The Americans is currently in the midst of the greatest bait-and-switch in American dramatic television since Breaking Bad.
It can be easy to forget, given how overpowering the memories are of the bleak final seasons and the harrowing closing episodes, that Breaking Bad was initially billed leaning more towards the comedy end of the comedy-drama spectrum. Trailers and TV spots leaned hard on “The Dad from Malcolm in the Middle…BUT HE’S A DRUG DEALER! WITH NO PANTS!” to entice viewers. But even more than that original tone, Breaking Bad deceived viewers by purporting to be a story in which Bryan Cranston’s Walter White was the hero. Walter, we were given to understand, was a good man driven too far by many of the same cruelties and frustrations we all face. He was hen-pecked by his wife, emasculated by his brother-in-law, ignored by the students he tried to teach, and disrespected by his son. Added to that, his cancer diagnosis woke him up to all the petty bullshit that everyone silently flinches from every day. Walter White raged against the prison of middle class mediocrities, and the audience lived their own cathartic explosions vicariously through him. Sure, there was an implicit understanding that making meth was, you know, wrong, but it was fun to watch Walter break bad.
Until it stopped being fun. Until Breaking Bad began systemically taking apart Walter White’s life and raining fire down on him and his family and loved ones (literally raining fire) while constantly reminding you that every misfortune fed back to Walter White. Slowly the show step-by-step revealed that Walter White was a petty, spiteful man motivated more by ego and sheer stupid selfishness than any altruistic concern for his family. Breaking Bad’s final run underlined it again and again. “This man is a monster,” Vince Gilligan and his writers seemed to say. “He’s a monster, and how could you ever have thought to support him?” The final season hurt not only because the show demanded that Walter finally own up to his blackened soul, it also demanded that we, the audience, acknowledge our complicity.
(Sidenote: This did not stop misogynistic fuck-holes from supporting Walter White.)
The Americans does not get the ratings or the awards that Breaking Bad collected, but it is in every way an equal to that show’s achievement. Created by former CIA Officer Joe Weisberg and developed by Weisberg and Joel Fields, with an assist by Graham “I MADE JUSTIFIED, MOTHERSCRATCHERS (and also SPEED [except for the parts Joss Whedon wrote])” Yost, The Americans was initially sold to audiences as a high concept sexy spy drama, only to gradually reveal itself as one of the darkest meditations on guilt, grief, love, and loneliness ever put on air.
The show starts off in 1980 with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings raising a pair of pre-teens in Washington, D.C. Unbeknownst to almost anyone (including their children), Elizabeth and Phillip are actually Russian sleeper agents, assigned together and sent to America to uncover secrets at the height of the Cold War. As the first season wore on it became increasingly clear that despite their very different temperaments (in a neat reversal of the usual Prestige TV format, Elizabeth is the hardass true believer and Phillip is the more conflicted, sensitive half of the couple) the two had actually fallen in love and their arranged marriage was becoming a real thing, with all the attendant baggage that comes with that.
As the show has gone along, it has developed an increasingly intricate web of characters caught up in the spy games. On the American side of affairs there’s Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) as the FBI agent who lives next door, his boss Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), and Martha Hanson (Alison Wright), a FBI secretary that Phillip seduces and marries. And on the Russian side you have folks like KGB chief Arkady Ivanovich Zotov (Lev Gorn) and the duplicitous Nina (Annet Mahendru). Recent seasons have also found room for Frank Langella and Character Actress Margot Martindale as KGB handlers, while Dylan Baker has sulked throughout the current season as an operative who has had every bit of humanity burned out of him by his work.
It’s a stacked cast, and to describe the various chess moves of espionage might incline a viewer to think that The Americans was giddy pulp. There are wigs and coded messages and elaborate brawls and gun fights. Phillip and Elizabeth often take to the field in an endless combinations of wigs and costumes that remind you of how LOUD the ’80s could be. Add in the interweaving of iconic ’80s moments and needle drops, and you could be forgiven for assuming a natural amount of wackiness.
But my friends, there is no wackiness to be had here. Whatever rush of caper-y enthusiasm used to be fostered in this show, it has been chipped away, eroded, as Weisberg, Fields, and their team of writers, directors, and actors have held these ‘heroes’ accountable for every life lost and every drop of blood spilled in the gamesmanship between two nations. Over four seasons, The Americans has mutated into an ongoing horror story, a story about the way that sins can never be erased or forgiven, conscience can never be silenced, and damage to the soul can never be fully repaired.
That’s because no show since perhaps The Wire is as exacting in its maintenance of consequences to the choices the characters make. To crib a line from that show, all the pieces matter. When Phillip and Elizabeth finally crack from the stress and have a screaming match, their argument touches on mistakes and betrayals from the first season. Likewise, when Stan Beeman and the FBI finally grow wise to an operation, part of their case is contingent on a murder that Elizabeth and Phillip carried out years ago. Every action counts on this show, and every life taken exacts a miserable toll on those who remain.
The show has always had a willingness to challenge its characters and call them on its shit. One episode forced Elizabeth to spend an entire night with an older woman that she, and we, knew had to die. While another show might have skimped on the necessary or found some way to lessen the horror of what Elizabeth was doing, The Americans forced both the character the audience cares for and the audience itself to face the enormity of this crime.
As the show has gone along, these consequences have become more apparent than in the performances by Russell and Rhys. Elizabeth grows more and more volatile as situations grow more fraught, while Phillip grows so pale and gaunt that I genuinely worried for Rhys’s health at times. A fire has gone out in his eyes, and Phillip appears to be staggering through his own life with little to no hope of ever being relieved of the enormity of what he has done for love and country. More and more, Phillip and Elizabeth are desperate to believe in the rightness of their mission, and more and more the show is calling bullshit on them.
As good as The Americans has been since day one, it entered into another stratosphere last season with daughter Paige (Holly Taylor, the single luckiest casting gambit since Kiernan Shipka back in Mad Men season one) demanding to know the truth about what Mom and Dad are up to, resulting in them confessing their identities as Soviet agents. Bringing Paige into the secret gave an immediacy to the moral rot at the center of the show. Any time Phillip or Elizabeth tried for justification or an argument of moral relativism, all it took was one cut to Taylor’s shattered, heartbroken face to underline the hollowness of these people and the grotesque nightmare that they have birthed their children into.
(Sidenote: Being set in the past only enhances that sense of tragedy. The death and destruction would be bad enough, but our knowledge that the Jennings’ work is uselessly propping up an empire with less than a decade to go before capitulation only rams home the dismal fucking waste that is each murder and betrayal in the name of the Soviet Union.)
A recent episode employed a “Seven Months Later” time card. After two seasons with nary a skip, with each episode seeming to follow immediately after the last in an ever-tautening noose of tension, it seemed that The Americans was deploying a well-worn TV trope to reset the board and give everyone a breather. Phillip and Elizabeth are told to take a break from their ongoing work and lie low. But on The Americans, there are no reprieves. Instead of calming the waters, we come back from the time jump to see that all the shit that Phillip and Elizabeth stirred is still there, still percolating. Their daughter is still a paranoid, haunted mess, their enemies are still on the hunt, and the bodies they have amassed through both direct and indirect means are still crying out to be avenged.
Welcome to The Americans. Every life has value, and every choice has a cost. And no matter how wild the wigs, it’s just no fun at all.
The Americans airs Wednesdays on FX.