It was a long, torturous journey for me as “The Americans” went from one of my favorite shows in season one to my most unlikely hate watch by season 5. Luckily, the sixth and final season was the best since season one, but I wasn’t entirely sold on the series finale. Ultimately, if you missed out on “The Americans,” I can’t say you really missed much–it was always a series that thought it was a little more profound than it really was, and there’s only so many times you can watch Frank Langella’s Gabriel sigh, Philip stare out a window, or Noah Emmerich’s clueless FBI neighbor Stan Beeman stare slack-jawed at some new development. The more the series went on, the more obvious it was it should’ve had tighter seasons (ten or even eight episodes instead of 13) and definitely fewer of them (seasons 2 through 5 should’ve really been two seasons instead of four), and too much of the series was running in place.
The Worst Season: Season 3…This was a very, very close neck-and-neck race between seasons 3 and 5. Really, you could flip a coin and say which one you think is worse. I picked this one over 5 largely because we’re still three full seasons before any kind-of resolution, and this season was so slow and tedious, I almost quit watching it. Worst Aspect: Two of the biggest developments include Philip/Elizabeth duping Stan and the FBI yet again by framing an innocent FBI worker as the mole that’s really secretary Martha (Philip murders him in a scene that’s still cringe-worthy), and the introduction of Gabriel, Frank Langella’s exhausted sour puss who’s an infinite downgrade after the prickly, electrically manipulative Claudia. Also, Paige takes a much bigger role than many people (myself included) cared for, draining the life out of the series before a cliff-hanger finale where she tells the loathsomely bland Pastor Tim that her parents are Russian spies. Grade: C-
Second Worst: Season 5…Probably the most hated season, the series creators were actually surprised at the backlash to this downbeat, slow-as-hell season (of course they were) where we follow Oleg checking on grain supplies in the Soviet Union (the scenes are entirely in Russian! Exciting!), Philip murdering an innocent lab tech, naive-yet-arrogant Paige asking dumb questions about becoming a spy, and don’t forget Philip and Elizabeth in a cover assignment, raising insolent spy brat Tuan who eventually convinces a “friend” to attempt suicide so his parents will take him back to the USSR. Look on the bright side: What saves this season from becoming the worst are a few developments that at least feel new like Stan Beeman possibly getting entraped by sexy Renee (the ambiguous Laurie Holden), who Philip suspects might be “one of us.” Paige finally tires of Pastor Tim, and we’re at least promised we won’t see as much of him in the final season. We also see Philip increasingly struggling with his spy life–although he was all the way back in season 1–but this is handled in some unexpected ways, like properly marrying Elizabeth before a Russian orthodox priest spy, struggling through a lackluster seduction assignment with an American office drone, and eventually quitting the spy game. Also, when Gabriel finally retires, going back to the Soviet Union to (presumably) eat soup and sigh a lot, Claudia reappears as their pot-stirring handler. Grade: C
Middle: Season 4…For me, it’s also a bit of a coin toss between Season 4 and Season 2 for the middle of the pack best. Season 4 has some truly startling developments that at least make it feel things are about to change in a major way. Big Changes (Maybe): As I said, seasons 2 through 5 grow rather repetitive, so you can imagine how shocking it was for this season to 1. Kill off Nina in a ruthlessly no-fuss scene that perfectly exemplifies bureaucratic heartlessness, 2. Have Martha found out and exfiltrated out of the country, 3. The discovery of another “illegal” (Dylan Baker’s wry scientist) working on something that even he (and Oleg) don’t think the Soviet Union should have, and 4. the possibility of killing off Pastor Tim early on…Of course, 1. Losing this character didn’t actually make the show better, 2. We still follow Martha around the Soviet Union that season and the next for no damn reason whatsoever except to fill time (she’s not even seen in season 6 with no allusions to her eventual outcome), 3. This largely didn’t lead to any real plot changes, 4. Pastor Tim lives…and lives…and lives…This season introduced exciting elements, and the mid-point is great, but things mostly end in the same place they started. Grade: B-
Middle-Up: Season 2…Only better than season 4 by the tiniest of margins, and mostly just because it has a little bit more action, though not more plot development. Mysterious Elements: Early on, another family of “illegals” is murdered except for their son, and Philip/Elizabeth wrongly think it must have something to do with a gay Navy-SEAL (probably the closest these two ever get to a real threat to them) that was being blackmailed. They cautiously keep developing him as a source–while planning to betray/kill him later–because they want to find a rebel camp where he trains Contras. It turns out the actual killer of their “friends” is that family’s own son, who fell in love with their handler and wanted to join the spy business. Towards the end of the season, it’s revealed “The Center” wants Paige to become a spy. There are many other sub-plots, but that’s probably the biggest chunk. I remember being slightly disappointed in this season at the time it aired, as it didn’t really advance the central plot or character relationships at all. Of course, that would only be a small taste of what would eventually come. Grade: B-
Runner-Up Best Season: Season 1…”Americans” seasons travel in pairs, as you easily could say this is the best season. It really is a coin-toss between this and the final season, and it likely wouldn’t be as close if the final season didn’t have a ho-hum series finale. [But it’s also mercifully shorter, so there’s toss-ups either way.] What Works: You’ll know if “The Americans” is the series for you based off this season. It’s very difficult to say the series gets better as it keeps going. All of the character dynamics (Elizabeth is a die-hard true believer, Philip is more ambivalent, Stan is clueless, Paige is annoying) are pretty much set in place, and don’t change much throughout the series. And this season has some of the best elements–Margo Martindale’s Claudia, Stan’s complex relationship with Nina, lots of action, faster plots, rich character work with arcs that go places–that gradually disappear in subsequent seasons. Grade: A-
Best Season (by a nose): Season 6…True, I might just be saying this because it’s the most recent season and I can remember all the details clearly, but that’s counter-balanced by my nostalgia for season 1 which may not be as good if I really went back and watched it. What Works: Elizabeth and Philip may trust only each other completely, but they’ve been on different sides of the ideological spectrum since episode 1. This season finally lets that play out, and it’s thrilling to watch them work opposite ends for much of the season (Elizabeth is being used by KGB hardliners that want to get rid of Gorbachev, Philip supports change) with assists from Oleg and Claudia on opposite sides. This season also works as a stealth metaphor for parenting differences as their confrontation over Paige’s spy career finally comes to a head (after three looooong seasons of slow boil) since she’s actually involved in it now. What Doesn’t: Yet I didn’t entirely buy that Stan Beeman would suddenly start investigating Philip and Elizabeth for no real reason (there’s really no one tip off that would even make him suspicious, he just decides to start noticing weird things they’ve been doing for years). And the series finale is just so-so more than explosive. [The real climax of the series is probably episodes 7 and 8.] The creators punt on far too many big things they don’t want to answer (are we supposed to believe Paige will become the next Claudia? Seriously? If not, what happens to her? Is Renee a spy or not? Why not let us hear Henry’s reaction to that crazy news?). Plus, we know the series creators are terrified of anything relevant invading their show, but would it really have killed them to give us just a little something topical? Like Claudia back in the USSR training a young spy named Vladimir Putin? Grade for Series Finale: B…Grade for Final Season: A-
Even though this is one of the last great anti-hero dramas on TV, I’m wondering if anyone else is a little relieved the end came? And what will become the next big non-fantasy/sci-fi hour-long series?