As The Americans Enters its Final Season: If You’re Not Already a Fan, That’s Actually Pretty Reasonable
For a while, it was a common complaint among critics: “why aren’t more people watching The Americans?”
The perennially low-rated prestige FX drama has been a darling of the critical community almost from the moment of its launch in 2013 and popular with almost no one else.
And, before we dig too far into this I want to be very clear: I adore The Americans. I am fully onboard for all of its tense, bleak, depictions of an espionage driven life in the early-to-mid-1980’s.
But let’s be super-honest here, this was never going to be a popular show.
I remember a moment when my wife casually looked over to see what I was watching and she glimpsed a later-season sequence in which the title characters methodically dispose of a corpse on behalf of yet another mostly innocent individual they wish to manipulate through blackmail and deception.
We watched as the husband and wife team, at the heart of the series, casually crack the bones and joints of a dead body with all of the passion and concern of a butcher preparing to segment choice cuts from a dead animal. My wife was forever done with the show at this point, for reasons that should be completely understandable to almost anyone.
On another show, even another prestige drama, this sequence would be played for tension. Police or security would be closing in on our protagonists or we would get to enjoy seeing the wit and cleverness of two individuals always one step ahead of the authorities. Instead what we get is the boredom of two people, trapped in a series of menial but pointless tasks. But in this case the task is viscerally grisly, it is designed to make us uncomfortable but without the pleasures of transgressive behavior, instead what puts us off is its banality.
And that, at its heart, is the appeal of The Americans. It is not a show about sexy danger, despite the presence of a decent amount of sex and more than its share of danger. It is a series about the slow decay of the human spirit in the face of the crushing weight of history.
But let us back up a few steps and talk a little bit about what The Americans actually is. The series, now in its sixth season, tells the story of two Soviet intelligence agents who have been tasked with operating undercover in the Reagan-era United States. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings pose as a pair of married travel agents, raising two children, while being tasked to undertake a range of covert actions designed to undermine the United States government.
On paper it sounds like the perfect set-up for a series of exciting and sexy adventures, and my guess is that is exactly what FX thought that it was buying when it agreed to produce the show. After all, showrunner Graham Yost's previous FX series, Justified, was never anything less than a romp. Even when it was a tragic romp, it embraced its own sense of wit and doomed romance.
That is not The Americans. While Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder were always willing to flash a winning smile and pithy one-liner as they marched toward the Bolivian Army Ending that was always waiting for them, the Jennings stare off into the distance, not sad, not ecstatic, just consumed with a grim sense of purpose or fear or crushing sense of inevitability.
The Americans is about a lot of things. It is about the dehumanizing power of violence both emotional and physical, it is about greed and power and how base human behavior can be, it is about ideology and how it can seem deeply personal and utterly irrelevant at the same time. But more than anything, it is about the grading gears of history and how quickly individuals become faceless cogs in that machine when great powers come into conflict.
If there is one theme the show comes back to again and again is that no one is really pulling the strings, everyone feels powerless against the weight of history.
Much of the Jennings’ work involves seduction, murder and manipulation. They identify potential assets and find ways to turn them into pieces to be used in the chess match played by warring factions. Their opposites in the FBI do the same. And everyone feels bad about it and no one can figure out what else to do.
These people understandably feel enraged and betrayed by their handlers, but their handlers are caught in the same relationship with their higher-ups, who often find their hands tied by still greater powers. Nobody feels in control and everybody feels used.
This feeling is exacerbated by one of the most crushing tools in the show’s arsenal, how hard it works to help build the bounds of empathy between the cast and the audience. Everyone has a story and everyone has a point of view and no one, no matter how minor, is disposable.
None of the assets, even the most base and easily manipulated ever lacks for a core humanity and worse many are good people that the show’s protagonists cannot help but bond with. More challenging is that those who handle the Jennings are just as relatable, sometimes severe, sometimes willing to risk their lives or sanity, but never lacking for concern or respect for their charges. And this goes all of the way up the chain, and on both sides of the equation. Everyone is a victim and almost everyone is a victimizer.
And if this is not enough to make the audience feel as if they are desperately treading in a pool of very cold water that is so slowly rising, there is inescapable truth of history.
As an audience, we know at least one thing the Jennings do not. That they are less than a decade away from the end of the Cold War. Soon the nation and cause that they are risking their lives, their children's lives and their humanity for will no longer exist. And as much as there can be said to have been a “winner” in the Cold War, the Soviet Union is definitely not it.
In addition to all of this is how calculated every aspect of the show feels. The violence, the sex, the intrigue all of the aspects of genre fiction that we come to expect as “the fun parts” feels so empty, so distant or at its most intense, desperate.
Everything in The Americans is about power dynamics and the ugly reality of unfair relationships and the even more terrifying reality that there may be no fair relationships. Even the Jennings themselves are separated by this gulf, ostensibly partners, lovers and parents of the same children, viewers would be forgiven for believing that their bond would be the one true thing in the series.
But The Americans denies audiences even this, while both Philip and Elizabeth are tied together, they share a fate and they both love their children. How they feel about each other is more ambiguous, their ties to both the Soviet world of their origins and the current homeland is ever shifting. And because they are both forced to view every relationship as transactional, there is a gulf between them that can never be fully crossed.
If all of this sounds a little overwhelming or even suffocating, it often is. It is not uncommon to come away from a viewing of The Americans feeling worse than before it began, slightly sad, slightly scared and more than a little confused.
In some ways, The Americans is the truest fulfillment of the age of prestige television. It is one thing to offer fiction where the characters can have sex, commit acts of ruthless violence and be anti-heroes, all things The Americans offers. It is another to utterly deny the audience the pulpy, thrilling, cathartic aspects of those tropes. The Americans never offers violence as a solution, only a deeper avenue into ugliness and sex is almost always transactional, a way for one character get something they want from another.
What The Americans offers as counter is style by the bucket, it is visually dynamic and tightly edited in a way television almost never is. When the show wants to highlight the Jennings gift for espionage it does so with rare aplomb, when it wants to build threatening tension the editing, the camera and music are all at the peak of the medium.
Despite this, as excellent as all this is, it is understandable that audiences might not embrace The Americans as an experience. In general all these components that the show rejects so willfully: catharsis, escapism, fun are things we generally call “entertainment” and are what we most want for downtime experiences. It is unrealistic to expect many people to come home from a long day and actively seek out emotionally and intellectually challenging media.
But for those ready for the experience, it is deeply rewarding and utterly satisfying. Just not for everybody or even most.