The day is finally here! Or came on Tuesday, to be more accurate. The Americans, the best show on TV, has returned for its fifth season. After a fourth season that FINALLY that finally received well-earned recognition from the Emmys, expectations are higher than ever.
It will be my pleasure to cover season 5 for everyone. Especially if the rest of the season keeps up the strong quality of the season-opener.
Spoilers for 5×01 “Amber Waves” below. This is definitely a show where the spoiler-sensitive might want to watch first.
The season kicks off with a new character, Tuan, eating lunch at high school with a new Russian student named Pasha. They talk about adjusting to American life and eventually Tuan brings Pasha home to hang out. There he greets his parents, who turn out to be Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in disguise.
Yep, The Americans has me hooked already.
After the title sequence, the show cuts from bountiful fields of grain (“amber waves”) to the failing farms of the Soviet Union. We briefly see a Soviet man in his office before returning to America, where Stan’s boss tells him about Oleg returning to Moscow. They worry the Soviets know about Oleg’s treason last season which led to arresting William. Unsurprisingly, Tuan turns out to be a new agent working for the Jennings. They talk about an operation involving Pasha’s family and Tuan’s surveillance while visiting.
Our first look at Oleg shows him back with his parents in Moscow. His mother is happy to have him home after the death of his brother, but worried about him. Oleg doesn’t come across very convincingly about his happiness.
We also get our first scene with Paige when she returns home from Stan’s house. She still acts distant. Understandably after everything she has seen and learned the past two seasons. Also, Stan sends her home with dinner, apparently trying to make up for the thousands of dinners the Jenningses have given him.
Another of Philip’s (so far unknown) children, Mischa, goes through customs back in the Soviet Union. The season 4 finale saw him begin his journey to America to find his father, and it looks like he’s on his way. Philip and Elizabeth follow Tuan over to Pasha’s house for dinner, passing what appears to be a lookout car mentioned earlier along the way. During dinner we find out the family defected from the USSR and hate it. Well, except Pasha. His father mentions working for the Department of Agriculture.
Another dinner scene has Stan cooking. Stan. Beeman. Cooking. What. Paige shows up for the meal and they talk about her new relationship with Stan’s son Matthew, which Stan is still giddy about. We also see that another year added another 5 inches to Henry’s height. Seriously, he can’t possibly pass off as younger than Paige anymore. Next season he’ll look older than Philip.
After their dinner, Elizabeth talks to Pasha’s mother. We learn the “official” story that Tuan is her and Philip’s adopted Vietnamese son. Pasha’s mother also restates his dislike for America. After the dinner Tuan describes his routine with the lights in the house where he stays, which will probably be important later.
Philip and Elizabeth drive home afterwards and discuss the dinner. They reminisce about the lack of food growing up in the USSR, and about the decision not to return when Gabriel offered them the chance. Elizabeth wants to return, while Philip remains hesitant as ever.
When they arrive home, Paige asks them about work. Philip turns the tables by asking about Matthew. Like last season, Paige gives a terse, frustrated report. She talks about her nightmares over the mugger Elizabeth killed. Her parents assure her she’ll get over it but she doesn’t want to.
Stan comes over with beers for him and Philip. They talk briefly about Matthew and Paige, and Stan makes a shitty passive-aggressive dig about his ex-wife, Sandra. He’s happy about meeting a new woman at the gym, though. If you consider “caught staring like a creep and handing her a cup of water without ever learning her name” as meeting a woman.
Okay, it was much more charmingly awkward than that. I just struggle to ignore my anti-Stan bias.
Afterwards, Philip and Elizabeth talk about their earlier confrontation with Paige and her relationship with Matthew. Meanwhile Mischa rides a bus and thinks of a letter his mother gave him. She left him instructions along with his passport and documents, and thinks Philip was a good man.
Oleg’s new job in Moscow turns out to be at KGB headquarters. He will perform criminal investigations into corruption within the Soviet food department. His new boss questions his loyalty in the good chance the people he investigates will be friends of his father, and Oleg assures him that won’t be a problem.
Soon after we see Oleg followed home, and his father wasting no time asking about his new work.
Gabriel and Character Actress Margo Martindale (whoops, sorry, I meant Claudia) talk about Mischa leaving home and Philip and Elizabeth turning down the chance to go home. Apparently Gabriel might have given the offer without official permission.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth begins self-defense lessons for Paige. She tells Philip about it but dodges the question when asked about talking to her about Matthew. Also, apparently Paige is fast.
Our first handler meeting occurs next, where Gabriel, Philip, and Elizabeth reminisce about William after his death. Unfortunately, his job is not done and Gabriel tells them about a new assignment. Philip and Elizabeth later meet with an agent at the base Gabriel told them about.
Along with a whole gang of allies (they actually have a group for once!) they sneak onto the base and begin digging up William’s coffin. As someone who has done a lot of digging and knows how time-consuming and wearying it is, the length of this scene spoke to me. Still, it probably went on a little too long. They take a tissue sample from William’s body. When they begin climbing out of the hole, however, Hans falls and cuts himself, exposing his body to the virus which killed William.
The episode ends with Elizabeth shooting the agent she spent two seasons developing in typical cold-blooded Elizabeth fashion. That woman has ice in her veins. They put him in William’s coffin. And apparently have to refill that hole.
