The Americans: Season 6
The Americans got there. There were bumps along the way, in Seasons 4 and 5, when the show was still highly entertaining but the narrative seemed to stumble a bit.
As I made plain here, when the show had reached its high point, my major interest–what made it more than just a fun TV show–was in the character arc of Holly Taylor’s Paige Jennings. Her parents Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) were sociopaths, her little brother a nonentity. The other really interesting characters, the Russian go-betweens among whom Frank Langella, Margot Martindale, Costa Ronin and Lev Gorn were standouts, were never going to have enough arc to make the deepest possible impression. Martha Hanson was raised above a plot device only by Alison Wright’s pure, almost naked, performance. You hurt for her from her first frame, but you know where the character’s going unless the show cheats, which to everyone’s credit, it does not.
The FBI agents were FBI agents with Richard Thomas making the strongest impression. Wisely, the show never tried to make them more.
Especially given that we all know going in how the Cold War era the show depicts will end (it’s a story of Soviet spies, after all, deeply embedded in an American suburb, from whence they venture forth to create murder and mayhem in the name of Marx and Mother Russia), any real weight The Americans accrued, would come from Paige’s story. That was evident by Season 3, developed in fits and starts in Seasons 4 and 5…and paid off with one of the most chilling denouements I’ve encountered in any form of fiction in the show’s final ten minutes.
It’s chilling in part because it’s well-played, perfectly-paced and placed, and hard to see coming. But mostly it’s chilling because it’s earned. Everything Taylor’s Paige has been hiding from us–what we pray she has not been hiding–comes to the surface in that single moment, and the moment loses none of its power because what follows plays a beat too long and her parents’ story ends with a completely unearned nod to sentimentality (they’re sociopaths, remember, even if the evil state they served made them that way).
Neither that, nor any other flaw in the show’s six seasons, matters now, because in the great, overarching American Narrative behind The Americans, Paige’s fate is on a level with Judith Hutter going among the English at the end of Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being spotted among the Nazis in the epilogue of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
That’s a fate I suggested the show’s writers, and Taylor’s undersung performance, had brought within the realm of possibility at the end of Season 3, and which, by the end of Season 5, I felt was hanging by a thread, if not dispensed with entirely.
Whether the completion of the arc was by design, the residue of design or pure luck (God knows what pressures are put on television writers to keep the pot boiling every week), I can’t praise all involved highly enough for bringing it to fruition.
If any claims for the Paige Jennings character’s conception and arc are destined to be a touch ephemeral–given how many cooks are tending the stew, can we ever really know what the creators intended for a series television show?–then the self-consciousness of its other great theme is pure mystery.
Did I just watch an American television show which posits the 1980s as the collapse of the Christian conscience in the West? Did I just see the thing which I’ve insisted was hiding in plain sight for the last thirty-five years–civilizational collapse as a rejection of Christendom’s norms (aided and abetted by Capitalist financiers and Marxist philosophes alike in their mutual thirst for the destruction of their shared enemies, faith and family)–played out in a pulp narrative driven by the adventures of Soviet spies capable of any evil in the name of their God (Reason, don’t you know) and underlain by their daughter’s journey from evangelical Christianity into the Darkness they themselves have finally rejected not because it was evil but because it was useless?
That seems like almost too much to hope for and it gives The Americans the quality only the best art, Highbrow or Pulp, ever achieves.
I’m thinking I might have dreamed it.
And if I’m already playing in the field of my imagination, can I ask whether my mind’s playing tricks on me….or is there a sequel in the offing?