No one likes it when mom and dad fight. Even when the disputes revolve around common (if disparate) problems like spilled milk or sleeping with your assistant, they’re uncomfortable at best, unnatural at worst. So what happens when the issues are bigger than that? When instead of dad being upset with mom for forgetting their anniversary, he’s still harboring hostility over training their daughter to become an assassin of the state? This isn’t just a personal disagreement; it’s a matter of national security, making it all the more difficult to watch.
With higher stakes come requisite rewards. “The Americans” is pitting our favorite TV parents since Coach and Tami Taylor against each other and asking us to bear witness to a no-holds-barred clash of wills, skills, and life-or-death decisions with the weight of the world behind each guardian. On one hand, that’s crazy. For a show that’s always struggled to build the audience it deserves (perhaps because it requires viewers to fall in love with two Russian hitmen during the height of the Cold War), asking its existing fans to witness their two favorite characters duke it out over the final 10 episodes is like asking you to kill a guy (hard) and then break all his bones so he fits in a suitcase (torturous).
Why can’t we stop the killing entirely? Why can’t mom and dad get along? Why can’t this story have a happy ending?
That’s not to say we know what’s coming — FX provided three episodes for review, and we’re not even going to spoil those — but the final season of FX’s acclaimed drama does pit nature vs. nurture, Mother Russia vs. the United States, and yes, mother vs. father. Grand questions of morality, nationalism, identity, and family aren’t answered, per se, but carefully considered in a way that invites you to do the same. Therein lies the rich payoff of one of TV’s rarest treasures. Much like the Jennings themselves, you’re going to go through hell, but it’s never without purpose.
In recent seasons, there’s been an inevitability building between Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell). Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg’s acclaimed drama has been meticulously constructed for this specific clash because it’s designed around understanding both sides, empathizing with the enemy, and seeing the similarities that bond us as well as the differences that drive us apart. Now, it’s forcing fans to choose sides between the very people who had to work to win us over in the first place.
When Season 6 begins, Philip has been years retired from his spy days. He’s working at the travel agency, giving motivational speeches to his employees and taking them out for line dancing. Philip looks healthy and if not happy, then content. Elizabeth — with all due respect — looks like garbage. She’s been running point on all operations, burning the candle at both ends. It shows. She’s falling asleep on the job (literally) and pounding coffee just to stay alert on long stakeouts. As a couple, there’s a wall there: Whether it’s that she blames him for the burden she’s forced to bear, disappointed his resolve isn’t as fixed as her own, or just plain exhausted, the two aren’t communicating — not enough.
It’s the modern marriage; a balancing act, but there’s obviously so much more to it. What better means to explore paradoxical political ideals and sociological beliefs than a pair of Russian spies masquerading as a classic American couple? These two dorks came together early on, as couples do, only to slide further apart as life rolled forward — again, like couples do. But like any marriage that frays, pulling the threads tell their story, and that’s why Season 6 feels like it’s foreshadowing doom. Little moments add up: Elizabeth is so dead to life beyond her mission, she can’t comprehend the usefulness of art to a dying artist. Philip is so invested in his normal life, he’s starting to get bogged down by minutiae; minutiae that may seem irrelevant to his wife.
In their first scene together, Philip stares at Elizabeth as she walks in through the door. A hopeful, eager half-smile creeps across Rhys’ face (the Welshman has always excelled conveying so much with so little) and Russell, the ever-present actress equally adept at nuanced looks, returns the gesture without the meaning; politeness tugging the corners of her mouth up as she moves toward the stairs without a word. They share something — an understanding, perhaps — but the connection is fractured, and it hurts beyond words to see Philip bend over at the counter, holding himself together as Elizabeth walks away.
This is the destruction of a marriage — or its redemption. It’s a war for the soul of a country — or a peace treaty. The stakes are high, and the rewards are plenty. It’s why “The Americans” has been and remains one of the best programs on television: It challenges viewers for all the right reasons. It pushes back on expectations to make you dwell on many fleeting moments that build who you are overall. When the series began, it would be impossible to imagine Philip and Elizabeth landing on opposite sides of anything. Yet here we are. It all fits. The mistakes and safe calls come together to form two lives that are running contrary to each other. Only this time, their war has much to tell us about who they are as well as the world we share.
Mom and dad are fighting, but they’re doing it for us.
“The Americans” Season 6 premieres Wednesday, March 28 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.