[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Americans” Season 5, Episode 1, “Amber Waves.”]
Hans will be missed, but what his fateful fall represents is far more harrowing for the future of “The Americans.” Not only was it a worrisome reminder that the Jennings’ secret life is unpredictably perilous, but Hans was a skilled trainee who never saw old age. Hell, he never really kicked the training wheels. Elizabeth and Philip had been doing their best to bring him along, and he’d proven helpful to their missions in the past. But now that Paige is in training, the Jennings have to imagine their daughter in his shoes: If she goes along with their plan, adopts a life of service, and someday finds herself looking up at her mother with a cut hand, would Elizabeth be so quick to pull the trigger?
I think not, and it seems like Elizabeth is starting to think similarly. Her comments in the episode don’t mesh with her actions, but she may have been operating on autopilot; following orders, as she’s been trained, while her mind worries about the possible consequences. When I spoke with Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg about the episode, they noted that the couple’s decision to go through with this operation is a shared longstanding motivation mixed with conflicting current ideals. (You can read the full interview in a separate article.)
“I think we do understand that [the job] is built into Elizabeth, and that, to a significant degree, it’s built into Philip,” Weisberg said. “The degree to which it’s not built into him — that creates conflict with Elizabeth — is the ongoing engine of the whole series, but also what it does and what it leads to in this operation, in particular, [will be important]. It’s going to play out, though you’ll have to wait a while to make sense of what I’m saying.”
While we’re excited to see how their relationship develops, the premiere episode stood on its own two feet. Showcasing a sly sense of humor at its start and a more wicked one at its end, “Amber Waves” was quite telling on its own. We’ll get into the clever, faux-twist opening below, and you can read more about the ending in our interview with the showrunners, but the Season 5 premiere of “The Americans” delivered everything we’ve come to love about the show: smart surprises, honest conversation, and quite a few lingering questions.
The Jennings: Fight or Flight?
“We’ll get another chance to go home. It wasn’t the right time.”
“What’s the right time?”
– Philip & Elizabeth
One of the looming questions hanging over “The Americans” since Season 4’s finale was how, exactly, the Jennings would respond to Gabriel’s suggestion that they head home. Would they take his advice and move the family back to the Soviet Union? It seemed unlikely, given the premise of the show, but nothing is impossible in this series. So to start the premiere episode with an expert head fake — starting on a new character, Twon, and coyly revealing that his parents looked a lot like Philip and Elizabeth — was a joyously jarring start.
Clearly, they hadn’t left town, but were the Jennings no longer the Jennings? And where were Henry and Paige? We had to wait for the kids’ emergence for quite a while, but we started to put the pieces together when Twon revealed he was an agent himself. The Jennings have a new case, one that requires they pose as someone else’s parents in order to get close to a department of agriculture employee (the father of Twon’s new friend at school).
After the shock wore off and reality set back in, the Jennings are right where we left them. Still working in America. Still living across the street from Stan, your friendly neighborhood FBI agent. Still trying to protect their family’s future, even if they don’t know how. The above quote, shared after a dinner with Twon’s friend and his family, explained their predicament plainly, but we asked creator and co-showrunner Joe Weisberg to define their decision further.
“Obviously, the problem was with the kids: upending their lives, having to tell Henry and to have to raise him for the rest of his life in the Soviet Union — that was just too much for them,” Weisberg said. “If they had not had children, I think they would’ve gone. I think the nature of the threat was such that it was a little bit defuse. It wasn’t that it was coming knocking tomorrow. Maybe it was more intense than their average, run-of-the-mill, three-month period, but they live with a lot of risk, so they had to balance these things like they always do.”
And that risk only became more evident by the episode’s end. Have the Jennings missed their window to escape? We don’t want the answer to be “yes,” but things aren’t looking up for our favorite family of spies.
What We Learned From Food
“After the war, my mother always said she wasn’t hungry.
I knew, but I ate everything. She was so thin.”
