End of Season Report: The Americans, Season 5

2 Jun

Philip’s done.

The Americans, somewhat astoundingly, considering it’s a show about spies who kill many people over the shows run, has become the epitome of slow TV this season, and the series finale is emblematic of this. There’s no huge character death or shootout, or even a chase sequence as in last season. Especially compared to the previous fourth season that saw three major character deaths, Martha’s move to Russia, and featured a deadly virus, this season was far more deliberate, dealing with some slow burn of family growth and revelation. It leaves a lot that needs to happen in the much shorter final season, which feels like it will have to be, if not quite Breaking Bad final season paced, that at least significantly more fast-moving than this season. That said, there’s plenty to talk about this season on its own merits; while there were fewer blockbuster plot details; there were a couple important progressions that really resonated.

The big conclusion is one that’s been building all season, and all series really. Philip’s done, at least, if he has any say about it, with being a spy.

One of the grand lessons of this season has been our spies learning that their cause, which was never as pure as Elizabeth believes it to be, has become more muddy than ever. William warned Philip last season, patriot that he was to the end, that he wouldn’t trust the Soviets to hold on to the deadly disease he works with. Philip is dismayed to learn that, further, contrary to everything he’s told about how it’s merely a defense against the aggressive Americans, the Soviets weaponized the virus as soon as they had the chance. The supposed wheat contagion Philip and Elizabeth are investigating, after being warned the Americans were going after their wheat supply to stick it to the commoners, was instead wheat designed to be heartier and more robust and feed more people. Maybe the Americans aren’t the pure white hats they claim in this struggle (As we’ve seen through Stan’s time at the FBI), but neither are the Soviets. Elizabeth is so blindly devoted to her cause, that this doesn’t affect her. She really believes that the Soviet Union stands for the progress for the common person and she’s a true professional in her work; if the center says it’s for a good reason, that’s all she needs to hear. But for Philip, who was skeptical years ago, these are final straws. The center doesn’t care about him, or his family, or about anything except their own objectives, which both don’t help him, nor seem like they help the world at large. He’s having a hard time continuing to find the focus and motivation required to complete such an intense and demanding job.

Kids have been another central theme the season. Hanging over the entire season, and especially the last few episodes, is the Jennings’ potential decision to quit the spy game and return home to Russia. This is a Russia that they haven’t been to in 20 years; it’s a place they don’t know. Still, they would get to be a regular family and release themselves from the daily pressures of their work and from the constant lying to their children.

The decision is a tough one for each parent but for different reasons.  Philip, as became clear, wanted out of the spy game, and a move back home would allow him to do that. He’s also conscious of the damage this life of lying was having on his kids, notably Paige; Pastor Tim laid this out in his diary, and though Elizabeth wrote it off as bunk, Philip knows there’s truth to it. Living like a normally family, albeit on the other side of the world would alleviate those pressures. Of course, living on the other side of the world is its own issue. Phillip seems somewhat wary himself about moving back to a place he doesn’t know, but he’s especially way for his kids. Pasha throughout the season served as a clear example of a kid, around the same age as the Jennings’ children, who had trouble moving to a new land where he didn’t fit in, or feel comfortable with the language. It nearly ended in his death before he finally got his wish to go home. How would Paige and Henry deal with the sudden move to place they don’t know and don’t speak the language? Certainly not well. Martha’s trouble in the USSR is another indication of the difficulty of fitting in there for an American.

Back on the other hand again, there’s the other danger of Paige growing up in the US under the stress and strain of being the daughter of spies and with potential additional pressure from the Centre to recruit her. Either the lying tears her apart and shatters her sense of who she is, or Philip could be scared of her becoming the other new kid featured prominently this season, Vietnamese agent Tuan; a teen who is been molded into nothing but an unsympathetic stone cold killer who doesn’t care about whether Pasha lives or dies if it achieves the objective and who excoriates Philip for feeling otherwise. Elizabeth and Philip are heroes to him at first until they doubt his methods for sentimental reasons. His one trace of compassion, his attachment to his old family, is hammered out of him by the job; he must never do it again, Elizabeth warns him. He’s just a kid, but he appears to be fatally losing his humanity during these formative years right in front of our eyes. Paige may not have it in her to become this, but even the possibility is terrifying to Philip. Neither solution is ideal, but the dangers of both leaving and staying are tearing Philip apart at both ends. He’s feeling more and more powerless, hence his outburst at Henry in the season finale.

Elizabeth has always had a purity of purpose that Philip lacks. Phillip’s only purity of purpose is Elizabeth and his children; if not for her, he would have been out of the game a long time ago. Elizabeth really believes in the most idealistic goals of the Soviet Union and believes that the center knows the best way to reach those goals, more or less unquestionably. Due to Philip’s influence, she’s become softer around the edges over the years in a way that has in no way diminished her effectiveness but has widened her range of feeling. She has allowed herself to care and equally importantly to care about Philip’s difference of opinions without patronizing him. When she warns Tuan that he won’t make it far without a partner, she sees herself in him, and realizes that her association with Philip has made her a better person, and ha more effective spy, keeping her from breaking down in the long run. She wants to return to the Soviet Union for Philip’s sake, but also because she genuinely is excited about the types of lives her kids could have in the Soviet Union. She wants to go back because she really feels like the Soviet Union is still home in a way Philip doesn’t.

Elizabeth, though, believes Paige would make an excellent spy; seeing in Paige just the parts that remind her of herself, and not the soft and serious child brought up in America that she is. Philip hold the job responsible for his loss of humanity; Elizabeth doesn’t see being a person and being a spy as mutually exclusive the way Philp does. Paige slowly seems to moodily resign herself to becoming more like Elizabeth over the course of the season, with or without knowing it, but on some level she also realizes what it has done to her life. Leave Henry out of it, she implores; let him go to boarding school and have the free and easy normal life that she can no longer have.

In the end, of course, the great move was never to be. Leaving and having the last season set in the Soviet Union would have been a pretty much unprecedented shocker. I had thought Philip would affirmatively make the decision not to move after considering the effect it would have on Paige and Henry, but in the end it was new connection to a high ranking US official that kept the Jennings’ stateside. Philip, heard, via the tape he stored in Kimmy’s father’s satchel, that her father was getting a big promotion and almost through away the tape, knowing that once the information reached Elizabeth and the center, the option to go back to the Soviet Union and quit would be rescinded. Why did Philip decided not to discard the tape? A sense of remaining duty possibly; most likely knowing that he could never tell Elizabeth because would not forgive him, or I’d like to think there was at least some thought about what the move would do to the kids.

As we go into the final season, a reckoning awaits. I’m generally okay with the slow build up approach but even I would be disappointed if he didn’t get some more resolution, some more movement in the fight eight episodes. We’ll start with that important dynamic change though that could have the potential to change the direction of those last episodes; fallout from what seems like Philip’s long-gestating decision to leave the spy game behind.

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