'The Americans' Is 'The Sopranos' of This Decade

I can't believe more people aren't obsessed with this show.
May 31, 2018, 4:10am
Jeffrey Neira/FX and Getty Images

For six glorious, gruesome seasons, The Americans was my favorite thing on television. The FX drama centers on Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), two undercover KGB agents posing as Americans in suburban Washington, DC in the 1980s. It’s got all the things I love in a TV show: espionage, romance, bad wigs, chase scenes scored to Fleetwood Mac. My love for The Americans runs deep.

On Wednesday night, FX aired the series finale, forcing showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to finally resolve the question that's been hanging over the characters since the beginning: what happens when—not if, but when—Philip and Elizabeth finally get caught? No spoilers here, but all I will say is that they did not disappoint.

People who watch The Americans tend to really love the show. But I feel like the general populace has been sleeping on this series, and I can’t believe more people aren’t obsessed with it in the way people are obsessed with, say, Game of Thrones. It's not a runaway ratings hit, and FX actually shied away from trying to broaden its appeal by making it more action-oriented. “It’s like a very nutritious, complex meal," FX CEO John Landgraf told Adweek this year.

But I predict that down the line, people will figure out how delicious the show is. Someday, people will regard and binge The Americans with as much esteem as we reserve for The Sopranos nowadays.

FX has consistently knocked it out of the park in recent years and is home to some of the hands-down best shows on television, including Atlanta, Fargo, and Legion. (By the way, if you’re not watching any of those shows, consider this your wake-up call.)

The genius of a lot of these series is that they’re about one thing at face value but wrestle with something more complex underneath the surface. The Americans is a spy drama about a marriage; Legion is a superhero show about mental illness. The Sopranos is a mob drama, but it’s really about family and, more importantly, the absurdity of the human condition. But to be clear: This article is a love letter to The Americans, not The Sopranos, a towering work of television that has been the subject of thousands of books and articles.

So what makes The Americans so gosh-darn great? Its most subversive achievement is the way it makes Russian sympathizers of us all. It’s hard not to root for the Jennings from the beginning, even if you’d never in a million years call yourself a commie sympathizer. In the years since 2013 when the show debuted, international politics has taken a weird turn. Russian espionage and nuclear disarmament are back in the news. Old Cold War tensions seem new again, as does the idea that Russian agents walk among us. The show became a strangely prescient reflection of modern politics, in a way the writers have admitted they didn’t anticipate.

The final season addresses this elegantly, for what it’s worth. Backdropped against the waning days of the Soviet Union, as Mikhail Gorbachev angles for perestroika and glasnost, the show tidily divorces morality from nationalism. Characters on both sides of the struggle are forced to choose between goodness and loyalty. Watching the series finale, I couldn’t help feeling like The Americans was making a plea for diplomacy. In these divided times, I think we could use more camaraderie. We sorely need stories about people choosing humanity over factionalism.

The Americans is also filled with dynamic female characters. A lot of cop shows are obviously overwhelmingly male, but the series is pretty evenly split. Story arcs centering on Nina Krilova, a one-time triple agent for the Soviets and Americans, and Martha Hanson, a secretary who falls for one of Philip’s alter egos, are meaty and integral parts of the overall narrative. Elizabeth Jennings is an archetype of feminine ferocity (she’s also hands-down my favorite character) and she passes a lot of her grit on to her daughter, Paige. The role of their no-nonsense Russian handler Claudia won Margo Martindale two Emmys.

The show’s aesthetic touches are also pretty genius. I truly want to wear most of Keri Russell’s wardrobe on the show. Philip and Elizabeth don a kaleidoscopic array of disguises throughout the series. The soundtrack is a work of art. Not only does Fleetwood Mac play a recurring role, but The Americans is also rife with pitch-perfect tracks by Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, to name a couple.

But the show’s greatest asset, perhaps—aside from a wildly talented cast, deft writers and directors, and stranger-than-fiction source material—is its pacing. Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship simmered for five seasons, while blood, guts, sex, danger, and difficult parenting spiced things up from time to time. By its sixth season, The Americans had reached its boiling point, and the final ten episodes are a wild ride. The show’s thoughtful ending is a testament to its creators’ meticulous planning.

While I love The Americans for its action and intrigue (may we never forget that infamous suitcase scene) it’s a love story at its core. A love story with pretty high stakes, sure—but the show cuts to the heart of being human, asking us to consider the price of loyalty and the cost of love.

I’m pretty bummed to bid adieu to Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. But The Americans has earned its place in the canon of greatest hits from the golden age of television. I can’t wait for more of you to love it as much as I have.

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