Given the prominence of food in the episode, it’s safe to say the human necessity — and its varied availability in different countries — will play an integral role in Season 5. From the opening shot of meal options at a high school cafeteria to the post-credits montage of how food makes its way from fields to our kitchens (or offices), the episode featured subtle and blunt imagery of food, food, and more food.
Or, as is the case in the Soviet Union, much less food. Not only did we see the scarcity first hand, but Philip and Elizabeth’s haunting stories of their family dinners back home efficiently described brutal conditions in direct contrast to the lavish spreads on American tables nationwide. Elizabeth remembering how she ate all she could, even when she knew her mother was starving, struck a particularly despondent chord.
Such framing emphasizes the brutal nature of the business they’re in, and what they’d be going home to if they did, in fact, retire to Russia. We’re excited to see how the theme continues to grow in future episodes, as Philip and Elizabeth continue investigating the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Stan: Savant or Square?
“I’m going to be in the best shape of my life.”
Stan’s hitting the gym, everybody! And the way he eats, he’ll need to be there every single day. I love how even Stan’s eating habits — and how they affect Paige — were incorporated into a food-focused episode. While Philip and Elizabeth’s comrades starve, Stan’s living on a diet of pizza and five-minute meals — by choice!
He also kept it together in front of his boss when told Oleg went back to Germany, and even withstood a light grilling from Philip over their children’s relationship. How he bluntly shifted the conversation to the woman he’s crushing on at the gym worked wonders.
Philip: “So when you say you met someone, did you ask her out?”
Stan: “No. No, I should probably find out what her name is first.”
Yeah, you probably should, Stan. But hey, you’re getting back out there, and we’re here to support that. For pulling off the ol’ water cooler move (kind of), you’re a savant this week.
Wig Count: 2
Unless the Jennings were hiding wigs under their stocking caps, we only got to see two new looks in the premiere. But hey, Elizabeth absolutely pulls off the flight attendant look — that wig really compliments her complexion (without making the undercover operative stand out) — and Philip’s shaggy blonde ‘do with a matching mustache makes them a pretty great mile-high couple. We’ll hope for more in future episodes, as we always do, but the reveal of these two looks more than made up for an abundance of options.
Quote of the Week
“Nothing scares those two.”
“Everything scares those two.”
– Claudia & Gabriel
It’s always great to see the Jennings’ handlers come together, but Claudia (Margot Martindale) and Gabriel’s conversation was fraught with concern for their secret agents. Primarily, the two talked about Gabriel warning the Jennings to go home last season, but they’re also aware of Philip’s Russian-born son traveling to find his father. Will they tell Philip? Should they? And how would Philip react, given the risk an inexplicable Russian showing up at his doorstep would bring to his American family?
These questions circle back to the primary concern for the Jennings moving forward: family vs. country, or, to put it in a more relatable context, family vs. work. A work/life balance is a concept people still struggle with today, but at least we don’t have to worry about killing our children to protect our job — and country. Philip likely wouldn’t have to kill his son, but he would have to distance himself from him in order to protect Paige and Henry. And who knows what a long-lost step-brother would do to Paige’s tumultuous opinion of her father?
And still, Elizabeth and Philip persist. They’re out in the field exposing themselves to incredible risk. Why?
“These people are soldiers,” Fields said to IndieWire. “They’re going to do what they have to do, as long as they’re on the battlefield. For us, as storytellers, we never want to lose sight of the cost of this work on them, and the more they’re in touch with their souls, the higher that cost is going to be. So I think it’s natural for us to find ways to dramatize that.”
The ways found so far have certainly heightened the drama, riling up incredible tension with precision and speed. “The Americans” didn’t miss a beat during the break between seasons, meaning two things for its audience: We’re on solid ground, creatively. We can put our trust in the show and let it take us wherever it’s going…which is point number two: Anything could happen, which is as exciting as it is anxiety-inducing. Going forward, we — like the Jennings — are scared of everything and nothing.