‘The Americans’ Digs Its Spies Into a Hole

It’s 1984, and in the world of The Americans, Americans are glued to their TV sets watching The A-Team and M*A*S*H, while the travel-agent spy team of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are doing work just as dangerous as any encountered by Mr. T or Alan Alda. In the new, fifth season of the acclaimed FX series, Philip and Elizabeth face new, highly challenging espionage assignments as well as new challenges to their patience as the parents of growing-like-sprouts Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellanti).

In the past, the Jenningses’ marriage and parenthood have frequently served as metaphors for a different kind of union and devotion — the Soviet Union and the pull it continues to exert on the migrated Philip and Elizabeth. They have their own parental figures: their handlers, played Frank Langella and Margo Martindale. (Every time they have a scene together, the acting power seems potently combustible; I’d watch a spinoff starring just those two.)

Now, in the fifth season episodes made available for review, there’s a lot about the show’s most interesting supporting character, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). Stan is still sniffing around leads that could, if he only knew who he was looking for, point him toward his good neighbors, the Jenningses. He’s also enthused that his lank-haired son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty), has a budding romance with Paige, while Stan himself is back on the dating scene, having flirted with a comely blonde who’s a member of his health club.

There’s also a subplot about Russian KGB officer Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin), who has returned home after working closely with Stan. Frankly, every time the show switches to an Oleg moment — watching him trudge through dirty slush to the gloomy home of his parents — I find my mind wandering. I’ve always found that whenever The Americans uses its passport to Russia, the proceedings slow to a crawl. We get it: Communism is the worst.

More invigorating is the season’s further development of Paige as a possible future spy. This is, you’ll recall, something hoped for by Langella’s Gabriel. In the past, her parents have resisted this idea. But now, Paige having sussed out her parents’ real line of work last season, Elizabeth decides it’s time to make sure Paige is both kept on a short leash (no gabbing freely to her new beau) and trained for danger. Watching mother teach daughter how to make a fist and throw a punch is at once amusing, exciting, and frightening in what it suggests for Paige’s future.

In Monday’s premiere, there’s a dangerous-spy moment that involves a long, intentionally tedious scene in which Philip, Elizabeth, and some comrades dig a deep hole. In its brutal length, it reminded me of Season 3’s lengthy scene of Philip and Elizabeth stuffing a corpse into a suitcase. Grim labor is the currency in which The Americans trades. It’s one reason why this show remains a cult item: Many viewers are put off by the show’s quiet deliberateness, even as critics and fans love the series for that same quality.

Me, I’m not giving away state secrets lest FX dispatch one of President Trump’s Russian pals to snap my neck. But I will advise you to stick around for an upcoming episode in which our heroes, wearing cowboy hats in Oklahoma, dance to “Old Flame,” a 1981 hit by the group Alabama. It’s lovely.

The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.