It is great to have The Americans back.
As expected of a season premiere, a lot of time was spent setting up the apparent conflicts of the season. Interestingly, it appears food will dictate the spy activities this season. Philip and Elizabeth are setting up something with Pasha’s father, who works (worked?) for the Department of Agriculture. Their dinner with his family focused on food. Their drive home featured shared experiences of lacking food as children.
Presumably this will all tie into Oleg’s investigation involves the Soviet food bureaucracy, which will meld into the greater point of corruption and the fall of the Soviet Union. We’re just about there in the show’s timeline; the fall of the Berlin Wall is only a few short years away, with the collapse of the Soviet Union following 2 years later.
What better way to display the final, failing years of the communist powerhouse than through the very real struggle to feed its citizens? Especially when so often paralleled with the bountifulness of the American characters. While Philip talks about hot onion water for dinner, his daughter is throwing leftover pizza in the fridge with hardly any interest.
This is an interesting direction to take and one I’m intrigued to see play out. Agriculture is a far less immediate threat than the biological weapons and missile defense systems of previous systems. At the same time it is something more personal and fundamental, something anyone can understand.
And food (or lack thereof) was only one parallel in an episode packed with them. “Amber Waves” was quite remarkable in just how well each and every scene seemed to compare and contrast with the scene before or after.
Philip and Elizabeth contrasted Pasha’s parents, while their spying directly compared to Paige’s spying on Stan and Matthew. Tuan and Pasha parallel each other, and Tuan now likely steps into the Hans role. Paige’s luxuries served to contrast Mischa’s hardships, and her relationship with Matthew very much reminds of her parents and the roles they must play, which is why Philip opposes it. Even Gabriel and Claudia continue to inform on the potential future for Philip and Elizabeth.
None of this surprises me, though. The Americans is an excellently written show. One where spy craft exists to serve the relationships, not the other way around. This especially applies to Philip and Elizabeth and the marriage they try to hold together through all the varying identities and lies inherent with their profession.
Now we seemingly have a new conflict between the two with their decision not to go home. Whatever the discussion which led to their decision, clearly it was not fully settled. Elizabeth harbors at least some resentment for not going home. Philip would probably love to stay away forever. This difference between the two has shown season after season and could very well be the downfall of their marriage in the end. Philip has always been more “Americanized” than his wife.
Will Elizabeth simply accept America as her home country collapses? I find it hard to believe. This is a woman who coldly executed a young man she spent two seasons training and clearly felt some connection to. She did so because of loyalty and belief in the Soviet Union. Will she stay on Philip’s side when the war is lost? Their minor disagreement over staying in America can certainly grow larger as season 5 continues.
Especially with Mischa’s seemingly impending arrival to remind Philip and Elizabeth of the woman Philip truly loved and had taken away from him.
Speaking of which, Mischa was part of what may be a “children” heavy focus to The Americans this year. Tuan steps in to likely replace Hans while continuing his work with Pasha. Mischa will reach America eventually. Matthew and the secrets he does or does not reveal will determine quite a bit.
And of course there’s Paige. She played a surprisingly small role in this episode, but you can guarantee that will change. I’m so torn about Paige. A part of me is just as proud to see her learning self-defense as Elizabeth is to teach it, but at the same time I don’t want Paige following in her footsteps.
Somehow The Americans not only found room for all these characters throughout “Amber Waves,” but found room to give them proper attention. Even Stan (who has never been a favorite of mine) was a charmingly goofy dad throughout.
The one area the episode arguably faltered was the digging scene at the end. I won’t argue the effectiveness of the intent. The Americans thrives on de-romanticizing the spy profession through moments like this. Sure, you have your episodes where they put on disguises and seduce rich, powerful figures out of their secrets, or conduct stealth missions to wiretap phones or bug mail robots.
Then you get the moments where they have to fit a dead agent into a suitcase, where you see the entire ugly process. Or you see the long, boring stakeouts and how they suffer through the effects of a vaccine for deadly virus. You also get moments like this. The hard, tiring manual labor involved in digging up a dead colleague’s body in order to take a sample. Never does the physical and mental toll of the spy profession go forgotten.
Not to mention it was full of small character moments The Americans also excels at. Whether it was Philip and Elizabeth’s various shared moments of consideration, Elizabeth sharing a canteen with Hans, or the physical toll of the task, this show yet again made the most of a seemingly mundane task.
Add in the tension of whether they could complete the job without getting caught and, well, if this is the worst thing to complain about in an episode, then I think The Americans did a pretty great job. How many shows could possibly make digging a hole for 5 minutes the least bit compelling? Well, The Americans managed it. And that’s because it’s the best show on TV.
Over the years, the scope of The Americans has increased drastically. This is only natural as the numbers of characters and the scope of the story increase, along with the comfort and skill the writers have in its telling. As season 5 begins this scope is at a peak. The characters number more than ever. We’re following the inner workings of the FBI and KGB. We’re following the relationships of at least 4 families.
I don’t have any doubt about the ability of The Americans to handle all this, especially after a premiere this good. One that not only found proper time for all these moving parts, but managed to connect each and every one of them together.