhda) Jennings (Keri Russell, top) and Philip (Mischa) Jennings (Matthew Rhys, top), but about their children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and how the children of sleeper agents might react when they learn their parents are Russian spies and that they themselves are not as American as they had believed.

It may be hard to remember now, but in those tense, anxiety-ridden early seasons, one of the most disturbing episodes was the mass murder, execution-style, of another posing-as-an-American-couple family — the entire family bloodily wiped out, including their U.S.-born daughter, save one family member, their teenage son, who had left their hotel room moments earlier on a family errand. The episode, the second-season opener “Comrades,” is still hard to watch today, in part because of Elizabeth and Philip’s sudden, revelatory fear for their lives, and the lives of their own kids.

As last season ended — spoiler alert for anyone saving the entire series for a binge-watch at a later date — now-adolescent Paige (Taylor, left) knows everything about her parents and has decided she’s with them, while Henry, younger, more impressionable, more immature and certainly more American, is beginning to suspect. It’s not hard to imagine that, as the clouds part and all becomes clear, brother and sister won’t see eye to eye.

One other thing is increasingly clear: The Americans can’t possibly end well, either for Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Jennings as a couple or as Soviet spies. It’s a measure of just how well-written and tightly wound the series has become in the hands of writer-showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg — himself an ex-CIA case officer tasked with identifying and exposing sleeper cells embedded deep inside official Washington’s suburban bedroom communities — that the couple find themselves in an impossible situation, still undetected but with the noose growing steadily tighter around their necks.

Good drama is seeing characters change over time, either of their own volition or forced to by circumstances. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings have changed dramatically over the years, and not just because their kids are growing up. Their early idealism and commitment to a lifelong mission have taken a battering, worn down by a series of emotional and physical setbacks, nearly all of them beyond their control. In The Americans’ fictional time frame, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev are about to reach an unexpected accommodation that is about to throw the world — not just the Jennings’ world but the entire world — for a loop, and it’s hard to see how a family of sleeper agents will be able to cope when their whole life’s reason is revealed to be pointless. (To be fair, in the real world, Vladimir Putin still hasn’t found a way to cope with the dissolution of the Soviet Union; one of the crazy but wonderful coincidences of The Americans is the way it has reflected real-world events in loopy and completely unexpected ways.)

In a revealing 2013 interview with the New York Times, in one of the (very) few interviews in which Weisberg has talked about his past in the security services, he said he learned early on in his career that deception is a crucial skill, one that involved lying to his own family on a regular basis. He found it painful. He didn’t know it then, perhaps, but it was not something he would be able to stay with as a career.

“Fundamentally, lies were at the core of the relationships,” Weisberg explained to the Times at the time. “I lied to all my friends and most of the people in my family. I lied every day. I told 20 lies a day and I got used to it. It was hard for about two weeks. Then it got easy. I watched it happen to all of us.”

The Americans may be about deception, and yet it has never deceived viewers with cheap story tricks or sudden, unexplained coincidences. Going back and watching those early episodes, it’s easy to see how many of its plot twists were foreshadowed but not telegraphed. The story can be hard to follow at times, and yet, in the end, it all makes sense.

That's a high bar for the series finale. That finale will air on May 30, a week after the penultimate  episode titled, perhaps portentously, “Jennings, Elizabeth.” The final episode is titled, “START.”

However it ends, though, one thing is abundantly clear: It will be The End.

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