THE AMERICANS CLOSES DOWN….AND OPENS UP

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?

2 thoughts on “THE AMERICANS CLOSES DOWN….AND OPENS UP

  1. A first rate show.

    Haven’t admired anything recently (last 10-15 years!) produced on big screen or small that impressed me quite as much. After the last credits rolled, I was dying to jabber about the series to anyone!

    I agree about the ending—unexpected yet inevitable, about the last bit being an unnecessary tack-on and that a sequel was definitely implied. Paige is the human heart of the show.

    My heart was in my throat when that preacher went as a missionary to Africa or was is it South America? The first time I mean, not the second. And it’s a pity to add that I would feel the same concerns and paranoia about suchs things when they occur TODAY. Only the list of “trouble spots” is longer now.

    It is hard to imagine how the (balanced, real) point of views in the storyline and toward the characters could have survived the ravages of Hollywood’s mediocrity-machine. I think the show must have had heavy hitters behind it. Even though it wrapped only recently, I am unsure it could be made today!

    The scripts certainly revealed above-average thinking. I also give the show credit for keeping me engaged despite feeling nothing for the two leads (as you say, psychotic, but not in a fascinating, can’t take your eyes off way–or charmed, say, like Hitchcock’s villains). Perhaps in part because they are technically the protagonists. They are not “anti-heroes”, either. Our eyes are never really just riveted on either of the leads. It’s their situation(s), alone or together, and the unfolding of their story that compels. We care most about the people in their obit who manipulate or affect them–and who are affected (and manipulated) by them.

    I confess a lot of my predicted “endings” for most of the characters didn’t play out. So happy to say that. When you’ve seen as many movies as we have, and read as much written in the same century as film itself, plotlines and endings are so easy to predict. My acquaintances who are younger think I’m a magician, I call out the plot directs of so many modern productions. I’ll stay behind that curtain as long as I can!

    Loved the Russian actors and Langella. And Alison Wright played the secretary, correct? Her role and how she played it reminded me of similar characters in the ’50s and ’60s and which one seldom sees portrayed that way anymore. It’s too naked, too revealing for the self-deluded.

    • Yes Wright played the secretary. The great thing is she made you feel deeply for the character–the rabbit among the wolves and you know that’s going to end badly, you just don’t know how badly–in a way that transcended the writing and the character arc. It’s a great study in being blinded by loneliness. It’s one of those performances where I didn’t realize how much she had done with it until her character left the scene.

      And this is the one modern “meta-narrative” show I’ve watched where the technique of setting half-a-dozen story lines in motion then making sure the whole thing speeds by like a bullet so it gives the viewer a sense of profundity (without having the do the actual work of complex narrative) doesn’t feel like a cheat. Even the story lines I wasn’t especially involved with (think Henry, their son) paid off in the end (he’s the one who gives away the telling detail that finally focuses the FBI agent’s attention on the possibility IT COULD BE THEM). And of course he would be, because the others, including Paige, are far too careful. It wouldn’t be credible for them to make a slip. But Henry….The very end of the very last season, you finally figure out why this character is even around. I’ve worked at fiction enough to now that stuff doesn’t happen by accident.

      And it was remarkable that it held our interest, even though neither of us was especially interested in what happened to the two leads. I don’t know about you, but I think in the back of my mind, even in the first season, I was thinking “but what is this going to do to Paige?” if something bad happened to her parents. It’s probably to the actress’s credit that she could create that kind of empathy without much screen time in the early seasons (and, I assume, no idea where it was going). I really want to see her in something else now, to get a feel of whether it was serendipitous casting or she’s one of those we need to keep any eye on! It’s rare to see an actual teenager that unaffected now, let alone an actor….And I was pretty sure if I ever did see that level of performance in a kid actor again it wouldn’t involve kick-boxing!

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