It’s 1984. The Soviet Union and the United States have long been engaged in a heated Cold War. Each side has covert operatives looking to protect their country and hurt the opposition. Americans lie awake at night, fearing the sound of an air ride siren and the sight of a nuclear bomb going off in the distance.
But in the USSR, they’re just trying to survive. They just want to have enough food for their families. Russians just want to eat.
And Americans are trying to stop them.
What seems like a simple new premise for Season 5 is stripped down to an even more basic state during the first three episodes of “The Americans,” as the complicated lives led by Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) stateside are contrasted with the barren existence of their comrades in Russia. What feel like far-reaching suspicions lead to inhuman decisions, all while the human element has never felt so important to the Jennings’ spy game: The job is getting harder. The motivations less clear. And a woke Paige (Holly Taylor) is asking more questions than ever.
Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields bounce between the ongoing challenge of educating Paige from a Russian perspective and the Jennings’ own struggles in the field. Their latest objective — protect the Russian wheat supply imported from America — introduces a few new combustible characters carrying their own perspectives and priorities. Only Philip and Elizabeth are asked to consider all sides without betraying their mission, which ignites yet another explosive emotional dynamic between the series’ loyalty-torn characters. How do you weigh singular moral decisions against basic human rights? Knowledge against responsibility? Personal against political?
One could argue theses questions have driven the series since its inception, as Philip and Elizabeth have always balanced their relationship and family with an obligation to their country. They make choices every day that lean one way or the other, all while trying to hold onto both priorities. But the weight of their decisions is only increasing: especially with Paige deciding things for herself — and judging them in the process.
How “The Americans” balances big, worldly topics with intimate, familial stories has always been skillfully implemented. But now such moments are even more pointed. A discussion between Elizabeth and Paige about boys is told as the daughter hits a heavy bag held by her mother. The sex talk isn’t just about sex, but it never is, is it? It’s always about trust, knowledge, responsibility, and more, but here the extra emotional baggage is compounded and magnified to a matter of national security. Slowly, steadily, and not without self-awareness, Paige sees herself becoming more and more like her parents every day, as she’s asked to choose between happiness and duty, even though the American dream promises both.
Unparalleled depth can be felt throughout thanks to this careful layering, and Season 5 so far effortlessly captures a complex range of emotions that proves more enriching with every extra minute of consideration. Tension rises and falls with rapidity, even though the ever-present risk keeps things constantly taut. This, too, has always been a strong suit of Weisberg and Fields’ nuanced work, but there is an element of the new episodes that’s beyond their control — even if select moments could be by design.
Floating in the back of viewers’ minds are the modern political parallels introduced by President Trump’s suspiciously friendly relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Though it may appear attitudes have reversed since the Cold War (from silently antagonistic to loudly cordial), the series’ knowing historical allusions and fresh focus on starving Russian citizens could lead American audiences to see a dystopian future in the haunting images of Russia’s past. There’s an emphasis on how an insulted bureaucracy can lead to extreme income disparity and widespread poverty, starvation, and more than a few very angry citizens.
Even Philip, who we’ve seen become further and further removed from his home country’s mentality, is forced into a defensive position. “I thought there were things they wouldn’t do,” he says when told of America’s plan to taint the Russian’s grain supply — and the less-than-shocked faces of Elizabeth and Gabriel show that his faith in American morals wasn’t shared.
“To think they once had a Lincoln,” Gabriel says. “Now a Reagan.”
Such references — to their present, to Republican presidents, to disappointment — feel like a direct nod to modern reality. Gabriel’s framing provides insight into the paranoid mind: Even those sent to spy on America thought highly of Abraham Lincoln. And they thought things couldn’t get much worse than who held office at the time.
While never overwhelming the pre-established (and utterly compelling) story, these parallels add a layer of relevancy, fear, and importance to Season 5. We’ve always seen ourselves — our families, our ideals — within the Jennings. Now, we’re seeing what feels like foreshadowing, straight from the past. Intended or not, this extra component can come across as invited comparisons. As if when Gabriel speaks longingly of the past, we see ourselves in the future saying, “To think they once had a Reagan…”
Such evocative imagery can’t help but feel damn near Orwellian, which is fitting because… did I mention it was 1984?
“The Americans” Season 5 premieres Tuesday, March 7 at 10 p.m. on FX.